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on May 14, 2005
Since his Oscar-nominated "Henry V" adaptation, Kenneth Branagh has come up with a simple, effective recipe: Blend 3 parts English actors well-versed in all things "Bard" with 1 or 2 parts Hollywood, sprinkle the mixture liberally over one of Shakespeare's plays, lift the material out of its original temporal and local context to provide an updated meaning, and garnish it by casting yourself and, until the mid-1990s, (then-)wife Emma Thompson in opposite starring roles.

In "Much Ado About Nothing," that formula works to near-perfection. A comedy of errors possibly written in one of the Bard's busiest years (1599) - although as usual, dating is a minor guessing game - "Much Ado" lives primarily from its timeless characters, making it an ideal object for transformation a la Branagh. Thus, renaissance Sicily becomes 19th century Tuscany (although the location's name, Messina, remains unchanged); and the intrigues centering around the battle of the sexes between Signor Benedick of Padua (Branagh) and Lady Beatrice (Thompson), the niece of Messina's governor Don Leonato (Richard Briers), and their love's labors won - initially the play's intended title; Benedick and Beatrice are a more liberated version of the earlier "Love's Labor's Lost"'s Biron and Rosaline - as well as the schemes surrounding the play's other couple, Benedick's friend Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) and Beatrice's cousin Hero (Kate Beckinsale) become a light-hearted counterpoint to the more serious, politically charged intrigues of novels such as Stendhal's "Charterhouse of Parma:" Indeed, the military campaign from which Benedick and Claudio are returning with Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon (Denzel Washington) at the story's beginning could easily be one associated with Italy's 19th century struggle for nationhood.

While according to the play's conception it is ostensibly the relationship between Hero and Claudio that drives the plot - as well as the plotting by Don Pedro's illegitimate brother, Don John (Keanu Reeves) - Beatrice and Benedick are the more interesting couple; both sworn enemies of love, they are not kept apart by a scheming villain but by their own conceit, and are brought *together* by a ruse of Don Pedro's (although even that wouldn't have worked against their will: "Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably," Benedick tells Beatrice.) And while Don John's machinations create much heartbreak and drama once they have come into fruition, the story's highlights are Benedick's and Beatrice's battles of wits; the sparks flying between them from their first scene to their last: even in front of the chapel, they still - although now primarily for their audience's benefit - respond to each other's question "Do not you love me?" with "No, no more than reason," and when Benedick finally tells Beatrice he will have her, but only "for pity," she tartly answers, "I would not deny you; - but ... I yield upon great persuasion; and partly to save your life, for I was told you were in a consumption" - whereupon Benedick, most uncharacteristically, stops her with a kiss.

Branagh's and Thompson's chemistry works to optimum effect here; and while every Kenneth Branagh movie is as much star vehicle for its creator as it is about the project itself, Benedick's conversion from a man determined not to let love "transform [him] into an oyster" into a married man (because after all, "the world must be peopled. When I said I would die a bachelor I did not think I should live - till I were married"!) is a pure joy to watch. Emma Thompson's Beatrice, similarly, is an incredibly modern, independent young woman; and scenes like her advice to Hero not to blindly follow her father's (Don Leonato's) wishes in marrying but, if necessary, "make another courtesy and say, Father, as it please *me*" only enhance the play's and her character's timeless quality.

Yet, while the leading couple's performances are the movie's shining anchor pieces, there is much to enjoy in the remaining cast as well: Richard Briers's Don Leonato, albeit more English country squire than Italian nobleman, is the kind of doting father that many a daughter would surely wish for; and what he may lack in Italian flavor is more than made up for in Brian Blessed's Don Antonio, Leonato's brother. Kate Beckinsale is a charming, innocent Hero and well-matched with Robert Sean Leonard's Claudio (who after "Dead Poets Society" seemed virtually guaranteed to show up in a Shakespeare adaptation sooner or later); as generally, leaving aside the appropriateness of American accents in a movie like this, the Hollywood contingent acquits itself well. Washington's, Leonard's and Brier's "Cupid" plot particularly is a delight (even if the former might occasionally have gained extra mileage enunciation-wise). Keanu Reeves, cast against stereotype as Don John, is a bit too busy looking sullen to realize the role's full sardonic potential: "melancholy," in Shakespeare's times, after all was a generic term encompassing everything from madness to various saner forms of ill humor; and I wonder what - but for the generational difference - someone like Sir Ian McKellen might have done with that role. But as a self-described "plain-dealing villain" Reeves is certainly appropriately menacing. Michael Keaton's Dogberry, finally, is partly brother-in-spirit to Beetlejuice, partly simply the eternal stupid officer; the play's boorish comic relief and as such spot-on, delivering his many malaproprisms with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek.

