Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 4, No. 307. Wednesday, 19 May 1993.
From: Cary M. Mazer <
Date: Monday, 17 May 93 23:43:29 EDT
Subject: Branagh's *Much Ado*
Since everyone is talking about the reviews of Branagh's *Much Ado*, I
thought you'd like to see mine. It'll will appear this Thursday in the
Philadelphia *City Paper*, an alternative weekly. I normally serve as
the paper's theatre critic but will occasional review a film if it
touches upon my theatrical interests. N.B.: The review is written for a
general, not a scholarly, readership.
Cary M. Mazer
If you remember that long tracking shot after the battle of
Agincourt in Kenneth Branagh's film version of *Henry V* a few years ago -
in which the king walks the length of the battlefield with the slain boy
in his arms, as the victorious army sings Te Deum to a Hollywood-style,
John Williams-esque, orchestral accompaniment - you'll know that Branagh
likes to brand his Shakespeare films with a Big Memorable Sequence (B.M.S.).
In his new movie version of Shakespeare's comedy, *Much Ado About
Nothing*, there are not one but two B.M.S.s, the first one only a few
minutes into the film.
As soon as Leonato's household, all lounging democratically about
under a tree picnicking on wine and cheese, receive the news that Don
Pedro has won the war and will arrive in just a few moments, the screen
erupts into a flurry of activity and camera work. We are bombarded with
shots of the gallants on horseback, galloping in slow motion towards the
camera as if in a Hollywood western, and of the womenfolk rushing en masse
to the house to prepare themselves for the men. The camera cuts back and
forth between slo-mo close-ups of the horses' flaring nostrils and women's
breasts bouncing up and down beneath their linen blouses. With flashes of
bare female backs and naked male buttocks, all of the characters rip off
their clothes and plunge into communal single-sex baths to wash off the
grime of the battlefield and the vineyards, as they all get themselves
ready for love.
What follows is one beautifully-set, gloriously-filmed, noisy, and
incessant series of parties, dances, feasts, and picnics of so many
Italians in heat, doing a two-hour frenzied courtship dance set to
One of the two main courtship plots rests principally on American
actors: the young Count Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) woos Leonato's
daughter Hero (Kate Beckinsale) with the help of Don Pedro (Denzel
Washington), only to be twice deceived by Don Pedro's bastard brother, Don
John (Keanu Reeves).
Leonard plays Claudio much as the would-be prep-school actor he
played in *Dead Poets Society* would have played him: as an earnest young
man so puppyishly in love with Hero that he's willing to believe the worst
about her because he can never really believe his own good fortune.
Denzel Washington is charming, sexy, and aristocratic, in the most
relaxed, natural and organic sense of the word. Reeves is unspeakably
awful. And, aside from being quite lovely, its hard to tell *what*
Beckinsale is (including her nationality, since Branagh has cut down her
role to even fewer lines than Katherine Ross spoke in *Butch Cassidy and
the Sundance Kid*). Like the title character in the final sequence of
Disney's *Little Mermaid*, she remains a mostly silent presence throughout
the entire film, an object of transaction in the marital commodities
exchange, whose value is subject to rapid market fluctuations.
As it often does, the real energy in *Much Ado About Nothing* comes
from the comic courtship of Beatrice and Benedick, the two warring and
flirting non-lovers with acid tongues, who rail at marriage and at one
another. And with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson in the roles, the
screen bristles with sexual energy, which they can barely conceal from
themselves or from one another beneath their verbal repartee.
Thompson in particular conveys a depth of feeling that holds the
whole movie together, and that almost makes up for Reeves's scowls and
Leonard's quivering lower lip. Only Washington can match her - which he
effectively does, in their one quiet scene together early on (which I
always use as an acid test for productions of the play).
The casting of Michael Keaton as Dogberry could have been a stroke of
genius, but the result is monstrous. Keaton plays the self-important
constable as if he were still playing Beetlejuice; he's a cross between
Moe Howard, Long John Silver, and a gargoyle, doing Monty-Python shtick
with an imaginary horse. When Dogberry long-windedly interrupts Leonato
(Richard Briers) on his way to his daughter's wedding, Leonato looks at
him with strained patience, as though Briers were waiting for Keaton to
finish his speech and let the rest of them get on with the movie.
If Branagh felt he needed American movie-stars to attract American
audiences, he needn't have worried. The story-telling is clear and
economical, and the language (what's left of it) doesn't stand in the way
of the pictures. Indeed, the whole enterprise reeks of Hollywood. And if
you thought Patrick Doyle's incessant movie-music was grandiose for *Henry
V*, you'll want to strangle him, and gag his entire orchestra, here.
Branagh just won't let you know whether or not he's being slyly
ironic: not in the overlapping images of Beatrice and Benedick
ecstatically in love, romping in soft-focus slow-motion as though they
were is a perfume commercial. Not in the film's opening moments, when
Emma Thompson recites the lyrics to the song "Sigh no more, ladies,''
while the words appear on the screen. And not in the movie's final
moments (the second Big Memorable Sequence) when the camera soars off the
ground and looks down on the entire company doing a frenzied daisy-chain
dance of love around the estate, as though they were all stricken with St.
If Branagh is being ironic in this, then the joke's on us.