Much Ado About Nothing - Movie Reviews - Rotten Tomatoes

Much Ado About Nothing Reviews

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Daniel Mumby
Super Reviewer
½ December 30, 2014
Back in November 2013, I wrote an article for WhatCulture! citing my ten favourite William Shakespeare adaptations. In justifying the inclusion of this film, I said that the conventions of Shakespeare's comedies "so often don't stand up on film", and that "to do justice to a Shakespeare comedy takes someone with great patience and boundless energy."

Eighteen months and one re-viewing later, my opinion of Much Ado About Nothing has scarsely changed. Kenneth Branagh's second directorial effort is a wonderful, joyous film, a bright, breezy and immensely accessible adaptation which sees him enjoying himself immensely both behind and in front of the camera. Having assembled a truly stellar cast, he gives us a witty and exuberant take on the story which blows away all the cobwebs, making it consummate viewing for both purists and newcomers.

Branagh's biggest success, as both an actor and a director, has been his ability to take the most complex aspects of language and emotion and make them intriguingly accessible. Great Shakespearean actors of the past, like Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud or Paul Schofield, were often regarded (rightly or wrongly) as insular elitists: they sought to preserve their centuries-old craft from modern tendences to misinterpret or embellish timeless art. Branagh, on the other hand, reveres Shakespeare while remaining self-deprecating, sometimes going so far as actively laughing at himself.

Had Branagh been the stuffy sort, he would have been content to sit behind the camera and channel his so-called megalomania into berating his actors, resulting in the most tediously well-behaved adaptation you could imagine. Instead, he casts himself as Benedick, a role which is founded on a lack of self-awareness, and whose actions prompt ridicule from both the other characters and the audience via dramatic irony. Rather than become self-conscious, Branagh finds great joy in playing the oaf, and in getting under the surface to show the genuine feelings, disguised by bluster, which underpin even the most foolish thoughts.

The biggest departure between this film and Branagh's equally brilliant take on Henry V is the visuals. With Henry V, Branagh very consciously wanted a more gritty and earthy look, showing the toil and pain that the characters go through and moving the text away from Olivier's Allied propaganda version from the 1940s. Because we're in more comedic territory, you wouldn't expect him simply to repeat himself, but he instead goes out of his way to lighten things up: the abundance of whites, golds and paler blues is in stark contrast to the mud of Agincourt and the deeper blues and reds of Henry's royal crest.

Branagh also employs a policy of long, fluid takes, something which he would take to its natural conclusion in Hamlet three years later. The key word here is 'fluid', since the movement of the camera contributes a great deal to the energy of a given scene. If the camera were static, locked-off in a specific place with characters wandering in and out, it would have instantly felt like a recorded stage play - what Alfred Hitchcock used to call "photographs of people talking". By having his camera follow and circle the actors, particularly during the renditions of 'Hey Nonny Nonny', Branagh keeps us in the midst of the action and puts us in the restless mindset of the characters.

Like many modern farces, Much Ado About Nothing derives most of its comedy from confusion, in this case from rumours being spread about the two couples at the centre of the action. It's a story which is rooted in dramatic irony, in which the audience's enjoyment comes from seeing the characters getting the wrong end of the stick, trying and failing to work things out and creating more havoc as they go. While a first-person Much Ado would make for an intriguing experiment, it's likely that being so close to the action would rob the audience of much of the story's enjoyment.

At the centre of Much Ado About Nothing is the theme of deceptive appearances. The vast majority of the characters are completely different on the surface to how they actually feel: of the protagonists, only Claudio and Hero - to borrow a phrase from Macbeth - have no serpents under their innocent flowers. Don Pedro's plan to bring Benedick and Beatrice together begins as more of a practical joke than anything with more noble intentions. But as the events unfold, these two characters grow to respect and admire each other in spite of whatever differences they had, or believed they had.