The cast is rounded out by several actors who might well have demanded larger roles but nevertheless look ideally matched for the parts they play, including Imelda Staunton and Phyllida Law as Hero's gentlewomen Margaret and Ursula, Gerard Horan and Richard Clifford as Don John's associates Borachio and Conrade, and Ben Elton as Dogberry's "neighbor" Verges. (In addition, score composer Patrick Doyle stands in as minstrel Balthazar.) With minimal editing of the play's original language, a set design making full use of the movie's Tuscan setting, and lavish production values overall, this is a feast for the senses and, on the whole, an adaptation of which even the Bard himself, I think, would have approved.

Also recommended:
The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works 2nd Edition
Love's Labour's Lost
Henry V
William Shakespeare's Hamlet (Two-Disc Special Edition)
BBC Shakespeare Comedies DVD Giftbox
BBC Shakespeare Tragedies DVD Giftbox
Olivier's Shakespeare - Criterion Collection (Hamlet / Henry V / Richard III)
William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice
Richard III
The Complete Arkangel Shakespeare: 38 Fully-Dramatized Plays
55 comments| 122 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
"Much Ado About Nothing" is one of those sparkling adaptations that supposedly couldn't have been done. But Kennneth Branagh (director and star of "Hamlet," and creator of the supremely underrated "Midwinter's Tale") brought an all-star cast in a sparkling Tuscan setting, to bring this tale of bickering loves and sordid betrayals to life as never before.
The sullen Don John has just been stopped in a rebellion against his brother Don Pedro, by young hero Claudio. Now all of them (including Don John, whom his brother has forgiven) are arriving in Messina, the home of kindly Leonato. But when they get there, Claudio immediately falls in love with Leonato's beautiful daughter Hero. And despite the efforts of Don John, Don Pedro manages to get the two young lovers together and altar-bound.
But Don Pedro isn't willing to stop there. Hero's cousin Beatrice has a long-running feud with Claudio's pal Benedick -- they insult each other, they bicker, they argue about everything ("It is so indeed -- he is no less than a stuffed man!"). What's more, both of them swear to stay single forever. ("All women shall pardon me -- I shall live a bachelor!") Pedro and the others conspire to get Benedick and Beatrice to somehow fall in love with each other. And at first it seems that everything is going well -- until Don John manages to cast doubt on Hero's honor
There's a certain timeless quality to "Much Ado" -- not just the dialogue, but the simple costumes and the buildings in it. That leaves the audience free to pay more attention to the dialogue and its plot. And what a plot it is! "Much Ado" is brimming over with funny dialogue, dastardly plots, comedic supporting characters and weird pairings. (Beatrice and Benedick are the sort of love-hate couple that a lot of movies try to have, but don't succeed with)
The dialogue is mostly (if not all) Shakespeare's own, but it's not necessary to be a Shakespeare buff to understand what they're saying. It's not dumbed down, either -- it's just spoken as normally as ordinary English. And the Tuscan landscape sparkles with life, passion, and lots of fruit and wine. You don't need to be a fan already to understand and appreciate this movie.
Kenneth Branagh (who also directed and adapted the play) is amazing as Benedick, lovably witty and egotistical; he gets a little silly at times (such as his bird calls or joyous romp in the fountain), but demonstrates his serious ability after Hero is disgraced. the outstanding Emma Thompson is even better as the sharp-tongued Beatrice, a fiery young woman with her own mind and definitely her own mouth. Thompson lashes out Shakespeare's witty lines as easily as if she just thought them up herself; one of her most powerful scenes is here. Denzel Washington (Don Pedro) looks like he's having a great time; Keanu Reeves (Don John) is a bit flat in places, but glowers well enough. Kate Beckinsale's first movie role (Hero) is suitably sweet and adorable. Robert Sean Leonard (Claudio) is the one weak link in the cast; he seems a bit too overwrought and hysterical to be a major hero. (No pun intended)
This movie was unavailable for a very long time and only recently was rereleased on DVD. The DVD is pretty spare; aside from the movie, there are a few DVD promos (for "When Harry Met Sally" and "The Princess Bride" -- both, I notice, comedic romances) and a brief making-of featurette. The featurette doesn't really offer much that is new, but does give some insights into the chosen settings and why the cast wished to do the movie.
Those who enjoyed Branagh's "Hamlet" and "Henry V" will rejoice in "Much Ado About Nothing," the quintessential romantic comedy. Funny, sweet, romantic, and incredibly well-acted, this is a keeper.
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on June 28, 1999
Branagh is absolutely brilliant. After watching Much Ado About Nothing, I could not believe that anyone could take a work of Shakespeare and infuse it with so much life and vitality! I have watched the movie tens of times and I laugh harder and longer everytime I see it. Michael Keaton is hilarious as the ignorant sherriff, and Thompson(Beatrice) and Branagh(Benedick) are even funnier. I almost hated to see them get together. Denzel - what can I say? I have heard great reviews about all the actors and actresses; however, Keanu Reeves seems to get slam dunked in nearly every one. Though he certainly is not the hottest man around, his seemingly mechanical and irritating style is perfect for the role of the evil brother. This role was tailored for him - EVERYONE loves to hate him. That is exactly the response that Branagh wanted his audience to have!! If you have never read any of Shakespeare's works, see one of Branagh's films. The language is spoken so beautifully and effortlessly, that you won't hate Shakespearan language ever again.
