"There exists a kind of merry war betwixt Signor Benedick and her; they never meet but there's a skirmish of wit between them."
Much Ado About Nothing must be one of Shakespeare's best romantic comedies, if not the best. That's down to its two leads, Beatrice and Benedick. Shakespeare wrote plenty of snarky characters and plenty of fiery female characters but this must surely be his most effective blend of two people who profess to hate each other and use wit to cover up their feelings. They feel as if they could have leapt out of almost any romantic comedy of the past 100 years.
There have been some great productions of Much Ado About Nothing, including Joss Whedon's excellent modern dress version last year. But it's Kenneth Branagh's 1993 film that has my heart, and which I honestly believe is almost as perfect a Shakespeare adaptation as you could wish for.
For starters, this is a romantic film and, as such, it is just dripping with sex and sexuality. Just look at that cast. They are all drop-dead gorgeous. The film opens with the male and female characters separately getting spruced up, ready to meet up with each other, and in the process provides a rare legitimate excuse to be watching male nudity in school on Open Evening (apologies, prospective parents of 11-year-olds). The rest of the film eases back on the nudity, clothing nearly everybody in shades of white and cream, especially the female characters, which makes sense for a film in which so much of the plot revolves around female virginity. But still, sex and romantic attraction are everywhere, in every scene and almost every performance. This is the film in which I fell head over heels in love with Denzel Washington. There is nothing sexier that his smile in this film.
This is also a very exuberant film. Every scene is over-played, with the Shakespearean dialogue delivered at Branagh's trademark breakneck speed which, bizarrely, actually makes it easier to understand (the actors emphasise or slow down the really important words, and let the rest just wash over you). When Benedick and Beatrice realise they love each other, they let rip in paroxysms of joy while the soundtrack (by Patrick Doyle and completely beautiful, another reason I love this film) goes into full epic mode over the top.
There is a reason that everything is played so big though, besides a general theatrical sensibility. 'Much Ado About Nothing' is a title with at least a triple meaning; much ado about something irrelevant or unimportant, much ado about something that didn't happen/wasn't true, or much ado about a woman's private parts ('nothing' was Elizabethan slang for female genitalia - 'no thing'). Beatrice and Benedick are the leads and their romance is by far the most interesting, but the actual plot (such as there is) revolves around Claudio and Hero and what happens when Claudio is tricked into thinking Hero has been unfaithful to him. The Elizabethan audience probably understood the title in the light of the second two meanings, as well as the first - much ado about Hero and what she has been doing with her 'nothing', and much ado about something that didn't really happen.
However, to a modern Western audience, the characters' reactions to this trick seem rather over the top and the title seems clearly to refer to everyone making much ado about something fairly unimportant. Claudio jilts Hero at the altar in the cruellest possible way, denouncing her to the world (and thus preventing her from marrying anyone else either) as well as dumping her himself, and giving her no time to defend herself. Hero responds by fainting, after which her father tells her he'd rather she was dead than not a virgin/unfaithful to her fiancee, the priest suggests faking her death because that is Shakespearean priests' answer to everything, and Beatrice demands that Benedick kill his best friend in a duel to avenge Hero's honour. Modern audiences can sympathise with Claudio feeling hurt and breaking up with Hero because he thinks she's cheated on him, but the rest sits very uncomfortably with modern sensibilities, especially Leonato's anger with his daughter and Beatrice wanting Claudio dead.
By setting the film in a vague and unidentified but definitely 'past' time period, Branagh avoids the problems faced by modern dress versions as far as the importance of virginity and legality of duels is concerned. His solution to the characters' drastic reactions to the things that happen to them is to make the whole thing as deliberately over-blown as humanly possible. Hero's funeral, which she watches from an upper window, is massive. There are monarchs who've had smaller funerals. Between music, staging and acting style, the whole thing is presented very much as a story of heightened emotions and hyper-realism (much like Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet) in which context the characters' actions make more sense.
