Shakespeare in Film – Part 3 – Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Back in 1989 Kenneth Branagh made a splash in the title role of Henry V and because of it became a movie star and was allowed to produce several of Shakespeare’s plays paid for by major studios!  One of the fruits of this strange marriage of Hollywood and Branagh was “Much Ado About Nothing,” one of the comedies.  The cast combines English stage and screen actors with American movie stars such as Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, Kate Beckinsale and Keanu Reeves.  And because at the time she was Mrs. Branagh, Emma Thompson co-starred.

Up front I will say that this film is a bizarre mix of good, bad, indifferent and unbearable acting.  The subplot that involves the thwarting of a marriage by a wrongful accusation against the bride is so emotionally overwrought and pathetic that I am tempted to fast forward through it.  On the other hand, the antagonistic love/hate relationship between Branagh and Thompson’s characters is at times very amusing.  But the stand out part in the play is Michael Keaton as the chief night constable Dogberry.  His bizarre appearance and mannerisms are very funny.  His malapropisms and nonsensical instructions to his men sound like they come from someone hallucinating.  My favorite exchange occurs when Dogberry tries to explain to the lord of the castle what he has discovered during his night watch.  When he speaks at length without making any sense the lord tells Dogberry that he is tedious.  Dogberry mistakes this for a compliment and promises that if he himself were as rich as a king he would willingly bestow all his tediousness on the lord.

Aside from the young love interests the worst acting of the play is provided by Keanu Reeves.  He plays the villain of the story Don John.  Never before or since have Shakespeare’s words been spoken so woodenly and so bereft of any skill.  Luckily he was able to move on and use this skill where it belonged, in John Wick 2.  Don John’s brother in the movie is Denzel Washington’s Don Pedro.  I must confess I couldn’t see the family resemblance but Don Pedro did acquit himself much more ably Keanu.  He was amusing and amiable.

For fans of the tv show House, the actor who played Wilson on that show, Robert Sean Leonard, plays the young love interest opposite Kate Beckinsale.  His emotional scenes which involved frequent tears are so embarrassing it’s a wonder he ever acted again.

So what can I say about this movie?  Anyone I haven’t scared away with my descriptions should give it a viewing.  It is most definitely a mixed bag.  But for someone who enjoys Shakespeare there are some fine scenes interspersed amongst the awful.  It’s your call.

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