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on September 10, 2000
Yes, Keanu Reeves fits in to this Shakespearean production like a tuba player in a heavy metal band, but don't let that scare you off. His leaden delivery can't weigh down a movie this light and bubbly.
Branagh has outdone himself in this tale of young men and women in love. It is set in the gorgeous Italian countryside, all warm sunshine and bright colors. The actors positively glow with happiness and health.
Branagh plays an almost self-parodying arrogant ham with just the right note of swagger and hidden insecurity. His battles of wit with Emma Thompson's Beatrice bring some of Shakespeare's cleverest writing to vivid life. Denzel Washington makes for a truly regal prince, and Michael Keaton puts in a knee-slapping cameo as the Beetlejuice-ish Dogberry.
This is one of Shakespeare's best comedies and Branagh films it excellently, moving the plot along and keeping things light. The title is apt -- the problems the characters face aren't difficult to solve -- and Branagh thankfully doesn't take any of the proceedings too seriously.
This is Shakespeare as it was intended to be. It's not actors dressed in tights histrionically shouting lines; it's funny and vibrant with a strong pulse. It's a feel-great movie and not to be missed, by Shakespeare loyalists or by anybody else.
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on October 6, 2000
This, without a doubt, the funniest film that I have seen Kenneth Branagh do. True, it was no match for his four-hour masterpiece HAMLET, but MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING is almost as great. Branagh shows us that his acting abilities can range from heroic to comedic. But please, let us not talk of the very bad performance he gave in the insanely crazy, and just as stupid WILD WILD WEST. Another thing that suprised me about the film: Keanu Reeves as a bad guy. This film also proves that Reeves, who plays the sinister John the B-----d, can play a wide variety of characters (from THE MATRIX's Neo, to BILL AND TED'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE's Bill Es Preston Esquire.). The other supporting actors (Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, Emma Thompson, Brian Blessed, among many others) gave what could be called their finest performances ever. The movie, which is insanely funny, also has some dramatic moments, so as not to make it too ludicrous. Anybody who has a thirst for Shakespeare, or just wants a good laugh, should see this movie. Trust me, you'll be singing HEY, NONNY NONNY 'til you die. Grade: A+
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on December 16, 1999
For an English major, Shakespeare is treated like a Bible, and any adaptation of a play scrutinized to death. This version of Shakespeare's classic comedy however is very cleverly done and highly entertaining. The scenery and music are incredible. I was hooked from the opening sequence, with the men riding into town in slow motion. The rest of the film is a brilliant mix of comedy, drama, and villainy. I love to watch the war of words between Benedick and Beatrice (you just know those two are made for each other!) and I cringe when Hero is rejected on her wedding day when her honor is questioned. During that scene, I just want to reach right through the television and slap the men for being so silly and mean. The cast is excellent to-- a steady international cast who vary in age and culture. I really am not convinced that Keanu Reeves was the best choice to play the villainous Don John, but the rest of the cast is superb, especially Michael Keaton as the clownish Dogberry. This movie makes me want to laugh and cry everytime I see it. I would recommend it to everyone who enjoys a romantic comedy where the romance is not overly sappy and dull.
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on November 12, 2002
Kenneth Branagh has always had a fondness for stylization and stunt casting in his adaptations of Shakespeare, and one of his casting choices in Much Ado About Nothing is a serious irritant: Keanu Reeves, though looking malevolently handsome in black leather and beard as the villainous Lord John, recites the Bard's verse like a bored eighth-grader who was just smacked in the head with a volleyball. Reeves not only undermines the film as a whole, he also makes his fellow Americans in the cast--Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton and Robert Sean Leonard--look bad by association. This is really too bad, for Washington and Leonard's performances are thoroughly respectable, and Keaton is hilarious as the addled Dogberry. In general, Branagh bathes the production in warm Tuscan light and infuses it with an airy, gracious, warm spirit. He and then-wife Emma Thompson give faultless performances as Benedick and Beatrice, both giving lasting lessons on how to play light comedy and speak Shakespearian verse. Their repartee is so brilliant that it's too bad they didn't have a chance to do Noel Coward before their divorce. Personally, I will always think of Branagh and Thompson as the perfect theatrical couple, on a par with Lunt and Fontanne or Cronyn and Tandy, however dysfunctional their actual marriage.
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on December 18, 2004
+++++

Shakespeare's romantic comedy of "Much Ado About Nothing" (written circa 1598) is best known for its brilliant lovers, the dazzling Beatrice and Benedick. The play itself resembles the screwball comedies of the 1930s and is filled with merriment and
mirth.

