“You take pleasure then in the message?”
The good bits of Much Ado About Nothing, when done well, are so very good indeed, that it is sometimes hard to remember that the play has its dodgier moments too, for me at least. And it is none more so evident than in Kenneth Branagh’s beautifully sun-kissed adaptation, filmed in the rolling hills of the Italian countryside. The scenes with Dogberry and the Watch are usually problematic for me and with the broad stylings of Michael Keaton and Ben Elton here, they become unusually painful.
Thank the heavens then for Branagh and Emma Thompson, at this point midway through their six-year marriage and simply perfectly suited as sparring paramours Benedick and Beatrice. They spark off each other beautifully, making us believe in their spontaneous wit and all-too-human fallibility and you could watch them for days. Thompson plays up Beatrice’s bruised heart superbly as once bitten, twice shy, she prowls around Branagh’s amusedly careworn Benedick, who eventually deepens into real grace once the stakes are raised.
Their chemistry more than makes up for the slightly anaemic performances of Robert Sean Leonard and Kate Beckinsale (making her film debut) as the lovelorn Claudio and Hero, and led by Richard Briers’ sprightly Leonato, there’s much fun to be had in his court, Brian Blessed and Phyllida Law flirting up a storm as Antonio and Ursula and Imelda Staunton’s magnificently buxom Margaret catching the eye too. Branagh’s slimmed-down text loses nothing in the telling and frequent collaborator Patrick Doyle’s music sets the scene well.
With Hollywood funding comes Hollywood casting though, and so we have Keanu Reeves and Denzel Washington alongside Keaton, as Don John and Don Pedro. Washington acquits himself well with a sparkling charm and it’s probably for the best that Don John has little to say and much to glower about – one feels that everyone knows exactly why he’s been cast as his opening scene involves a lengthy oily massage and much shirtlessness. Still, when this Much Ado is good, it is among some of the best ever filmed Shakespeare.