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Spotlight on: Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing

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Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more. Men were deceivers ever;
One foot on sea, and one on shore, to one thing constant never.

So sigh not so, but let them go and be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe into hey nonny nonny.

This little piece of iambic heptameter (seven beats instead of the usual five)--Shakespeare's version of "turn that frown upside down"--recurs throughout Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. It begins the film--being read by Emma Thompson's Beatrice to the other characters--and afterwards is sung twice (to music by composer Patrick Doyle)--once solo, and at the end by a full chorus. Its simple statement summarizes the action within: there is a conflict after which forgiveness is given, leading to a happy ending.

Kenneth Branagh burst on the movie scene in 1989 with his action-packed Henry V. In 1991, he paid homage to Alfred Hitchcock and the film noir genre with Dead Again and he soon followed with Peter's Friends, a fine entry in the "old mates reunion" genre of The Big Chill and Return of the Seacaucus Seven. Then he returned to his "first love," Shakespeare.

Much Ado About Nothing is not the best adaptation of the play that I have seen (that has to go to the BBC version from 1984; the acting is perfect all around), but it is the one most focussed on bringing out the fun inherent within. Branagh as director does tend toward the overly dramatic (like the opening scene where the soldiers arrive), but seems to know when to tone things down for the quieter, more romantic scenes. His choice to film in Tuscany and use its wondrous landscape to full effect was ideal.

The Hollywood-based members of the cast are surprisingly good. Denzel Washington (Don Pedro) gives a natural line-reading that belies his lack of experience with the bard while accenting his natural ability. Branagh (Benedick) and then-wife Emma Thompson (Beatrice) are obviously comfortable with the language--respectful when the poetry calls for it and more natural when bantering or simply moving the plot along.

In fact, the only detriments to this film are Keanu Reeves' scowling turn as Don John and Robert Sean Leonard's overdone Claudio. Leonard is not bad, per se, he's just stage-acting on film--overemoting for the back row while in extreme close-up. Of Michael Keaton as Dogberry, I'll only say that I wonder if he thought he was in Much Ado About Beetlejuice. He's obviously trying very hard, but doesn't fit with the tone and seems as if he has walked in from a different film entirely.

Branagh differs from previous Shakespearean film actor/directors (like Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles) in that he presents the plays not as art but as mainstream entertainment. He believes that they should be appreciated by everyone, not just so-called scholars. He succeeds, mostly. His Much Ado About Nothing is by far the most accessible of his Shakespeare films and is a fine addition to the canon.

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