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Home :: Archive :: 1993 :: July ::
A Late Look at *Much Ado*
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 4, No. 420.  Wednesday, 7 July 1993.
 
From:           Ellen Edgerton <EBEDGERT@SUADMIN>
Date:           Wednesday, 07 Jul 1993 14:26 ET
Subject:        A Late Look at *Much Ado*
 
Branagh's *Much Ado* has only recently made it to the screens in my town, so
this posting comes a little late compared to some of the others I've read.
 
Being a great admirer of Branagh's *Henry V*, I wasn't expecting *Much Ado* to
be as good.  It wasn't, but I was surprised at how good it was, and also how
weak.  This is a lovely, problematic movie that, even when considered as
strictly a Branagh film and not as the newest member of the filmed canon, is
not as strong as it ought to be.
 
That said, I am surprised at how its opening sequence is often being written
off as "A Big Moment."  Branagh's films in general typically seem to have
strong openings, and this is no exception.  It's exciting and flashy, but it
also serves virtually the same purpose as did the Prologue in Branagh's *H5*.
 
With his Prologue for that film, Branagh seemed to be addressing theatres full
of glowering theatrical critics and scholars:  "This is cinema, not theatre.
Deal with it!"  Aside from the obvious -- the presence of the Chorus on a film
soundstage, the noise of the camera tracking him -- this Prologue seemed to
also give some of the play's most famous lines strange, hauntingly literal new
implications:  the "muse of fire" was nothing less than the light flickering on
a motion picture screen, where the "flat, unraised spirits" play; the "thoughts
that now must deck our kings" were not imagination in the mind's eye, but
rather, >thoughts<, thoughtful consideration of the play's characters and
themes.  To Branagh, the movies >are< "the brightest heaven of invention."
 
*Much Ado* finds Branagh as devoted as ever to that (frankly delightful)
conceit, but I think it's pretty obvious that his eye was on a different
audience this time.  *Ado* has no Prologue of its own, but using the
prerogatives of cinema, Branagh imposes one.  His audience this time, perhaps,
are people who have never been to the theater in their lives. If Branagh had to
convince his audience for *H5* that >movies< are wonderful, with *Ado* he has
to convince them that >Shakespeare< is wonderful.  In his notes for this film,
Branagh remarks on his decision to open the movie with Shakespeare's words
("Sigh no more, ladies") on the screen.  Branagh feels they will be unfamiliar
to a modern audience, but in another sense, they are very -- unpleasantly --
familiar: his audiences knows Shakespeare all too well from dry, boring black
and white words on a page.  This is an audience to whom Shakespeare means
"reading."  Branagh, apparently understanding his mission, chooses to begin at
this point.
 
If Branagh grabbed his skeptical audience by the lapels in *H5*'s Prologue, in
*Ado* he seems to take a gentler, more comprehensive approach with a possibly
equally skeptical group.  Beginning at the beginning, the elements are added:
a warm, human voice (Emma Thompson's) reading the words; a picture (Leonato's
painting); music, of course; and finally, a flurry of glorious motion, as Don
Pedro and his men thunder lustily home from the front.  Words + people + music
+ pictures + motion = movie.
 
What the opening moments of *H5* and *Ado* have in common is the fact that
Kenneth Branagh is on a high holy mission to bring such disparate audiences to
one foreign world:  Shakespearean movieland.  *H5*'s audience is thrust into
it; *Ado*'s audience is gently led.  In both films, this Shakespearean
movieland is a place:  in *H5*, a mysterious space bounded by great double
doors through which we enter and exit; in *Ado*, a sunny Italian villa where
all the action occurs, and which the audience must leave (by way of 90-foot
crane shot) at the end.
 
In fact, you will not find a clearer summation of the Renaissance Theatre
Company's attitude towards the plays of William Shakespeare than in this
opening sequence of *Ado*.  One is reminded of Branagh's comments about his
decision to remake *H5*:  "I wanted to clear away all the dust and cobwebs from
the play."  In *Ado*, the characters go at this with a vengeance -- stripping
off uniforms, tossing away dirty old clothes like so much farty old Shakespeah,
scrubbing off grime, revelling in the naked humanity underneath.  This is
Kenneth Branagh speaking, not Hollywood.
 
I enjoyed *Ado* as entertainment, but I wish it had shown as much imagination
and thoughtfulness as this fine opening sequence.  From time to time, Branagh's
strengths as a director do come through in this film, but not enough to make it
even as half good an effort as *H5*.  The movie is as delightful and assuredly
funny (even with some of its faults, as the mishandling of Dogberry) as one
could wish, yet at the same time, there is the distinct sense that too much has
been trimmed and left by the wayside.   It's hard >not< to like this film, and
at the same time, it's impossible not to be disappointed, too.
 
