MOVIE REVIEWS : Star-Powered Lovers in ‘Ado’
Actors as well as athletes have a prime of life, a time when everything they touch seems a miracle. And the crowning pleasure of watching Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh in this rollicking version of “Much Ado About Nothing” (selected theaters) is the way it allows us to share in that state of special grace, to watch the English-speaking world’s reigning acting couple perform at the top of their game.
Directed by Branagh and adapted by him from Shakespeare’s antic comedy, “Much Ado” is a merry yet pointed tale of lovers at cross-purposes, of the misunderstandings that can divide them and the true emotion that must inevitably deposit them in each other’s arms by the close.
And in Beatrice and Benedick Shakespeare created perhaps his most pleasing couple, a verbally energetic pair whose sarcastic, mock disdainful exchanges make up what a dazzled onlooker calls “a kind of merry war.” Thompson (who won this year’s best actress Oscar for “Howards End”) and Branagh must have been dying to take on these reluctant suitors, and seeing them beautifully play off each other is an enormous pleasure for lovers of the romance of language as well as fanciers of romantic love.
These two not only animate characters who are drunk on words, they so understand the spirit of Shakespeare’s witty, effervescent dialogue they’ve in effect passed their passion onto the rest of the cast. While actors such as Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, Robert Sean Leonard and Michael Keaton were not necessarily cast because of their extensive Shakespearean backgrounds, they all perform as if handling Elizabethan English was one of the things they do best.
And their familiar presence strengthens what must have been one of Branagh’s main aims with this production, to make a Shakespearean movie that was loose, accessible and high spirited. He’s not only slimmed down the play, he’s directed it at a breathless pace, giving all the scenes, from the comic and romantic to the strictly dramatic, what he himself calls a “high-octane approach.” The result is a model of popular Shakespeare, audience-friendly without even a note of condescension.
Branagh’s playful approach begins with the very first scene (casually lifted from the play’s second act), with the words Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more, men were deceivers ever appearing in large print on the screen as Beatrice (clothed like the rest of the cast in an almost timeless costume) recites them with gleeful conviction.
No sooner are the words out of her mouth than news comes that Don Pedro, Prince of Arragon (a properly steely and commanding Washington), and his entire victorious army are about to pay a visit to Leonato, governor of Messina (veteran British actor Richard Briers). Leonato is not only Beatrice’s uncle but also the father of another very beautiful, if more demure and conventional young woman, Hero (newcomer Kate Beckinsale).
And, to nicely balance things, a posse of handsome young men comes riding in with Don Pedro. Of course there is Benedick, of whom Beatrice has already archly asked, “How many hath he killed in these wars? For indeed I promised to eat all his killings.” But there is also the dark and sullen Don John (an effective Reeves), the prince’s bastard half-brother, and the starry-eyed Claudio (“Dead Poets Society’s” Leonard), a passionate if somewhat gullible gentleman who immediately has eyes only for Hero.
While these two moon at each other, Beatrice and Benedick pick up where they left off the last time they met. “What, my dear Lady Disdain!” he exclaims. “Are you yet living?” And she snaps right back, “Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signor Benedick?”
The rest of the company is so bemused by their spirited bickering that Don Pedro, declaring it to be the equal of the labors of Hercules, decides to put together a plot to get these two to fall in love. How he does this is the comic heart of “Much Ado” and also an adroit commentary on the connections between love, self-love and self-deception.
But “Much Ado” is as concerned with the young and idyllic lovers Claudio and Hero as it is with this older, pricklier pair. Their romance, which starts out carefree, soon runs into the destructive machinations of Don John, and for a while things look very dark for all concerned. And dark they might well have stayed except for the efforts of the scraggliest of heroes, Dogberry, the intrepid constable of the watch.
One of Shakespeare’s classic comic roles, Dogberry, the master mangler of the English language (“comparisons are odorous” is a favorite saying), proves an excellent fit for Keaton. Whether scrunching up his face into an impossible pretzel or prancing away on an imaginary horse, his Dogberry is a treat, capturing the spirit of the character and the play.
The same obviously must be said for filmmaker Branagh, who first tackled Shakespeare on the screen with 1989’s “Henry V.” An intuitively cinematic director as well as a master actor, he makes excellent use of the film’s setting, a rambling 14th-Century Italian compound called Villa Vignamaggio. Though his work has been flashier in the past (“Dead Again”), the unobtrusive style he adopts here suits the actor-intensive nature of this material. And in making sure all the performances, especially Thompson’s thoroughly delightful one, are well-served, Branagh ends up serving himself best of all.
‘Much Ado About Nothing’ Kenneth Branagh: Benedick Michael Keaton: Dogberry Robert Sean Leonard: Claudio Keanu Reeves: Don John Emma Thompson: Beatrice Denzel Washington: Don Pedro A Renaissance Films production in association with American Playhouse Theatrical Films, released by the Samuel Goldwyn Company. Director Kenneth Branagh. Producers Stephen Evans, David Parfitt, Kenneth Branagh. Adapted by Kenneth Branagh from the play by William Shakespeare. Cinematographer Roger Lanser. Editor Andrew Marcus. Costumes Phyllis Dalton. Music Patrick Doyle. Production design Tim Harvey. Art director Martin Childs. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes.
MPAA-rated PG-13 (momentary sensuality).
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