Wednesday, 13 May 2015

GREAT FILMS: Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

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Much Ado About Nothing (UK/ USA, 1993)
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Starring Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Robert Sean Leonard, Kate Beckinsale

Back in November 2013, I wrote an article for WhatCulture! citing my ten favourite William Shakespeare adaptations. In justifying the inclusion of this film, I said that the conventions of Shakespeare's comedies "so often don't stand up on film", and that "to do justice to a Shakespeare comedy takes someone with great patience and boundless energy."

 
Eighteen months and one re-viewing later, my opinion of Much Ado About Nothing has scarsely changed. Kenneth Branagh's second directorial effort is a wonderful, joyous film, a bright, breezy and immensely accessible adaptation which sees him enjoying himself immensely both behind and in front of the camera. Having assembled a truly stellar cast, he gives us a witty and exuberant take on the story which blows away all the cobwebs, making it consummate viewing for both purists and newcomers.
 
Branagh's biggest success, as both an actor and a director, has been his ability to take the most complex aspects of language and emotion and make them intriguingly accessible. Great Shakespearean actors of the past, like Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud or Paul Schofield, were often regarded (rightly or wrongly) as insular elitists: they sought to preserve their centuries-old craft from modern tendences to misinterpret or embellish timeless art. Branagh, on the other hand, reveres Shakespeare while remaining self-deprecating, sometimes going so far as actively laughing at himself.
 
Had Branagh been the stuffy sort, he would have been content to sit behind the camera and channel his so-called megalomania into berating his actors, resulting in the most tediously well-behaved adaptation you could imagine. Instead, he casts himself as Benedick, a role which is founded on a lack of self-awareness, and whose actions prompt ridicule from both the other characters and the audience via dramatic irony. Rather than become self-conscious, Branagh finds great joy in playing the oaf, and in getting under the surface to show the genuine feelings, disguised by bluster, which underpin even the most foolish thoughts.
 
The biggest departure between this film and Branagh's equally brilliant take on Henry V is the visuals. With Henry V, Branagh very consciously wanted a more gritty and earthy look, showing the toil and pain that the characters go through and moving the text away from Olivier's Allied propaganda version from the 1940s. Because we're in more comedic territory, you wouldn't expect him simply to repeat himself, but he instead goes out of his way to lighten things up: the abundance of whites, golds and paler blues is in stark contrast to the mud of Agincourt and the deeper blues and reds of Henry's royal crest.
 
Branagh also employs a policy of long, fluid takes, something which he would take to its natural conclusion in Hamlet three years later. The key word here is 'fluid', since the movement of the camera contributes a great deal to the energy of a given scene. If the camera were static, locked-off in a specific place with characters wandering in and out, it would have instantly felt like a recorded stage play - what Alfred Hitchcock used to call "photographs of people talking". By having his camera follow and circle the actors, particularly during the renditions of 'Hey Nonny Nonny', Branagh keeps us in the midst of the action and puts us in the restless mindset of the characters.
 
Like many modern farces, Much Ado About Nothing derives most of its comedy from confusion, in this case from rumours being spread about the two couples at the centre of the action. It's a story which is rooted in dramatic irony, in which the audience's enjoyment comes from seeing the characters getting the wrong end of the stick, trying and failing to work things out and creating more havoc as they go. While a first-person Much Ado would make for an intriguing experiment, it's likely that being so close to the action would rob the audience of much of the story's enjoyment.
 
At the centre of Much Ado About Nothing is the theme of deceptive appearances. The vast majority of the characters are completely different on the surface to how they actually feel: of the protagonists, only Claudio and Hero - to borrow a phrase from Macbeth - have no serpents under their innocent flowers. Don Pedro's plan to bring Benedick and Beatrice together begins as more of a practical joke than anything with more noble intentions. But as the events unfold, these two characters grow to respect and admire each other in spite of whatever differences they had, or believed they had.
 
Shakespeare is making a comment here on the way that the different genders behave around each other in matters of courtship. He starts from a position where both characters are forthright, almost to extremes - Benedick with his cocky, chauvinistic boasting and Beatrice with her acid wit and low opinion of men. Both characters gradually open up and reveal their insecurities, which come to a head when Beatrice begs Benedick to kill Claudio. They do not entirely lose their nature in the process, but both become more comfortable with each other and their friends as a result of letting their true feelings be expressed without fear of reproach.
 
There has been some speculation about the relationship enjoyed by Benedick and Beatrice before the events of the play. The decision to interpret one way or the other seems to fall on Beatrice's line: "You always end with a jade's trick. I know you of old." Joss Whedon's recent version took this line and extrapolated the latter part, implying that Benedick and Beatrice had once been lovers. Branagh's interpretation is perhaps more faithful and traditional, using it to indicate that this is not the first time Beatrice would have beaten him in a battle of words.
 
Branagh's desire to keep the tempo up helps to energise the long soliloquys that both these characters enjoy. In a slower-paced outing, long periods of self-reflection such as these could drag the plot down and rob Shakespeare of his eloquence: part of his appeal is the way his characters conjure up great metaphors at speed, conveying depth without just sitting around, thinking long and hard about what to say. Branagh's monologue about being "horribly in love" is a splendid example; by treating it a stream of consciousness rather than anything more mannered, more of the character's soul and contradictions are revealed.
 
Even if you don't analyse the emotional turmoils of the central characters, Much Ado About Nothing still holds together as a farce. The title derives from 'noting', meaning overhearing gossip, which in Elizabethan England was pronounced the same as 'nothing'. Branagh captures just how easily people are swayed by what others think of them, turning authority into sources of ridicule for our amusement. But the graver misunderstandings still carry weight, keeping a moral centre to the film in amongst all the frivolity.
 
The ace in the hole with Branagh's Shakespeare films has always been the casting - not just the roster of impressive names, but his knack for surprising casting decisions which pay off enormously. His own performance as Benedick is brilliant, but it would be mostly in vain if he had not cast his then-wife Emma Thompson opposite him. Thompson strikes a perfect balance with Beatrice, retaining her playful, sunny aspects while keeping her as smart and as sharp as any of the men. The roots of her later resolve in Saving Mr Banks are all here in plain sight, waiting to be appreciated.
 
Branagh's choices for the supporting cast are equally inspired. Richard Briers is an excellent choice for Leonarto, his warm delivery working to his advantage in one of the more seasoned and wry roles of the play. Denzel Washington is a perfect choice for Don Pedro, making it all the more inexplicable that he has not done more Shakespeare, or more comedy. Casting Keanu Reeves as Don John was a massive gamble, even before he earned a reputation for being wooden, but his cold, clinical portrayal slots into proceedings very nicely. But no choice is more inspired than Michael Keaton as Dogberry. Having already demonstrated his comic potential in Beetlejuice, Keaton plays every line to its fullest and inhabits the part, creating what is probably its definitive portrayal.
 
Much Ado About Nothing is a majestic slice of cinematic joy which solidifies Branagh's reputation is a Shakespearean par excellence. While it is slightly too long and a trifle silly in places, its few off-kilter moments are more than counteracted by the beautiful visuals, inspired casting and the sheer level of enjoyment which is generated. In short, it explains the appeal of Shakespeare's sense of humour without resorting to any lectures, leaving us with buzzing brains and big smiles on our faces.

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NEXT REVIEW: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

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