Film Torments: Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

To be perfectly honest, Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing doesn’t really belong amidst the bilge of your average Film Torment. It’s beautifully filmed, (mostly) well-acted, and evokes an easy nostalgia for a better time (that probably never really existed anyway). It is, as the saying goes, fun and fancy-free. It doesn’t have much to say and doesn’t really care, content to (quite literally) cavort and frolic in the balmy Tuscan sprawl, committing to mirth and not much else. It is pleasant. It is breezy. It is also smug as fuck.

And that’s normally fine – it’s Shakespeareans doing Shakespeare, smugness is assumed – but it should be made clear that this is the Bardian equivalent of Grown-Ups: namely, a bunch of mates absconding to a beautiful foreign land and having a laugh. This is not to equate the two films in quality, of course – I’d rather watch Sir Kenneth fellate himself than endure another round of Sandler and friends hurl shit at each other – but that is the core ethos of Much Ado, both the play and its adaptation(s). If you ignore the sexy pun in the title, the clue is right there: it’s about nothing in particular.

That’s especially unfortunate, however, considering that Branagh was chiefly responsible for a small renaissance of Hollywood Shakespeare in the 90s. Much in the vein of his idol, Laurence Olivier, he brought a radical and strikingly modern energy to his adaptations. This was especially apparent in 1989’s Henry V, its mud-soaked squalor skewering the jingoism of Olivier’s wartime version, and would later reach its zenith in 1996’s unabridged, four-hour Hamlet, which sign-posted the absurdity of its protagonist’s indecision with maximalism in 70mm.

Neatly sandwiched between the naked ambition of these two films, 1993’s Much Ado About Nothing feels curiously undercooked, despite boasting an all-star Anglo-American cast and a stunning Tuscan backdrop. Granted, at least some of this is down to the lackadaisical atmosphere of the original play, but Branagh (director, star, producer and screenplay-writer) does little to add gravitas to proceedings, content instead with long takes of rambling soliloquys and sweeping shots of resplendent gardens. Branagh isn’t really interested in providing heft to a heftless play; what he wants is acting, and does he ever wring that acting out of his performers.

Acting is the central theme of Branagh’s Much Ado. It’s not surprising, given the emphasis on romance and character dynamics in the play, but the performances here are positively dripping with labour. With few exceptions, the actors cling to the edge of every solitary iamb like their lives depended on it. Like a singer applying vibrato to every single note, it is over-egged at best and cloying at worst. What doesn’t help is how everyone seems to cackle at every vaguely humorous line, like Branagh was worried the audience wouldn’t understand the endless “wit” that irradiates the play as a whole.

The film’s saving grace is the chemistry between these actors, all of whom seem to be having the time of their lives. It’s occasionally infectious, especially when real-life married couple at the time, Benedick (Branagh) and Beatrice (Emma Thompson), are trading barbs with each other, if only because it seems to knock Kenneth out of the Shakespearean trance he is otherwise ensnared within. Thompson doesn’t seem to fall into this trap; her performance, almost miraculously, never draws attention to the overwrought wordplay that shackles Beatrice as a character, conveying a subtle comfort with the verse that Keanu Reeves categorically does not share.

Don Jon is one of the least convincing Shakespeare villains in the canon, and it would take a performer of immense skill to elevate him to anything above ‘god-awful’. Reeves is not the man to do it. His easy surfer drawl doesn’t lend itself to Shakespeare at the best of times, but here it sounds like he’s trying (and failing) to beat the pentameter into submission, all while sporting a hilarious perma-scowl. The odd casting extends to Dogberry (Michael Keaton), who is, hands down, the worst Shakespeare character (don’t @ me). Perhaps recognising this, Keaton adopts an apocalyptically misjudged ‘Irish’ accent and speaks his lines like Beetlejuice stuck in a spin-cycle. It is immensely distressing that no one told him to stop.

The film is ironically at its best when no one is speaking. Combined with Patrick Doyle’s stellar score, the moments of loud/quiet domestic bliss are the ones that linger in the memory, like Benedick trying and failing to set up a deck chair; or Don Pedro (Denzel Washington) and his ragtag lads fist-pumping the air in slow-motion as the title card appears; or the extended opening of the men and women of the villa laughing and bathing in separate quarters. When we’re allowed to bask in the sun-kissed glow of Tuscany, the film has a transporting effect; given that I watched this during lockdown, it was a welcome reprieve.

“All mirth and no matter” is the best way to describe Much Ado About Nothing in all its forms. As occasionally enjoyable as Branagh’s adaptation can be, he doesn’t bring enough to elevate lacklustre material, despite trimming it down to a more palatable sub-two-hour length. It especially pales in comparison to Henry V and Hamlet, both of which are as grand and spectacular as their source material, but they also have so much more to say as a consequence. Branagh’s Much Ado is lightweight to a fault; pleasant and breezy, but of precious little substance.

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