Shakespeare is making a comment here on the way that the different genders behave around each other in matters of courtship. He starts from a position where both characters are forthright, almost to extremes - Benedick with his cocky, chauvinistic boasting and Beatrice with her acid wit and low opinion of men. Both characters gradually open up and reveal their insecurities, which come to a head when Beatrice begs Benedick to kill Claudio. They do not entirely lose their nature in the process, but both become more comfortable with each other and their friends as a result of letting their true feelings be expressed without fear of reproach.

There has been some speculation about the relationship enjoyed by Benedick and Beatrice before the events of the play. The decision to interpret one way or the other seems to fall on Beatrice's line: "You always end with a jade's trick. I know you of old." Joss Whedon's recent version took this line and extrapolated the latter part, implying that Benedick and Beatrice had once been lovers. Branagh's interpretation is perhaps more faithful and traditional, using it to indicate that this is not the first time Beatrice would have beaten him in a battle of words.

Branagh's desire to keep the tempo up helps to energise the long soliloquys that both these characters enjoy. In a slower-paced outing, long periods of self-reflection such as these could drag the plot down and rob Shakespeare of his eloquence: part of his appeal is the way his characters conjure up great metaphors at speed, conveying depth without just sitting around, thinking long and hard about what to say. Branagh's monologue about being "horribly in love" is a splendid example; by treating it a stream of consciousness rather than anything more mannered, more of the character's soul and contradictions are revealed.

Even if you don't analyse the emotional turmoils of the central characters, Much Ado About Nothing still holds together as a farce. The title derives from 'noting', meaning overhearing gossip, which in Elizabethan England was pronounced the same as 'nothing'. Branagh captures just how easily people are swayed by what others think of them, turning authority into sources of ridicule for our amusement. But the graver misunderstandings still carry weight, keeping a moral centre to the film in amongst all the frivolity.

The ace in the hole with Branagh's Shakespeare films has always been the casting - not just the roster of impressive names, but his knack for surprising casting decisions which pay off enormously. His own performance as Benedick is brilliant, but it would be mostly in vain if he had not cast his then-wife Emma Thompson opposite him. Thompson strikes a perfect balance with Beatrice, retaining her playful, sunny aspects while keeping her as smart and as sharp as any of the men. The roots of her later resolve in Saving Mr Banks are all here in plain sight, waiting to be appreciated.

Branagh's choices for the supporting cast are equally inspired. Richard Briers is an excellent choice for Leonarto, his warm delivery working to his advantage in one of the more seasoned and wry roles of the play. Denzel Washington is a perfect choice for Don Pedro, making it all the more inexplicable that he has not done more Shakespeare, or more comedy. Casting Keanu Reeves as Don John was a massive gamble, even before he earned a reputation for being wooden, but his cold, clinical portrayal slots into proceedings very nicely. But no choice is more inspired than Michael Keaton as Dogberry. Having already demonstrated his comic potential in Beetlejuice, Keaton plays every line to its fullest and inhabits the part, creating what is probably its definitive portrayal.