 
Branagh's dedication to filmed Shakespeare is admirable, even heroic, but it is
a difficult goal.  Branagh is a populist, a traditionalist, a movie buff and a
working student of Shakespeare all at the same time. He clearly has a mission,
but that's not enough to turn out art.  With *Much Ado*, it seems, he aims
impossibly high, if his preface to his screenplay is any indication.  Can you
add a new play to the filmed canon (in English, anyhow), a comedy no less
(which haven't exactly had a great track record of working on screen), have it
be actually funny, >and< prove that you can cast popular American actors >and<
be faithful to the play in the meantime >and< have it make a lot of money at
the box office?  (and film it in 100-degree temperatures?)
 
Branagh says "yes."  His finished film says "Well...not exactly."
 
*Ado* is a funny film.  What's more, it's surprisingly light on physical
comedy; in both screenings I attended, I found the audience laughing at the
words -- for all the right reasons.  (Except, again, with Dogberry; audiences
laughed mainly at his teeth.)  I witnessed at least one "conversion" -- the
classic case of a loudly complaining moviegoer dragged along to a "cultural
experience," mumbling astonishedly at the end, "I actually understood that!"
Make no mistake, *Ado* has that strength.  On this count, it's a triumph.
 
But it falls short when Branagh takes on his other self-imposed challenges; I
guess I'll start with the non-Shakespeareans.  Of the four, Denzel Washington
as Don Pedro is the only one who vindicates Branagh's contention that *Much
Ado* could profit from a non-British presence.  Washington delivers
Shakespearean prose and verse pleasantly enough, and has moments of real grace.
One wonders if Branagh isn't on to something here.  Unfortunately, Branagh also
misuses one decent actor (Michael Keaton) and has cast two actors who can
barely act, however well they look their parts -- Keanu Reeves as Don John, and
Robert Sean Leonard as Claudio.  Leonard has some nice moments but his dramatic
talents are spent long before Claudio's most important scenes are over.
 
Leonard's problems only compound *Ado*'s other problem -- as others have noted,
the overcutting and deemphasis of the play's darker elements. When the time
comes for Leonard to deliver the dark, heartrending stuff, he's not there.
 
And yet again, *Ado* >does< have some extremely moving moments.  The wedding
scene and mutual profession of love between Benedick and Beatrice are
wonderfully staged, as well performed as you could wish. This is clearly from
the same director of *H5*.  If only such convincing darkness didn't have to
come out nowhere in Branagh's screenplay!  I disagree with the comments posted
earlier here on SHAKSPER that the violence towards Hero was too much.  In this
film, the characters are all physical towards each other (perhaps a little too
much so); they embrace, hold hands, grope each other, dance.  When darkness
comes, it seems only fitting it should be as equally passionate.  Physically,
there's nothing amiss with the staging.  The scene is a highlight of the film.
But the informality of the staging of previous scenes harms the overall impact,
as others here have ventured.
 
There are other glimpses of the same Branagh who directed *H5* -- little ones,
to be sure, but they count.  A quick look at the horrified Margaret as she
realizes her complicity in Hero's downfall...a Bea buzzing around Emma Thompson
as she lounges in a tree...the leaving of Don Pedro alone at the chapel at the
finish.  The members of the Renaissance Theatre Company do not disappoint, even
in the smallest roles.  And I must say that I will defend Patrick Doyle, to the
death if necessary.
 
If *Much Ado*, as Branagh conceived it, was a bigger bite than he could fully
chew, it's to his credit that he conceived it at all.  As Branagh says in his
preface to *Ado*'s screenplay, the question of "why" do a project is very
important.  Branagh may have several motives for the projects he chooses to
film, but they seem to me to be in part markedly different from the motives of
others who have gone before.  Benedick is not exactly an Olivieresque sort of
role.  *Much Ado*, while a lovely play, is a play which nobody bothered to film
in its native tongue until now.   Why?  Branagh gives his reasons, but I also
suspect he is a Shakespearean filmmaker who is more interested in the genre
than simply enshrining a memorable performance, or trawling for meaning, or
making money off of populism.  If there's such a thing as a "complete"
Shakespeare film, I get the feeling Branagh is out to find it.  He does not
reach it with this film, but I don't think this is the last we've heard of him.
Perhaps a cinema retelling of Renaissance's own production of *Twelfth Night*
-- from what I understand, it had a more subdued treatment than *Much Ado*
receives here -- would give this filmmaker a clearer second shot at a filmed
comedy.
 
*Much Ado* deserves criticism, but it's a delightful movie nevertheless. Quips
and sentences and paper bullets of the brain should not awe Branagh out of the
career of his humor, which is clearly to put Shakespeare on film.  I remain
very interested to see if he will find what he's looking for.
 
 
Ellen Edgerton
Syracuse University

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