For years a nasty rumor persisted in Hollywood that Shakespeare on film was box office poison. This misunderstanding had been predicated on decades of painfully literate adaptations of the Bard's work on celluloid, most stilted in their overt theatricality and even more unattractively strapped by modest budgets that precluded an absolute visualization of all the pageantry and spectacle as Shakespeare himself might have envisioned if he had access to film equipment back in the day. In its heyday Hollywood had embraced extravaganzas like Max Reinhardt’s 1935 lavish adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and George Cukor’s monumentally spectacular, Romeo and Juliet. But after the war, American cinema increasingly preferred reality over spectacle and Shakespeare – with its already stylized soliloquys – became hopelessly out of date and decidedly out of fashion – at least on film.
There was, however, one exception – the British-made Hamlet (1948) for which Laurence Olivier won Best Actor and the film Best Picture. Yet this was an unqualified exception to the rule. It hardly grew the market share for more of the same. Again, a minor and very brief renaissance occurred, this time during the late 1960s and fueled by Franco Zeffirelli’s sexually explicit retelling of Romeo and Juliet (1968), starring Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting, actors very much closer in age – if not thespian skills - to Shakespeare’s envisioned teenage protagonists. But again, with studio cost-cutting and contemporary storytelling more the norm, Shakespeare was marginalized on celluloid as a niche market, and a not terribly profitable one at that.
Then along came Kenneth Branagh – a remote and untried figure in American cinema, but classically trained and in tune not only with the works of William Shakespeare but also about what the camera could do for the Bard’s plays. This time, the Shakespearean renaissance on film would endure. In fact, it would see out two decades of spectacular productions; heartily visually robust – in short, exemplars of Shakespeare on celluloid that will likely endure for many generations yet to follow. Branagh, of course, was a trained stage actor of some repute in his native England.
But his success in the film adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry V, shocked almost everyone – audiences and critics alike. Moreover, the film’s profitability convinced the Samuel Goldwyn Company to push ahead with another of Branagh's proposed projects – Much Ado About Nothing (1993). Shakespearean comedies have frequently been a tough nut to crack on film; the bard’s words, though clever and ever-lasting, somehow translating too highbrow for the average movie goer to appreciate. Without the prerequisite promise of grand action (sword fights, duels, jousts, et al) or the hint of some grander deceptions as a prelude to tragedy (for which today’s movie culture has increasingly embraced a self-destructive cynicism run amuck), a Shakespearean comedy was – and is – a very delicate cakewalk fraught with overwhelming possibilities for both artistic and financial failure.
Yet how succinctly Branagh acquits himself in Much Ado About Nothing; and how deftly he exercises a renewed vim and vigor for the bard’s bawdy interplay; revealing its flirtatious and titillating dialogue rife with the possibilities of heightened and highly sexualized tension. Under Branagh’s direction, Much Ado About Nothing emerges as a lusty, provocative yet intoxicatingly lithe confection with a sass that appeals to the contemporary without betraying its time-honored roots. Part of the film’s success undoubtedly rests in the rich and absorbing backdrop of Tuscany looking more ravishing than ever, with its sprawling cultured gardens and vineyards dotting the rolling hillside. Yet Branagh boldly resists the urge to transform the play into a travelogue. The locations are always in service to the story. To quote the bard – “the play’s the thing” – and Branagh has taken great pains to extol every last innuendo and nuance from Shakespeare’s quill with an intuitive aplomb and natural appreciation for generating a thriving symbiosis between the play’s text and the art of creating great cinema. Drawing on an international cast of established stars and up and comers, Branagh weaves Shakespeare’s miraculous words into a masterful filmic experience that preserves yet alters the concept of Shakespeare on film forever and very much all to the good.
The tale concerns the pending nuptials between winsome, virginal Hero (Kate Beckinsale) and military soldier, Claudio (Sean Patrick Leonard). Fronted by the intellectual Don Pedro of Aragon (Denzel Washington) and playfully arrogant Benedick (Branagh), Claudio is goaded by both as to what he may expect from married life – ribald advice from worldly men indeed, since neither Pedro or Ben’ are with wife themselves as yet. Ben’ at least has a prospect in the feisty and rather feministic eldest daughter to the manor born, Beatrice (Emma Thompson) who is quick to see right through her would-be lover’s façade and straight into his rancid little heart.