It's not all huge and crazy though - Branagh finds time for quiet moments in amongst the madness too. Don Pedro's proposal to Beatrice, for example, is played seriously, with tenderness and melancholy, Emma Thompson and Washington playing happy-sad to perfection (but why would she refuse him? Why?!). The characters feel real, it's just the setting and filming style that is deliberately effusive.
There are some elements of the film that don't work quite so brilliantly. Shakespearean 'clowns' (the Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Dogberry and the Watch here) are really hard to do well and I think this is one area where Whedon did it slightly better - for me, they work better underplayed than over-played, though Michael Keaton and Ben Elton do their best.
The one thing that most critics complain about, however, I don't think is a problem at all. You see, Keanu Reeves is in this film. Now, I should make it clear that I do not share the generally low critical opinion of Keanu Reeves and his acting abilities anyway. In the films I've seen him in, he's mostly done the job required just fine, especially The Matrix, Point Break, Parenthood, Speed and the Bill and Ted films (granted, none of these offer the opportunity to show enormous acting range). But even with that bias in mind, I think his performance in this film is unfairly lambasted.
Thing is, he's playing Don John. I know that Shakespeare was a genius and this is a great play and all, but Don John is a rubbish character. I studied this play at A-Level and there was just nothing interesting to say about him. He's just lost a war against his half-brother Don Pedro, who for some reason doesn't just lock him up straight away, and he is in a sulk. So he decides to stir up trouble for no particular reason. (OK, I think Claudio did particularly well against him in the battle and he wants revenge or something). He's basically just doing it For the Evulz and he has ridiculous lines spelling out this fact, like, "I am a plain-dealing villain". Another of his gems is, "I am not of many words, but I thank you". I think Shakespeare was taking the night off when he wrote Don John.
That being the case, what else do you need an actor to do when playing Don John other than stand around looking pretty and sulky? Or pretty sulky? In keeping with the sexy-without-being-seamy vibe of the film, there is a random scene in which Keanu gets oiled, shirtless, while scheming, thus distracting many of us from any flaws in actor or character. He certainly looks very sulky throughout the film. He suits the Evil Black Leather version of the men's costumes (the Good Guys wear blue leather). What's not to like?
I suspect I am fighting a losing battle trying to get anyone else to appreciate Keanu Reeves' performance in this film, though I will continue to defend it. Don't be put off, though, if you're still unconvinced by him, because this film is a delight. The setting is sumptuous, the score beautiful, the (other) actors uniformly excellent, the funny bits are (mostly) funny and the sad bits are sad, plus it's one of those films made in a gorgeous Mediterranean setting that lets you pretend you're on holiday for a while (this is a very good quality if you're watching in Britain). If you only know Much Ado from the Whedon version, do seek out this one as well - they're about as different as it's possible for two versions of the same play to be and both well worth seeing.
Notes and Quotes
- Another of the whinges directed at Keanu is that he and Denzel aren't convincing as half-brothers, which is nonsense. Full brothers can have different skin colours if one parent is white and the other black - half-brothers certainly could.
- I'm pretty sure 'hey nonny nonny' also means something sexual, so 'converting all your sighs of woe into hey nonny nonny' means... you get my drift.
- There's a moment at the end when Beatrice and Benedick have got engaged, and they're making fun of each other as usual, and she says her last line in the play and then he says, "Peace! I will stop your mouth" (and kisses her). If you want to be depressed, this can be interpreted as them getting married and he, because he is the man, silencing her (see also: the title of The Taming of the Shrew). In the film, it's played very sweetly though.
Leonato: Well, niece, I hope to see you one day fitted with a husband.
Beatrice: Not till God make men of some other metal than
earth. Would it not grieve a woman to be
overmastered with a pierce of valiant dust? to make
an account of her life to a clod of wayward marl?
No, uncle, I'll none: Adam's sons are my brethren;
and, truly, I hold it a sin to match in my kindred.
Benedick: There's a double meaning in that.
Benedick: When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I would live till I were married.
I love Branagh's Hamlet (yes, all four hours of it) but I think this is his best Shakespeare adaptation. Four out of four really dirty jokes about nothing.
Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Popclassics.