As adaptations go, this is one of the best
Lamented by school children everywhere, Shakespeare’s plays are far more than incomprehensible language force fed by English teachers. They are an art form all of their own. Many of them translate to modern day story telling with little more than a nod, and when studied reveal a lyrical majesty to the words, a symphony in the telling and stories that resonate – it is why they have endured through time and continue to enthral. And tonight’s feature is no different; indeed Much Ado About Nothing is a ‘classic’ romantic comedy - quite literally. Following ‘modern’ story protocols about love and relationships the narrative is extremely familiar, especially to anyone that enjoys this genre; it’s little wonder that the film won so many awards and was a huge box office success upon its initial release twenty years ago! Grab your cod piece and sing in tune as we explore tonight’s main feature, Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
The film opens up to a sonnet being read by one of the main protagonists, Beatrice (Emma Thompson) to her family when a messenger arrives informing of the imminent arrival of Prince Don Pedro (Denzel Washington) – see much merriment and washing (actual nudity) as all the women folk dress for the visitors, and from the Prince’s own men as they bath ready to be received into the household. Branagh has made a name for himself in adapting, directing and starring in Shakespeare films/plays and this opening scene encapsulates why. Filmed on location in Italy (the setting of the play) he makes full use of the wonderful weather and incredible landscape – it is rich, wide and colourful. There is an urgency given to the ‘shower’ scenes that serve to both titillate the viewer on what to expect and to draw the audience into the close nit community. The land owner is Leonato (Richard Briers), he and the prince are good friends and it is his daughter and niece that are the subject of the tale; both are eligible for marriage and both have sweethearts that reside in the prince’s company; the distinct bachelor Benedick (Branagh, himself) who once had an affair with Beatrice, hence their attitude towards each other, and his ‘sworn brother’ Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) who has eyes for Hero (Kate Beckinsale in her first cinema outing, boy she has puppy fat), the daughter.
Can you see what’s coming? The plot revolves around Claudio proposing to Hero, their falling for each other, while the dastardly Don John (Keanu Reeves), the prince’s bastard half-brother, plots to destroy this happy liaison with lies and deceit – which initially works, thus the betrothed break up, but, of course, once the truth is revealed, reconcile. The sub-plot involves the family’s trying to rekindle the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick. Hence what we see is a basic romantic story that has been told many, many times over the years. But what sets this one apart is the fact of Shakespeare’s writing, and Branagh’s interpretation of it.
The language barrier is what puts many people off of Shakespeare; and that is a real shame, because it is perfectly understandable. To take an absurd example - in much the same way as you come to understand the language used in Antony Burgess’ Clockwork Orange, you can understand Shakespeare’s use, and his is far easier to appreciate because it is our own and not something made up! Once you are past that, you can enjoy the lyrics, for that is what they really are, to this poetry. Of particular delight are the monologue that the characters speak as they talk out their woes, or their desires – Branagh and Thompson are particularly good when delivering their thoughts about their respective love, or not, as the case may be. And Branagh, the director, keeps the pace high, the action flowing and the mood dreamy.
Indeed the whole film is a joy to watch, the cast give it their all and it is so bright and gay that you cannot help but be swayed
The cast, I’ve only hinted at, there are so many faces in this production, including, but not limited to Imelda Staunton, Brian Blessed, Michael Keaton and Ben Elton as well as those listed above. Each one gives excellent performances, with the possible exception of Reeves who just seems … out of place. The setting is magnificent, the costumes are exquisite and design of the whole thing is terrific. Branagh plays up the comedy elements of the piece, and there are some genuinely funny moments, either from the situations as they play out or due to some of the more off the wall characterisations (looking at you Keaton).
The plot to disgrace Hero is very well handled that you feel for her plight, so that when the idea to regain her dignity comes to light you are relieved and elated. This story element is a stable of the ‘rom com’ nowadays and yet here it plays as totally refreshing. Again, the love/hate relationship that Beatrice and Benedick share is extremely common place, but here, in this way and the way it’s put forward comes off as genuine. Indeed the whole film is a joy to watch, the cast give it their all and it is so bright and gay that you cannot help but be swayed. Indeed the film garnered many awards, gained a huge critical following and is one of only a handful of Shakespearean adaptations to be truly successful at the box office; and it is easy to see why. The film is very approachable, it is funny and entertaining, and has a story that is easy to follow and easy to get swept along with. What more could you ask?
As adaptations go, this is one of the best.
Our Review Ethos
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.