A Dainty Dish
Ever since his Oscar-nominated Henry V adaptation, Kenneth Branagh has come up with a simple, effective recipe: Blend 3 parts English actors well-versed in all things “Bard” with 1 or 2 parts Hollywood, sprinkle the mixture liberally over one of Shakespeare‘s plays, lift the material out of its original temporal and local context to provide an updated meaning, and garnish it by casting yourself and, until the mid-1990s, (then-)wife Emma Thompson in opposite starring roles.
In Much Ado About Nothing, that formula works to near-perfection. A comedy of errors possibly written in one of the Bard‘s busiest years (1599) – although as usual, dating is a minor guessing game – Much Ado lives primarily from its timeless characters, making it an ideal object for transformation à la Branagh. Thus, renaissance Sicily becomes 19th century Tuscany (although the location’s name, Messina, remains unchanged); and the intrigues centering around the battle of the sexes between Signor Benedick of Padua (Branagh) and Lady Beatrice (Thompson), the niece of Messina’s governor Don Leonato (Richard Briers), and their love’s labors won – possibly the play’s originally-intended title*; and indeed, Benedick and Beatrice are a more liberated version of the earlier Love’s Labor’s Lost‘s Berowne and Rosaline – as well as the schemes surrounding the play’s other couple, Benedick’s friend Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) and Beatrice’s cousin Hero (Kate Beckinsale) become a light-hearted counterpoint to the more serious, politically charged intrigues of novels such as Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma and Scarlet and Black: As such, the military campaign from which Benedick and Claudio are returning with Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon (Denzel Washington) at the story’s beginning could easily be one associated with Italy’s 19th century struggle for nationhood.
While according to the play’s conception it is ostensibly the relationship between Hero and Claudio that drives the plot – as well as the plotting by Don Pedro’s illegitimate brother, Don John (Keanu Reeves) – Beatrice and Benedick are the more interesting couple; both sworn enemies of love, they are not kept apart by a scheming villain but by their own conceit, and are brought toghether by a ruse of Don Pedro’s (although even that wouldn’t have worked against their will: “Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably,” Benedick once tells Beatrice.) And while Don John’s machinations create much heartbreak and drama once they have come into fruition, the story’s highlights are Benedick’s and Beatrice’s battles of wits; the sparks flying between them from their first scene to their last: even in front of the chapel, they still – although now primarily for their audience’s benefit – respond to each other’s question “Do not you love me?” with “No, no more than reason,” and when Benedick finally tells Beatrice he will have her, but only “for pity,” she tartly answers, “I would not deny you; – but … I yield upon great persuasion; and partly to save your life, for I was told you were in a consumption” – whereupon Benedick, most uncharacteristically, stops her with a kiss.
Branagh‘s and Thompson‘s chemistry was still unblemished at the time when this movie was made, and it works to optimum effect here. And while every Kenneth Branagh movie is as much star vehicle for its creator as it is about the project itself, Benedick’s conversion from a man determined not to let love “transform [him] into an oyster” into a married man (because after all, “the world must be peopled. When I said I would die a bachelor I did not think I should live – till I were married”!) is a pure joy to watch. Emma Thompson‘s Beatrice, similarly, is an incredibly modern, independent young woman; and scenes like her advice to Hero not to blindly follow her father’s (Don Leonato’s) wishes in marrying but, if necessary, “make another courtesy and say, Father, as it please me” only enhance the play’s and her character’s timeless quality.
Yet, while the leading couple’s performances are the movie’s shining anchor pieces, there is much to enjoy in the remaining cast as well: Richard Briers’s Don Leonato, albeit more English country squire than Italian nobleman, is the kind of doting father that many a daughter would surely wish for; and what he may lack in Italian flavor is more than made up for in Brian Blessed’s Don Antonio, Leonato’s brother. Kate Beckinsale is a charming, innocent Hero and well-matched with Robert Sean Leonard’s Claudio (who after Dead Poets Society seemed virtually guaranteed to show up in a Shakespeare adaptation sooner or later); as generally, leaving aside the appropriateness of American accents in a movie like this, the Hollywood contingent acquits itself well. Washington’s, Leonard’s and Brier’s “Cupid” plot particularly is a delight (even if Washington might occasionally have gained extra mileage enunciation-wise). Keanu Reeves, cast against stereotype as Don John, is a bit too busy looking sullen to realize the role’s full sardonic potential: “melancholy,” in Shakespeare‘s times, after all was a generic term encompassing everything from madness to various saner forms of ill humor; and I wonder what – but for the generational difference – someone like Sir Ian McKellen might have done with that role. But as a self-described “plain-dealing villain” Reeves is certainly appropriately menacing. Michael Keaton’s Dogberry, finally, is partly brother-in-spirit to Beetlejuice, partly simply the eternal stupid officer; the play’s boorish comic relief and as such spot-on, delivering his many malaproprisms with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek.
