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About the Film:  Much Ado About Nothing

By Jessica Elaine Ellison
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When Kenneth Branagh set out to make a film version of one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies, he was already riding the momentum from his critically acclaimed Henry V (1989). Although that film received two Oscar nominations, so-called “purist critics” were not as pleased with Branagh’s attempts to make the Shakespearean canon more accessible. With his subversive, earthy, anti-pretentious interpretations of the Bard, Branagh has aimed to deconstruct elitist readings of Shakespeare’s work and return them to the people. He furthers this goal with his lighthearted romp, Much Ado About Nothing (1993), which leans into the sensuous, over-the-top nature of the play while attending to some of its more insightful meditations on the nature of romantic relationships. The resulting mix is a story that, while not nearly as grave as Shakespeare’s tragedies or even the so-called “problem plays,” certainly goes beyond speaking “all mirth and no matter.”

Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing makes every effort to catch the viewer’s eye as it emphasizes romance, attraction, and interpersonal drama in the sunbathed Tuscan countryside. He makes a conscious choice not to go overboard on the Shakespearean-era costuming, opting for simpler options like loose-fitting dresses and rolled-up sleeves meant to convey a laid-back environment. The opening music is jaunty and bright, signaling that romance and hijinks are soon to follow. Branagh goes beyond just the setting and score however; he makes a number of other efforts to make the film accessible to the everyday viewer.

In addition to cutting down significantly on Shakespeare’s more complicated dialogue, Branagh made a conscious choice to cast American actors in many of the lead roles. This was done in an effort to subvert the normal trope of “wall-to-wall mellifluous” recitation typical of classical English theatre and bring a more naturalistic feel to the dialogue. He repeatedly said that he had wanted “a clash of acting styles” to draw attention

to the fact that there are numerous ways of interpreting Shakespeare. While the cast does boast some Shakespeare vets like Denzel Washington and Richard Briers, mainstream Hollywood faces like Keanu Reeves, Robert Sean Leonard, and Michael Keaton had had very little experience with the Bard up to that point. Some critics and Shakespeare scholars alike were aghast as Branagh had utterly disregarded the long-standing tradition of casting only classically trained English actors to perform Shakespeare.

Also in service of this emphasis on accessibility is Branagh’s dialogue, which is significantly trimmer than the original play. Denzel Washington, who plays Don Pedro in the film, highlights in an interview how Branagh focuses on the visual nature of filmmaking to tell much of the story: “It is a visual medium, so he’s relying on his actors to communicate things that maybe, on stage, had to be communicated verbally.” One example is Don John’s deception of Claudio, much of which takes place offstage in the play, but which is able to be shown visually in the film.

A naturalistic approach to the acting helps to put the sillier parts of the play in conversation with its thematic depth. In an interview ahead of the film’s premiere, Branagh discussed the timelessness of Much Ado About Nothing, and the ways in which the play continues to be relevant. While contemporary discussions about the film tend to emphasize its depiction of gender roles, Branagh dives into Shakespeare’s meditations on romance, contrasting the passion and fantasy of Hero and Claudio with the more grounded, hesitant romance between Benedick and Beatrice. Whereas the former has all the hallmarks of a storybook romance, it also has irrational fits of passion and love that too easily turns to disdain. “There’s a sort of object lesson about the dangers of that kind of passion,” Branagh notes. “I suppose Shakespeare kinda says ‘Well, so what do you want? Do you want the chocolates and romance or do you want something a little human?’” With a knowing twinkle in his eye, Branagh seems to imply that Shakespeare is arguing that while the former is more sensational, the latter is more sustainable.

The message of the play, however, seems to fall somewhere between those extremes. Beatrice and Benedick may be more level-headed than their moony-eyed counterparts, but their relentless equivocating and never-ending mirth double as tools that they use to keep each other at arm’s length. Had it not been for the optimistic meddling of their friends, they may have gone on forever sniping at each other for fear of being vulnerable. Shakespeare seems to be arguing for a blend of romance and reason. Just as Hero and Claudio would benefit from leveler heads and a stronger foundation in friendship, Benedick and Beatrice need permission to set aside their jests and surrender to their passions. Thankfully, even while depicting this dichotomy, Branagh leaves plenty of room for fun and laughter.

The tension between serious passion and love played as a game is especially visible in Branagh’s casting choices for the two main couples. Robert Sean Leonard (best known at the time for his sensitive and passionate character in the 1989 film Dead Poets Society) and Kate Beckinsale (a young ingenue herself at the time, only 18 years old) play the naive and innocent Claudio and Hero. Branagh and his then-wife Emma Thompson (both respected Shakespearean actors who had played opposite each other in at least four previous films) play their older, more seasoned counterparts. These casting choices not only represent a desire to challenge traditional Shakespearean casting practices, but also tap into the audience’s memories and cultural associations to reinforce the film’s key themes and invoke a sense of familiarity with the characters.