Director Kenneth Branagh's movie of the same name captures all of this. He has changed and embellished some scenes but retains Shakespeare's beautiful language as originally written.

There are eight major characters in this movie (as there are in the original play):

1. Don Pedro (Denzel Washington), the genial Prince of Arragon.
2. Don John (Keanu Reeves), his uncommunicative half brother who was born out of wedlock. His presence functions as a contrast to the festive mood of most of the movie.
3. Leonato (Richard Briers), "the white bearded fellow," Governor of Messina.
4. Claudio (Robert S. Leonard), "a proper squire" of Florence, "Monsieur Love," possessed of the "May of youth and bloom of lustihood."
5. Hero (Kate Beckinsale), "Leonato's short daughter," the somewhat colorless foil to Beatrice.
6. Benedick (Branagh), the mirthful young lord of Padura, "of a noble strain, of approved value, and confirmed honesty," but an unsentimental woman-hater; foil to Claudio. "He hath twice or thrice cut Cupid's bowstring, and the little hangman dare not shoot at him."
7. Beatrice (Emma Thompson), niece of Leonato, a "Lady Tongue," but one who on occasion "speaks [daggers] and every word stabs." She is "born to speak all mirth and no matter." As well, she wages a "merry war" with Benedick.
8. Dogberry (Michael Keaton), a pompous, humorous, ridiculous constable of Messina, "one that hath two gowns and everything handsome about him." He can be thought of as an Elizabethan Keystone Kop who, by accident, brings the villains of this movie to justice.

All the above actors do a good job in their roles. However, Branagh and Thompson do exceptional acting jobs as the bickering lovers who throughout the movie exchange insults when it's obvious to everyone but themselves that they are drawn to each other. Special mention should also be given to Michael Keaton as Dogberry, who does a good job in bringing Shakespeare's first great comic creation to life. As well, Denzel Washington does a surprisingly good job as the prince, Don Pedro.

The opening bathhouse scene of this movie is spectacular. The energy apparent in this scene is held throughout the movie.

The scenery and sets are visually stunning. (Filming was at an Italian villa in Tuscany, Italy.) As well, the background music adds to each scene.

Finally, the only main extra is a seven minute making-of featurette. It seems to be just a glorified trailer. There is no need to purchase this DVD if you already have a copy of this movie on DVD without the featurette.

BOTTOM LINE:

This movie is a worthy addition to the Bard's cinematic cannon.

(1993; 1 hr, 50 min; 35 scenes; closed-captioned; widescreen; color)

+++++
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on October 16, 2000
This film is pure fun from the start. The revelry and feeling of celebration carry on throughout. Emma Thompson is always a joy to watch, and the chemistry between her and then husband, Kenneth Branagh is amazing. Denzel Washington is just about perfectly cast as Don Pedro. I'm not overly impressed with Michael Keaton, as all I see is Beetlejuice all over again (and that movie was dumb the first time around). And now to address the disturbing trend of "let's beat the crap out of Keanu Reeves", I happen to think that although he may not be an Oscar winning actor, he was very beleivable in this role of the evil Don John. There are few who can convey such evil and bitterness with just a look, and Keanu Reeves did just that. I have always been a fan of Shakespeare's comedies, and this version has just reinforced my enjoyment of them. All in all a very lighthearted, heartwarming film that I would recommend to everyone, whether you are a Shakespeare fan or not.
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on August 29, 2000
Kenneth Branagh's treatment of "Much Ado About Nothing" is crisp, clear, witty, and beautiful throughout. Branagh mixes the classicly trained actors of England with new American talent (Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves) with surprisingly little difficulty. Though Washington is at times too smoothly American to pull off the role, the ensemble is cohesive and believable in most instances. Reeves' woodenness serves him well in his role; he plays the scowling villian fairly well, displaying effort much less often than Jack Lemmon in Branagh's Hamlet. Michael Keaton takes us back to his Beetlejuice days in his cameo appearance, but it fits well and adds humor to an already humorous performance.
The sparks between Branagh and Emma Thompson are obvious and enjoyable, expanding on the connection they had developed during the making of Henry V.
Overall, this is an immensely enjoyable movie for Shakespeare aficionados and novices alike; understandable without being heavily obvious, this movie should stand the test of time as one of Branagh's best treatments of the master playwright.
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