The cast is rounded out by several actors who might well have demanded larger roles but nevertheless look ideally matched for the parts they play, including Imelda Staunton and Phyllida Law as Hero’s gentlewomen Margaret and Ursula, Gerard Horan and Richard Clifford as Don John’s associates Borachio and Conrade, and Ben Elton as Dogberry’s “neighbor” Verges. (In addition, score composer Patrick Doyle stands in as minstrel Balthazar.) With minimal editing of the play’s original language, a set design making full use of the movie’s Tuscan setting, and lavish production values overall, this is a feast for the senses and, on the whole, an adaptation of which even the Bard himself, I think, would have approved.
* At least according to one theory. Another theory has it that Love’s Labours Won is the title of a different, now lost play.
Production Credits /
Cast and Crew
- Studio: Renaissance Films / BBC / American Playhouse Theatrical Films (1993)
- Director: Kenneth Branagh
- Producers: Kenneth Branagh / David Parfitt / Stephen Evans
- Screenplay: Kenneth Branagh
- Based on a play by: William Shakespeare
- Music: Patrick Doyle
- Cinematography / Director of Photography: Roger Lanser
- Kenneth Branagh: Benedick
- Emma Thompson: Beatrice
- Richard Briers: Leonato
- Robert Sean Leonard: Claudio
- Kate Beckinsale: Hero
- Denzel Washington: Don Pedro
- Keanu Reeves: Don John
- Michael Keaton: Dogberry
- Brian Blessed: Antonio
- Imelda Staunton: Margaret
- Phyllida Law: Ursula
- Richard Clifford: Conrade
- Gerard Horan: Borachio
- Jimmy Yuill: Friar Francis
- Ben Elton: Verges
- Edward Jewesbury: Sexton
- Patrick Doyle: Balthazar
London Critics Circle Film Awards (1993)
- British Producer of the Year: Kenneth Branagh
Evening Standard British Film Awards (1993)
- Best Actress: Emma Thompson
– Also for “The Remains of the Day.”
“I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow, than a man swear he loves me.”
“If [God] send me no husband, for the which blessing I am at him upon my knees every morning and evening …”
“Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably.”
“LEONATO: Well, then, go you into hell?
BEATRICE: No, but to the gate; and there will the devil meet me, like an old cuckold, with horns on his head, and say ‘Get you to heaven, Beatrice, get you to heaven; here’s no place for you maids:’ so deliver I up my apes, and away to Saint Peter for the heavens; he shows me where the bachelors sit, and there live we as merry as the day is long.”
“LEONATO: Well, niece, I hope to see you one day fitted with a husband.
BEATRICE: Not till God make men of some other metal than earth. Would it not grieve a woman to be overmastered with a pierce of valiant dust? to make an account of her life to a clod of wayward marl? No, uncle, I’ll none: Adam’s sons are my brethren; and, truly, I hold it a sin to match in my kindred.”
“DON PEDRO: Come, lady, come; you have lost the heart of Signior Benedick.
BEATRICE: Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile; and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one: marry, once before he won it of me with false dice, therefore your grace may well say I have lost it.
DON PEDRO: You have put him down, lady, you have put him down.
BEATRICE: So I would not he should do me, my lord, lest I should prove the mother of fools.”
“Yes, faith; it is my cousin’s duty to make curtsy and say ‘Father, as it please you.’ But yet for all that, cousin, let him be a handsome fellow, or else make another curtsy and say ‘Father, as it please me.”
“Wooing, wedding, and repenting is as a Scotch jig, a measure, and a cinque-pace: the first suit is hot and hasty like a Scotch jig – and full as fantastical; the wedding, mannerly modest, as a measure, full of state and ancientry; and then comes repentance and with his bad legs falls into the cinque-pace faster and faster, till he sink into his grave.”
“Time goes on crutches till love have all his rites.”
“For it falls out
That what we have we prize not to the worth
Whiles we enjoy it, but being lacked and lost,
Why, then we rack the value, then we find
The virtue that possession would not show us
While it was ours.”
“To be a well-favoured man is the gift of fortune; but to write and read comes by nature.”
- Much Ado About Nothing at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb)
- Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company (official website)
- Kenneth Branagh at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb)
- Sir Kenneth Branagh Archive at Queen’s University, Belfast, Northern Ireland
- Renaissance Theatre Company Archive, Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham
- Emma Thompson’s profile at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb)
- Emma Thompson’s profile at the British Film Institute’s Screenonline
- Emma Thompson’s Profile at Turner Classic Movies (TCM)
- The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust
- The Royal Shakespeare Company
- Shakespeare’s Globe (London)
- The Folger Shakespeare Library
- Open Source Shakespeare
- William Shakespeare’s biography at the Kirjasto Authors’ Calendar
- Project: Measure for Measure
- Themis-Athena’s William Shakespeare author page
- Themis-Athena’s review of the BBC’s Complete Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare series
- Themis-Athena’s review of Ian McKellen’s 1995 movie adaptation of Richard III