Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Much Ado About Nothing (1993), directed by Kenneth Branagh.

William Shakespeare apprenticed as a playwright by first punching up existing history plays and then writing his own. Remember the boatman in Shakespeare in Love (1998): "You an actor? I've seen you in a play. That one about a king". In his maturity he had considerable success with tragedies, but his natural form, the expression of his innate genius, was romantic comedy, a form that always comes around again. Love, sex and laughter: everyone wants it eventually.

It is a favorite film genre and naturally movie makers will want to mine Shakespeare's plays. The challenge is to dust off the old tomes, remove any sense of stuffiness and cumbrous language, blow it out onto a large screen and make a moving picture rather than a talking picture.

And yet: that language. The words still have magic if you can bring it out.

Branagh gives an excellent demonstration of how to do it. Filmed entirely on the grounds of a lovely Tuscan villa, it is confined like a stage play but expanded into enough space that we have no sense of walls. (It is also a great film getaway for those in northern climes who suffer from winter blues). He retains all the important text while trimming the padded classical allusions Shakespeare was using then, probably trying prove his erudition and establish some credentials.

As always the actors have to make it work and here they do a wonderful job, not only in making the lines intelligible but in advancing the story with their expression and movements. All are joyous and funny as a baseline, angry and weepy as needed. Slight problems: Keanu Reeves can do a permanent glower but has no control over his voice. I worry that Brian Blessed might rupture something when having to guffaw so much.

Branagh and Emma Thompson are the chief combatants in this war of the sexes. They were my favorite acting couple at the time and I was sorry to see them break up.

First film for Kate Beckinsale, age 20. She remembers the critics saying she had "the facial features of a snail".

Denzel Washington is an appealing and impressive Duke, both noble and funny, stern when he must be.

The constable clown Dogberry, he of the self-important scrambled vocabulary, can seem tedious on the printed page ("for mine own part, if I were as tedious as a king, I could find in my heart to bestow it all of your worship"). You either get through his parts quickly or find some eccentric way of playing the character. Here Michael Keaton reaches into another dimension and brings out a dementedly funny performance. I can only marvel while I laugh. His little buddy is played by British comic writer Ben Elton.

Joyous score by Patrick Doyle who also sings as Balthazar. Shakespeare liked "Balthazar" for boys, "Kate" for girls.

The title is a sex joke. A "thing" is what a man has (Hamlet: "The king is a thing!" And Iago's wife: "I have a thing for you". Iago: "A thing for me? It is a common thing to have a foolish wife"). A woman has "no-thing". So "much ado about nothing" is a jibe about excessive concern for virginity, the central crisis of the play.


Beatrice: I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.


Prince: Will you have me, lady?

Beatrice: No, my lord, unless I might have another for working days: your Grace is too costly to wear every day.


Benedick (listening to a guitar and singer): Is it not strange that sheep's guts should hale souls out of men's bodies? [...] An he had been a dog that should have howl'd thus, they would have hang'd him.


Benedick: Shall quips and sentences and these paper bullets of the brain awe a man from the career of his humor? No, the world must be peopled. When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married.


Hero: Some Cupid kills with arrows, some with traps.


Benedick: Gallants, I am not as I have been.

Leonato: So say I. Methinks you are sadder.


Benedick: Serve God, love me, and mend.

Available on Blu-ray.