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REVIEW: In the countryside village of Messina, Don Pedro of Aragon (Denzel Washington) brings his top advisors and noblemen for a rest at his good friend Leonato’s (Richard Briers) estate, where he welcomes them with open arms, along with the happy people of the town. Don Pedro’s men are weary after suppressing a revolt, led by Don John (Keanu Reeves), Pedro’s half-brother, whom they have captured and brought with them.
Also with Pedro is his good friend and counsel, Benedick (Kenneth Branagh) a sharp-tongued, sardonic man infatuated with Leona’s niece Beatrice (Emma Thompson), who is his equal in every way, though both are fiercely independent and proud, neither able to admit to their affections for each other. Then there is Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard), the young Count in service to Pedro who is in love with Leonato’s daughter, the fair Hero (Kate Beckinsale), who is as enamored with Claudio as he is with her, an affection they shared long before the war. Pedro, upon hearing of their love, arranges with Leonato for a match and a wedding, to which all agree. As a sort of challenge as they await the nuptials, they also scheme to bring together Benedick and Beatrice, a task wrought with comedy as the two foes condemn anything and everything that defines the other. Meanwhile, Don John, who has coyly won back the favor of Pedro, is told by his supporters of the planned wedding of Claudio and Hero. In an effort to shame his half-brother and block the couple’s chances, he set in motion a ruinous plan that will lead Claudio to believe his love has betrayed him.
Adapted for the screen and directed by Branagh, this lighthearted romp retains the Shakespearian language while keeping it accessible for modern audiences, allowing much of the action to carry the story. A romantic farce that, at it’s core is deeply romantic, Branagh never lets it get heavy or overly-dramatic. The cast is mostly great, with Branagh and Thompson, who were married at the time, a joy to watch as they trade delicious barbs with each other, expressing a superficial distaste that barely conceals the passion they secretly harbor. The poetic prose is sometimes indiscernible, as this period’s language can often be, but the intent and context is vividly clear. Leonard and Beckinsale (in her screen debut) are also charming and make for a perfect pair. It is really only Reeves who comes up short, not quite believable in the story’s century, much like he was in Dangerous Liaisons (1988). Michael Keaton show ups as Dogberry, the local constable, and bends but doesn’t break the tone of the film, hamming it up to a point that some might find off-putting, but is rather inspired. While not the best of the Branagh Shakespeare films, Much Ado about Nothing is a fun, satisfying little tale that is sure to please.
Scene Setup: At a masquerade party to celebrate the coming wedding of Claudio and Hero, Don Pedro, Leonato and Claudio among others, recognize that Beatrice and Benedick are meant to be together but are to stubborn to admit it, and so, concoct a plan to bring the two into each others arms. They decide that rumors are the best weapon and two teams are formed, one of men and the other of women, each with designs on their respective targets to woo them into the other.
That Moment: Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio conspire in the villa courtyard by the fountain as a mistral (performed by composer Patrick Doyle) plays a tune, luring Benedick near. He lingers near a hedgerow as the song concludes and the three begin to set the snare. Pedro begins, with a loud voice, seemingly (pretending to be) surprised by the news that Leonato’s niece Beatrice is in love with Benedick. The first sentence topples Benedick in his hiding place, shocked by the admission. The three men continue, spinning an ever-widening story of how the lovelorn Beatrice longs eternally for the embrace of Benedick to which the spying Benedick can hardly believe, but believe he does and the trap is set.
The moment is a perfect example of the tone and promise of the film, with even a fourth wall break by Benedick who spins to the camera at the news, seemingly wanting to share his shock with us. This moment also includes some physical comedy by Branagh that could easily have crossed a line but instead is so perfectly timed, it makes for probably the funniest bit in the entire film. The fun really comes from how well we can identify with poor Benedick and how perceptive Shakespeare was in understanding the ease in which one can be fooled with matters of the heart. Benedick truly loves Beatrice and yet his reputation forbids him the “weakness” in admitting it until he learns that she loves him and then the walls come tumbling down. They crumble with such excess he exalts in cheer and gleefully dances in a pool of water. The burden of being him is lifted and it frees him to find joy in the wonder of reciprocated adoration. That is the heart of this story.