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.

Shakespeare in Film – Part 2 – Julius Caesar (1953)

This version of Julius Caesar is interesting to me because it contains two contrasting acting types.  With John Gielgud as Cassius you have a British Shakespearian actor steeped in the conventions and knowledge of the traditional theater.  With Marlon Brando as Mark Antony you have a great American method actor who approaches his performance as a process of absorbing the soul of the character and living the part.  And because Mark Antony’s part is so bound up with a revenge motive, he is able to bring the set speech, his “friends, romans, countrymen” speech, to life.  Gielgud’s Cassius is a more intellectual character and it requires a great deal of nuance to render the part interesting.  His character is of an angry disappointed man who is motivated by fear, jealousy and spite.  The fine British actor James Mason is Brutus and does a masterful job of portraying the honest, intelligent patriot who slays his friend for the good of his country.  Louis Calhern another American actor has the pivotal but relatively minor part of Julius Caesar.  Greer Garson as Calpurnia and Deborah Kerr as Portia are Caesar’s and Brutus’s wives respectively.  And there are several other good performances but essentially the main action consists of Cassius and Brutus on one side and Mark Antony on the other.  Cassius draws Brutus into a conspiracy against Caesar and Mark Antony stirs a popular rebellion against the assassins.

The play is cut in half by the murder, with the first half concluded by Brando’s funeral oration for Caesar.  It is one of Shakespeare’s most memorable speeches and Brando plays it to the hilt.  His voice is saturated with emotion, by turns, sorrow, scorn then anger.  He plays the Roman crowd and stirs them to mutiny against the “honorable men” who slew Caesar.

For Brutus and Cassius, the speeches are smaller but they still allow the characters to display their personalities.  Cassius shows us his pettiness and his genuine feelings of affection for his friend.  Brutus is a more austere character.  Intelligence, integrity and a slightly cold persona is displayed.  But at the end when his whole world starts to collapse, he allows his personal feelings to emerge somewhat and these do him credit.

This play is a study of personalities.  The battle scenes are short and stylized so there isn’t a dynamism as you would see in a modern rendition of this story.  Instead you have what Shakespeare would show on a stage.  I don’t think Julius Caesar will appeal to everyone.  It’s not exciting enough for many people.  They will find it boring.  But for those interested in seeing how a dying world drove friends against each other in a civil war this gives a flavor of it.

Personally, I like the play and this version of it.  I’m not the biggest Brando fan but I like what he did with Mark Antony, especially the big speech.  And I’m always glad to see James Mason in a production.  His presence and the remarkable sound of his voice were perfect for this part.  So, there’s my first Shakespeare review.  That wasn’t so bad after all.

Shakespeare in Film – Part 1 – Introduction

I enjoy a cross section of Shakespeare’s work, comedy, tragedy, history.  I enjoy reading the works, live performances and film versions.  On the other hand, I haven’t studied Shakespeare or even theater in any formal way.  I just like what I like and dislike what I don’t.  For that reason I don’t have a technical vocabulary to make my critiques sound authoritative or learned.  So I’ll use the same style that I use for all my other reviews.  I hope Shakespeare doesn’t mind sharing the stage I’ve populated previously with the Twilight Zone, Captain Kirk and Plan 9 from Outer Space.

And just to go a little further with my preferences for these plays on film, I prefer the traditional presentation of the plays in the garb and surroundings that match the story that Shakespeare provided.  Also I prefer the male characters to be played by men and the girls to be girls.  So I’m probably not going to be interested in seeing Dame Judy Dench playing King Lear or a man prancing around as Titania.  I’ve seen a production of Richard III set in WWII era London.  It wasn’t terrible but I didn’t see the point.   So this should be fun, for me.  Hopefully some people will be interested.