Ok, fair reader (well, I call you fair but maybe you’re burly or something. If fair doesn’t work for you, insert the adjective of your choice there), if you thought I gushed a lot in my post about the play on Sunday, you are in for a new load of gushing because this is our first dose of Kenneth Branagh and Shakespeare!!! Seriously, put Kenneth Branagh and Shakespeare anywhere near each other and you have some really fantastic film going on. So consider this the first of a multiple part fan letter to the awesomeness of Kenneth Branagh.
Now for once, I’ve picked a film new enough for you to be able to watch the trailer. Sadly, the person who posted said video on YouTube has disabled embedding, so go and watch it and then come back. I’ll wait here. Have you watched it? Do you need to watch it again? All good? Ok.
So in an interesting choice, the film opens with Emma Thompson (in addition to geeking out over Kenneth Branagh, I will also geek out over the awesomeness that is Emma Thompson who is just adorable. And she and Kenneth were married to each other when this film was made, which is just so delightful because their chemistry… I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s return to the original sentence). Ahem. So in an interesting choice, the film opens with Emma Thompson doing a voice over, reciting the lyrics of the song from II.iii as poetry with the words appearing in white print on the black screen as she says them. After reciting the first verse (with a “hey nonny nonny”), we’re treated to some gorgeous Italian scenery as Emma continues to recite and we eventually get treated to a sight of the ladies and gentlemen of Messina lounging on a hill, with an eventual pan over to Emma Thompson as Beatrice. Who is reading poetry. While sitting in a tree. And she is awesome.
So with that intro out of the way, we dive immediately into the actual play with the messenger coming and letting everyone know that Don Pedro has returned from war. And then begins the slow mo sequence. Slow mo of all the main male characters riding horses. Slow mo of women racing around Leonato’s house stripping out of their clothes and hopping over beds. Actually everyone is stripping off their clothes, as all the returning soldiers bathe in a fountain and the women take a communal shower (multiple shower heads, think the shower area at a swimming pool but less modern). There are a lot of naked backsides in the first five minutes of this film. What keeps the slow mo and the nakedness from being worthy of eye-rolling though is the fantastically cinematic score that adds a wonderful layer to the film that keeps it from melodrama but still adds that extra flavour.
Ok, so moving away from the scene-by-scene recounting of the film, I’m going to rave about the cast a little bit. KENNETH BRANAGH AND EMMA THOMPSON. The awesomeness is almost too much. But moving along, Kate Beckinsale plays Hero and she is SO young (IMDb informs me that she was probably 19 or 20 when the film was made and that it was also her first film) but she really pulls off the naive sweetness and gravity of the character. She also does an impressive job of going into hysterics after Claudio ditches her at the wedding and her dad accuses her of being a whore. Speaking of Claudio, it’s Wilson from House! Except at this point, he was probably better known as the guy from Dead Poets Society. He also is very young and very nicely matches Kate Beckinsale in the naivete and innocence department. Moving along, our other big names are Denzel Washington as Don Pedro and Keanu Reeves as Don John. The fact that Branagh cast these two actors as brothers is just undeniably awesome. Ok, turning down the gush a bit. Oh and Michael Keaton is in there too, playing Dogberry of “remember, I am an ass” fame.
The film really has beautiful production value. Not only does Branagh (yeah, he directed this film in addition to playing Benedick. Awesome!) really show Italy to its advantage but the ball scenes are particularly lovely with the detailed and sometimes mildly creepy masks. Also, I totally love the garden in which Benedick and Beatrice are initially tricked by the other characters. Plus, it will always have my affection for being the site of the slapstick that is Kenneth Branagh and the folding chair. Really funny that is.
Now I will admit to the fact that Keanu is not my favourite actor on the planet, as he seems to possess about three different facial expressions, but he actually manages to work it to his advantage, as his default expression works pretty well for playing the villain. The beard helps too. While Michael Keaton plays the fool character of Dogberry, I don’t find him overwhelmingly funny (I much prefer the sparkle and wit of Beatrice and Benedick as you’ll recall). However, he and the actor that play Verges, whenever they go from place to place, pretend that they are riding horses as they trot about (sadly without the benefit of coconuts) which I did find amusing. Every time it happened.
What I particularly love about this film, apart from the awesomeness that is Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, are some of the really subtle moments that Branagh includes, all of which happen during the ball scene. First is the subtext he includes that Beatrice loved Benedick once before when she was younger and he disappointed her. While the dialogue does support this interpretation, I’ve seen the scene interpreted other ways with Beatrice being far more flippant about Benedick giving her his heart to cut her teeth on. Emma Thompson, however, makes it a moment of vulnerability that plucks the heartstrings just a little. Shortly afterwards, comes the moment when Don Pedro asks Beatrice if she’ll marry him. Again, a scene that can often be overlooked or made to be funny, Branagh chooses to make it sweet and heartfelt. It’s easy to believe that Denzel as Don Pedro really does care for Beatrice and Emma Thompson is wonderful in tactfully and sweetly declining him. Superb acting all around.
But of course, what truly sparkles in this film is the brilliant chemistry between Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. They verbally spar and flirt and fall in love so convincingly and you fall in love with them. They bring Benedick and Beatrice to life and give them a real passion and yet also make them very sympathetic and they’re both just a joy to watch, either alone or together.
And thus ends the glowing review of Much Ado About Nothing. On Sunday, it’s time for another dose of crazy sauce with A Midsummer Night’s Dream.