Can the world buy such a jewel?
…Yea, and a case to put it into!
So, today is the Ides of March, an ancient Roman day of celebration that in modern day is best connected to William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. Last year, I used the day to write an Off-Screen post about the Reduced Shakespeare Company and warn any Roman Emperors from going to the Senate (note: that warning applies to 2011 Emperors, too). This year, I thought I’d pay a tribute to the Bard by reviewing the most well-known film adaptation of my favorite of his plays: Much Ado about Nothing.
Don Pedro (Denzel Washington) and his officers Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) and Benedick (Kenneth Branagh) are visiting Messina after a victorious battle. Wide-eyed Claudio immediately falls for the governor’s daughter, Hero (Kate Beckinsale). Self-proclaimed bachelor Benedick has a rocky history with Hero’s quick-witted cousin Beatrice (Emma Thompson), and the two butt heads in an ongoing battle of wits while claiming they loathe each other. With the help of their friends, Don Pedro concocts a plan to bring Beatrice and Benedick together with a few little white lies. In the meantime, Pedro’s bitter brother John (Keanu Reeves) schemes to tear Claudio and Hero apart with a few choice lies of his own.
In my opinion, film adaptations of comedic plays in general are hard to get right. This applies two-fold for Shakespeare’s comedies. There are a lot of funny moments and lines that can spring to life on the stage thanks to the personal connection between players and audience, but they can be difficult to translate onto the screen, especially if the viewers aren’t used to Shakespeare’s language. My favorite version of Much Ado was a Summer of 2006 performance in Stratford upon Avon, the Bard’s birthplace. I was sitting on the side balcony at that performance, and I just remember leaning forward to catch every word. It was exquisitely done, taking advantage of every hilarious moment and really bringing the characters to life.
Comparing it to that wonderful performance, the film doesn’t really stand a chance; it’s just not as compelling as that live version. There are a few moments that distract from the plot rather than enhance the plot, and one I recall quite clearly is during the opening credits. The picnicking townspeople hear the soldiers are coming soon, so the ladies rush back to town to get ready to greet them. How to they get ready? By striping down and washing up in a semi-public community bath. And yes, there are some flashes of nudity. I’m sure these sort of baths might have existed in this time and place, but you know what’s equally distracting? When the soldiers jump into the completely public baths and start some faux-homoerotic splishsplashy fun. It’s not really that much fun for the audience, and it has nothing to do with the story from there on in. I just didn’t understand the choice.
As for the writing… look, it’s my favorite of all of Shakespeare’s plays. Branagh might have adapted the screenplay, but the story and dialogue is still William’s. I love this play and while it does have flaws, it’s so funny, and Beatrice/Benedick is my favorite Shakepearian couple. So much of what I want to say about this film has to do with the play itself, so I’m going to edit myself and not go on and on about the wonderful parts of this story. Needless to say, the screenplay stays true to the original work. For the most part, the performances are strong, but not too much extraordinary in there. You can argue Kate Beckinsale is bland as Hero, but Hero is such a bland, subservient character. She doesn’t even have many lines, so there’s not a lot of room for Beckinsale to play.
Another actor who gets a lot of crap is Keanu Reeves as the villainous John. He plays it a little too melodramatic, but it’s not as bad as you’d think – although I still question how he could have been related to Denzel Washington. Speaking of Denzel, he has one of the better performances because he seems like he’s having the most fun. Don Pedro has a very big, joyful personality and Washington pulls that off. He’s also charming, but ends up with a bittersweet ending. He balances the character well, except perhaps when he sides with Claudio.
Most of you know Robert Sean Leonard as Wilson on House, but he’s playing a very different character here. Like Hero, Claudio is kind of a bland character, although there’s more room for interpretation. There’s a rather controversial scene where, after being convinced that Hero wasn’t faithful, declares her a whore at the altar, pushes her to the ground and leaves. No matter how you direct it, it’s intense and can lean on the side of too much violence towards the bride. I’ve seen a few different versions of this scene and Leonard did a decent job at it. But everything works out in the end, so if you make Claudio too horrible, you don’t want him to have redemption. I think the trick is to make sure the audience knows he makes very stupid choices on impulse, and Leonard pulls that off enough.
Beatrice is easily my favorite heroine in Shakespeare – she’s smart, warm to those she loves, fiercely faithful to her family and quick-witted. She has some of the best lines in the whole play. She also has this great monologue about how she wishes she was a man so she could take on Claudio’s accusations against Hero herself, but she can’t because she’s a woman. Shakespeare is bringing up gender inequality centuries before the feminist movement! Emma Thompson pulls this character off, to be sure. All the little quips come off well and that fabulous “if I were a man” scene has the right amount of passion. But she doesn’t play off Beatrice as bitter, but rather a woman content to be single. Well, until Don Pedro sets the wheels in motion to get her and Benedick together, that is.
I didn’t mind Branagh as Benedick, although I think he’s stronger when performing the Bard’s tragedies. His scenes as the douchebag bachelor playing off Leonard’s lovestruck Claudio are when he shines. He complains so much about how annoying married men are that when he falls in love, it’s way too fun to watch him eat his words. The quips between him and Beatrice don’t always play the right way, but that kind of goes back to film vs. stage. She comes off stronger than him.
I really wanted to like his scene when he decides he loves Beatrice, but it’s almost too over the top… Thompson goes too goofy in it, too. There’s a slightly slow-mo ending to it where Beatrice is on a swing and Benedick is skipping around a fountain. I kind of wanted to know what they smoked and where I can get some; they were that kind of happy. It kind of ruined my favorite line from Benedick, “The world must be peopled!” because he bellows it up to the sky. That being said, the scenes together thereon-in have oodles of chemistry. And they still tease each other!
Just a couple other performances that stood out. Thompson’s Harry Potter costar Imelda Staunton has a small role as a servant who unknowingly gets involved in the plot against Hero and Claudio. She has a moment during the disastrous wedding that I don’t think is in the actual play, but it makes this small role much more complex. And then there’s Michael Keaton as the fool Dogberry. It’s not perfect, but he actually had fun it, and that counts for something.
As far as other aspects go, I liked the use of the scenery and the airy, light costumes. I’m still just not sure why they had to get out of those costumes in the opening credits.
Overall: It’s still my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays, and it wasn’t a terrible film. That being said, check the play out on stage first. You’ll be glad you did.
3 out of 5 stars