Sigh no more, ladies, sigh nor more;
Men were deceivers ever;
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never;
Then sigh not so,
But let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny;
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into hey nonny, nonny, nonny.
In two shrewdly commercial moves, director-actor Kenneth Branagh chose as his follow-up to the critically acclaimed Henry V (1989) the eminently accessible romantic comedy Much Ado About Nothing (1993). Second, he hedged his bets by integrating four established Hollywood stars into the usual mix of British talent. This latter strategy both helps and hurts, but overall the film is a jubilant and lushly romantic viewing experience.
MGM's Blu-ray, distributed by Fox, looks and sounds excellent, and the high-definition image enhances the experience as it brings out more subtle details in the actors' performances and the warm Italian scenery. The disc is light on extra features, however, and what little there is dates back to the original theatrical release.
Adapted from the c.1598 play, Much Ado About Nothing follows the burgeoning romance of two contrasting couples: Benedick (Kenneth Branagh) and Beatrice (Emma Thompson, then married to Branagh), and Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) and Hero (Kate Beckinsale). The play's clever title is generally lost on modern viewers, unaware Shakespeare was playing on the homophonic words "nothing" and "noting," the latter once defined as overheard rumor or gossip. And gossip is what drives Much Ado's plot and plotting. (For what it's worth, in Shakespeare's day, "'n othing" was reportedly also slang for "vagina.")
The film's bawdy, exuberant tone is established at once, first with Thompson superb reading of the poem above, followed by the arrival on charging horseback of Don Pedro (Denzel Washington) and his noblemen, including Benedick, Claudio, and Don Pedro's surly brother Don John (Keanu Reeves). They plan a month's stay at the spacious villa of Don Pedro's friend, Leonato of Messina (Richard Briers), the father of Hero and Beatrice's uncle.
Don Pedro learns of Claudio's love for Hero and arranges a marriage at a masked ball. The bitterly unhappy Don John, presumably out of jealously and an unstated interest in Hero himself, tries to screw up the match but fails and the wedding date is set. But then Don John plots to discredit Hero as an unfaithful woman and not the virginal beauty she appears. Meanwhile, Don Pedro himself playfully plots to bring Benedick and Beatrice together, despite their open contempt for one another.
The film is a delight from start to finish, alternately tender and lusty and so earnest that it's hard not to get swept up in its romanticism. Audiences experiencing Shakespeare for the first time with this film were probably surprised by the sexually charged opening scenes, where the entire cast rip off their clothes and en masse jump into various pools of water. In the featurette Branagh says he aspired toward a primeval sort of adaptation, one of "wine and bread and grapes and cheese." He achieved just that, especially the opening and closing scenes, which make great use of long Steadicam shots and which convey a positively joyous atmosphere.
It's also quite funny though Emma Thompson's sharp-tongued Beatrice gets more laughs than the play's most broadly comic character, malapropism-prone constable Dogberry. Michael Keaton's bizarre interpretation, while admirably no-holds-barred, is like watching his Batman co-star Jack Nicholson playing Fagin on crack. Thompson, conversely, imbues her character with unexpected and delicate humanity, the sadness and loneliness just behind the take-no-prisoners facade. Beatrice may say she "speak(s) all mirth and no matter," but Thompson gives her much, much more.
Both Denzel Washington and Robert Sean Leonard are excellent in their roles, the former exuding understated authority and nobility, and amused by his machinations involving Benedick. Leonard and Beckinsale, she in her film debut, are an irresistible pair and give their roles the intense emotion those parts require.
As one might expect, Keanu Reeves is a minor disaster - hammy and unconvincing as he almost always is. Perhaps Branagh thought the personality, rather than prose-driven role ("I am not a man of words," Don John says), suited the popular Reeves, but his limitations as an actor still stand out.
American ad art gave the British cast short shrift, with even Michael Keaton's smallish part awarded above-the-title billing while ignoring Beckinsale and Richard Briers (excellent), among others.
Video & Audio
Much Ado About Nothing is presented in its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio on a region "A" encoded 50GB dual-layered disc. The results are excellent, with the warm colors of the Italian locations and subtle details in the actor's performances coming through nicely. Audio is 2.0 Surround DTS-HD Master Audio, which more than adequately serves, among other things, Patrick Doyle's lovely score. (However, reader "Antony" points out that the audio is "actually just a DTS 2.0 256kbps track rather than the 2.0 DTS HD MA track [that] the cover and menu list.") Spanish and French Dolby Surround tracks are also available, while on my bought-in-Japan PlayStation 3, the disc defaulted to Japanese subtitle options (on the film only, not the extra features). English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles are also available.
Sadly, these are limited to a barely six-minute vintage featurette in standard-def 525p that at least offers sound bites from most of the cast, and a trailer in high-definition that tries hard to make a difficult sale.
Probably the most completely satisfying of Branagh's five Shakespeare movies to date (Henry V and Hamlet come close, however), Much Ado About Nothing is a terrific film, very accessible and just short of perfection. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's audio commentary for AnimEigo's Tora-san, a DVD boxed set, is on sale now.