Director: Kenneth Branagh
Benedick: “I pray thee now tell me, for which of my bad parts didst thou first fall in love with me?”
Beatrice: “For them all together, which maintained so politic a state of evil that they will not admit any good part to intermingle with them: but for which of my good parts did you first suffer love for me?”
Benedick: “Suffer love. a good epithet, I do suffer love indeed, for I love thee against my will.”
Much Ado about Nothing by William Shakespeare
I do not remember how I ended up owning a copy of this DVD (I think I got it at a sale), but it has sat with my other DVDs for a long time, never having been opened. It was not until I read the play and then went to see a performance of Much Ado about Nothing that I remembered I owned it. So I decided it was time to finally break the plastic and take a look.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the plot, I will give you a summary. A wealthy man named Leanato, has a daughter as an heir (Hero) and is the guardian of his niece (Beatrice). After returning from a war/skirmish the Prince (Don Pedro), his bastard brother (Don John, the man Pedro had been fighting), and his men stop by Leanato’s estate and are invited to stay for a month. In the company men is Benedick, a man in “a merry war of wits” with Beatrice. The two of them take every opportunity to try and outwit the other, both professing a desire to never fall in love or marry. They are the main source of comedy. Also in the Prince’s company is Claudio, a man who has shown a lot of bravery in the fighting. He becomes instantly enamored with Hero when they meet. The Prince decides it is a good match and tries to help by wooing Hero for Claudio. Don John tries to sabotage this, but is unsuccessful. Don John then decides to try and stop the marriage by calling Hero’s virginity into question.
At the same time, the Prince, with help, decides to try and cause Beatrice and Benedick to fall in love with each other, mostly relying on eavesdropping and staged conversations. However, Don John’s nefarious plan works, and at the altar, Claudio and the Prince publicly shame Hero and storm off. Trying to buy time to figure out what has happened, the friar suggests that they pretended Hero has died and let time try to unravel what happened. Benedick stays with Leanato’s family, and acts with the family against his friends because of his love for Beatrice. Beatrice and Benedick have an amusing revelation of feelings, but Beatrice demands that Benedick does not love her if he will not challenge Claudio to a duel over Hero’s honor. The Prince and Claudio show only a little remorse that Hero has died, as they still believe they are correct, even after almost fighting with Leanato. They are surprised when Benedick is stoic around them and not his usual jovial self, and are shocked when he challenges Claudio to a duel and turns in his request to leave the Prince’s company/army. At the same time the comically, bumbling neighborhood watch have gotten a confession from the man who helped to frame Hero, and the whole plan comes to light. Claudio and the Prince beg Leanato to decide their punishment for their part. Leanato decrees that they are to tell the World that Hero was pure. He also decrees that he has a “niece” who is just like Hero, and Claudio must marry her the next day. At the wedding it is reveled that the “niece” is actually Hero, and she had hidden until the truth was revealed. Surprising almost everyone, including themselves, Benedick and Beatrice also marry (after some of their bad sonnets to each other are found and presented). And then everyone dances (honestly that is how it ends!)
There were two things that struck me almost immediately with this movie: that it felt old and that it had an amazing cast. To be fair the movie is about 20 years old now (it made me feel old to realize this), but it feels like a movie from the 80’s for some reason. I think it is the colors of the film, mixed with some of the transitions, but it felt really dated.
With regards to the cast, I had fun trying to figure out why so many of them looked so familiar! Kenneth Branagh directed the movie and starred as Benedick. He was supported by Emma Thompson (Beatrice), Michael Keaton (Dogberry, the local constable), Robert Sean Leonard (Claudio), Keanu Reeves (Don John), Kate Beckinsale (Hero), Brian Blessed (Antonio, Leanato’s brother), Imelda Staunton (Margret, one of the maids), and Denzel Washington (Don Pedro). It is an extremely impressive cast, and for the most part very well cast. It is also amazing to realize that this was Beckinsale’s first film, and she looks very young in the movie. I also think it was interesting to have Reeves and Washington cast as brothers, but it worked.
My only two complaints were about Reeves and Keaton. Reeves was a bit wooden, and seemed to act like himself rather than a character. It sort of works as Don John is not a pleasant person. Keaston, however, was really a strange Dogberry. Instead of being comical and silly, Dogberry came across as creepy and, for me at least, seemed to be done in the same manner as Beetlejuice. It made those scenes a bit hard to get through, and the accent was completely unnecessary.
The pacing and the cinematography of the movie were well done. There were some really beautiful shots that brought out the natural beauty of the landscape. The opening scene was a little jarring though because it shows everyone rushing off to bathe and there were a lot of naked people running every which way, but after that it settled into the story. I was a bit sad to discover that some of the lines had been removed (mostly when I went to say them, and another character had started to speak), and others were changed to asides or monologues. While I understand why this was done, I was sad that a lot of the cuts seemed to be Beatrice and Benedick’s bantering. Having said that, the movie is a much better length with the cuts, and it left time for the songs to be included.
I really liked seeing the maid being mistaken for Hero. Margret had similar hair to Hero, and from the distance it was easy to believe it was Hero. This has always been a bit tough to do in live performances or hard to believe when reading the play, yet it worked in the movie. I think it made it more understandable for Claudio and the Prince’s rage. Claudio’s denouncement of Hero was a terrifying thing to watch as he really went for it. He was throwing Hero around, knocking down decorations and scaring the other guests.
The movie had a much darker feel to it than the other versions I have seen. When I stop and think about the actions happening though, the darker feel is more realistic to the events that happen. Personally, I like when things are treated with just a bit more levity. When Beatrice asks Benedick to challenge Claudio, she is scarily serious. And when Benedick goes to deliver that challenge, it is again scary, and very believable that he will try to kill his former friend. Even the talk between Beatrice and the Prince, where the Prince proposes to her, is darker than it usually is performed. The talk is serious and Beatrice is much more solemn than I have grown accustomed to.
My one other big contention with the movie, is that it is clear that Branagh was acting and directing it. The only character that kept most of their dialogue, and specifically monologues, was Benedick. There were at least three times when he was the only one speaking to the camera, but Beatrice only had one (which was much shorter). Benedick was also the one that was able to keep some more of the physical humor in the play during the noting scenes, Beatrice was just eavesdropping. I was a little disappointed with these choices as the movie was not nearly as funny as I like (especially not for a comedy).
Overall it was an enjoyable movie, but it was not the comedy that I wanted. It is more serious and focuses on the Claudio and Hero plot rather than on the Beatrice and Benedick plot (which is my favorite part).
Final Verdict: If you are a fan of Shakespeare or Branagh, see it. If not give it a pass and find a better comedy.