Much Ado About Nothing is a majestic slice of cinematic joy which solidifies Branagh's reputation is a Shakespearean par excellence. While it is slightly too long and a trifle silly in places, its few off-kilter moments are more than counteracted by the beautiful visuals, inspired casting and the sheer level of enjoyment which is generated. In short, it explains the appeal of Shakespeare's sense of humour without resorting to any lectures, leaving us with buzzing brains and big smiles on our faces.
Super Reviewer
½ July 22, 2007
See this instead. The definitive version, the one where Thompson and Branagh sparkle with so much chemistry ... you know how when you hear a really good singer you like it so much you actually for a minute think you can sing too? Well, its like that kinda sparkle. And wit (that's Shakespeare's). And maybe the only film to make the Bard 100% comprehensible w/o having yer unemployed English Lit major friends 'splainin' every other line to you. And I think Micheal Keaton's great in this.
Super Reviewer
April 20, 2013
A total blast, it's an utterly delightful and wonderfully cheerful romantic-comedy that you will just fall in love with. A masterpiece. Director, Kenneth Branagh proves he is a true master of the interpretation of Shakespeare's work and has a wonderful all-star cast to back it up. It's extremely entertaining and tremendously enjoyable. The battle of the sexes has never been this much fun. Kenneth Branagh, Denzel Washington, Robert Sean Leonard, Michael Keaton, Kate Beckinsale, Emma Thompson and Keanu Reeves have sensational chemistry, they show great love and passion to the material and their characters, showing they are having a blast. Branagh and Thompson are excellent. Washington is magnificent. Leonard and Beckinsale are a revelation. Keaton is hilarious. A hilarious and heartfelt movie. A true classic. Shakespeare has never been this much fun. A real gem.
Super Reviewer
½ October 27, 2012
Really a good, heart-warming story. As usual, Keanu Reeves is awful. If you can't do an English accent, don't try! Thankfully, Keanu's role is minimal.
Super Reviewer
½ May 16, 2007
Branagh and Thompson carry the film and shine in their roles.
Super Reviewer
June 14, 2006
A wonderfully old-fashioned adaptation of one of William Shakespeare's comedies with a stellar cast. While it is hard to pick out someone, Michael Keaton is particularly awesome as confused constable. Of course drama, complications and evil plots ensue, but of course, since this is a comedy, justice will be done. In the ending it's all just singing, all dancing to Patrick Doyle's beautiful melodies. It shows that everyone had a lot of fun creating this in the gorgeous Tuscany landscape and that's infectious for an audience who can appreciate the old-fashioned dialogs and acting. Beautiful.
Super Reviewer
December 13, 2008
The love hate of Beatrice and Benedict was my favorite part, coupled with the enigmatic Denzel Washington.
Super Reviewer
November 18, 2009
I don't know what Keanu Reeves and Denzel Washington were doing in this movie, but they stuck out like sore thumbs. It's a "good" adaption, but certainly not special. When I think of the 60's Romeo and Juliet, that was memorable and a classic. This, not so much.
Super Reviewer
April 26, 2008
Good times with a great cast.
Super Reviewer
May 29, 2007
funny funny funny and emma thompson is GRREAT. plus, PATRICK DOYLE!
Super Reviewer
½ May 21, 2007
I really enjoyed this. Kenneth Branagh has always been good at bringing Shakespeare to the great unwashed masses, making it undertandable and entertaining. But it could have been better. What was KB smokin' when he decided casting Keanu Reeves was a good idea? Reeves is so bad in this that he distracted me from the other actors. Stick to hanging out with Bill and Morpheus, dude. The Bard is not your cup of tea.
sainttom93
Super Reviewer
January 14, 2007
Sterling cast great writing (hehehehe)
garyX
Super Reviewer
January 3, 2007
A cast of Hollywood stars attempt to garner some credibility by doing Shakespeare. A decent adaptation which depends entirely on your ability to stomach Shakespearian comedy. Which I can't.
Super Reviewer
March 23, 2006
I hope Branagh does every Shakespeare play before he's done. He really knows how to bring the plays to life. If you've had trouble understanding Shakespeare, let Branagh's adaptations help you see the beauty of the Bard.
Super Reviewer
January 27, 2012
Yep it is great Branagh. He and Emma Thompson really worked back in the day..before all that other stuff happened. Keanu Reeves impresses as the block of wood.
Robert B.
Super Reviewer
October 5, 2015
Much Ado About Nothing is a playful and naive adaptation. Emma Thompson's performance is the best in the cast, with the rest lacking her zest. The directing is mostly uncinematic, with poor outdoor lighting but does have a couple of nice shots and sequences. Overall, the film is light entertainment and not high art.
Super Reviewer
January 11, 2009
There are performances to like, but the whole film felt dry.
Super Reviewer
August 28, 2007
Faithful to the Bard's work but not really fresh. Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh have great chemistry though.
mingsysar
Super Reviewer
March 7, 2006
Hero and Claudio may be insipid, surprising from Beckinsale and Dr. House's best friend, but the play was never really about them. This is Beatrice and Benedick's, Thompson and Branagh's show, show and boy is it good!
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