These two fiery personalities tear at one another like a pair of wildcats, each refusing to budge an inch in their expectations of the ideal mate. Meanwhile, plans for Hero’s lavish wedding commence. But a fly in the ointment appears with Don John (Keanu Reeves) who conspires to lead Claudio into believing that Hero has been unfaithful to him. Yet, the film is, as the title predicts ‘much ado about nothing.’ There is no basis to the rumor. Although Claudio takes temporary leave of his senses and doubts the fidelity of his beloved in the end their wedding caps off an otherwise pleasant comedy of errors.
Not all is right with this production. Keanu Reeves is a wooden Don John – appearing at times to be reading his lines from cue cards placed just out of camera range. Michael Keaton is an ill-advised choice as well – lacking the classical training to pull off his farce as the local drunkard, Dogberry. Kate Beckinsale and Sean Patrick Leonard receipt some of their lines as though trying out for the high school play, but on the whole their lack of experience translates into a genuine innocence and fragility that bodes well with their character’s plight as conflicted newlyweds.
But Emma Thompson is a revelation – a gutsy, seemingly sly viper, with an unexpectedly gooey sweetheart’s center. Her sparing with Branagh’s Benedick generates seductive sparks of agitated sexuality on the brink of succumbing to some grander scheme of romance. Thompson and Branagh were married in real life at the time, and this backstage relationship – with its counterbalance of temperaments geared toward the competitive – bodes exceptionally well for their on screen characters. And Branagh, apart from directing, has great good fun as the devil-may-care seducer with a proclivity for self-delusion and denial of his own affections for Beatrice.
As I said before, Much Ado About Nothing is not a perfect film - but so much of it sparkles with a tender tang as freshly squeezed as from the grapes from those Tuscan vineyards, that one can easily forgive and even forget the film’s shortcomings; eclipsed by the bountiful riches supplied by its supporting cast. It goes without saying that most, if not all of the bit players have been plucked from a roster of seasoned pros who never fail to live up to our expectations for fine Shakespearean readings. The real revelation is undeniably Denzel Washington, who offers us a luxuriously sly cunning as Don Pedro. He oozes sex appeal, not readily a trait of the play's Don Pedro, but so right for this film version, and as the voice of experience in matters of heterosexual love making, finds the heart and soul in the Hero/Claudio relationship that salvages them both from making a catastrophic mistake.
Much Ado About Nothing remains fresh and timeless. Branagh’s break with conventional staging ‘opens up’ the play with lavish sets and some truly breathtaking Tuscan scenery. Roger Lanser's cinematography whirls around the action, capturing the robust pleasures of a lusty people with romanticized visual flair. Patrick Doyle's melodic underscoring celebrates both the pageantry and decadence of these wantonly aloof country folk who don't mind an occasionally roll in and out of the hayloft. Together, these talents resurrect the passion, the fire, and yes – the comedy - of the play for contemporary audiences.
Regrettably Sony Home Entertainment no longer owns the rights to Much Ado About Nothing – a film originally produced and released under the Columbia Classics banner. In the interim, MGM has assumed distribution for DVD reissues. And so it is, with this latest Blu-ray offering that Fox/MGM now gives us what ought to have been a stunningly handsome visual experience in a thoroughly pedestrian transfer marred by the studio's laziness to rescan the original film elements. What we get instead is a 1080p transfer derived from tired 720p digital files. This has become something of a sporadic practice in the industry, but a downright habit with MGM/Fox who believe the consumer will not notice the difference. Bad assumption. Flawed methodology. Really bad business practice. And the results are predictable.
Colors are far from fully saturated. Although still marginally ahead of the DVD in their overall fidelity, what we get is a rather washed out image. The Blu-ray format allows for an overall tightening, but this effort is well below par. Fine detail ever so slightly improves. Age related artifacts that ought to be a non-issue are regrettably present throughout, as is some minor edge enhancement. Obviously, Fox never bothered to go back to original camera negatives but relied on a print master instead. Dumb! Really dumb! And predictably, film grain is not very naturally reproduced. If you already own the DVD this Blu-ray is hardly worth a repurchase. The audio is 5.1 DTS and adequate, but extras remain limited to that same old vintage 'making of' featurette looking even more careworn and out of date herein. Bottom line: unacceptable!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)