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‘Much Ado About Nothing’ (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 21, 1993

At the beginning of Kenneth Branagh's resoundingly average film adaptation of Shakespeare's bitchy comedy "Much Ado About Nothing," the Tuscan sun is high and golden and the residents staying at the villa belonging to the esteemed Don Leonato are scattered among the grapevines growing over a dusty hillside.

While they jostle and cavort, these lusty wenches and lads look very much like what they are: a gang of pale-cheeked, thin-lipped British actors trying to figure out what this "thing," the sun, is. Robust and sensuous are what they're supposed to be, but perhaps it's difficult to project an air of earthiness when you're covered from head to toe with a good two inches of bronzer.

Branagh's production of this prototypical screwball comedy is so English. In a sense, it's an Elizabethan version of "Peter's Friends," a deadly dull British upper-crust comedy in which he and his wife (Emma Thompson, who plays Beatrice here) recently starred. People bicker and play word games with each other to hide their true feelings, just like you and me, and yet absolutely nothing is at stake.

Perhaps Branagh wanted to show how similar Shakespeare's work was to modern comedy of manners. But what he's done instead is demonstrate how, in the wrong hands, even Shakespeare can be trivialized and reduced to chatter.

Branagh's adaptation is designed for maximum accessibility. It's a "Shakespeare's Greatest Hits" production -- broad and unintimidating and easy on the eyes. There are lots of stars and lots of jokes, and the surrounding Italian countryside is sumptuously beautiful. There is nothing wrong with any of this, of course, except that, somehow, the movie feels insubstantial and uninspired.

Branagh doesn't seem to have connected very deeply with his material. Directing "Henry V," he made a lesser play appear more resonant and significant. He found more to the play than most thought was there. Here, he makes the play seem less than it is.

As the lovers sort out their tangled relationships, the emphasis is on jolly high spirits, as if Branagh had intended to give his audience a mini-vacation. Still cavorting, these good people of Messina are informed that Don Pedro (Denzel Washington) and his strapping force of soldiers are coming to visit. Immediately, the whole crew heads for the house to prepare themselves. And, yes, your senses quicken in response to all this bustle and fuss. Branagh sends his camera scampering in and out of doors, into bedrooms and the communal showers as the women tend to their toilette and slip into their dinner frocks, and into the kitchen as the evening meal is prepared.

And yet long after Don Pedro and his men have arrived, Branagh still hasn't hooked us into his story. In "Much Ado," this actor-director Wunderkind doesn't do what he did in his brimming debut "Henry V." He doesn't capture our attention immediately with his brilliant stagecraft. Instead, his direction is unfocused and distracted. Perhaps it was the absence of a strong central character that threw him, but Orson Welles, the man to whom Branagh is so often compared, never had this problem.

As the actors start to sketch in their characters, a goodly number of romantic intrigues begin to take shape. Don Pedro's half brother, Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard), it seems, has a crush on their host's bounteously virginal young daughter, Hero (Kate Beckinsale), and asks Don Pedro to woo her on his behalf.

Meanwhile, Beatrice (Thompson) carries on her usual acid-laced dialogue with Benedick (Branagh), whom she says she wouldn't marry if he were the last man on Earth. The verbal swordplay between Benedick and the prickly witted Beatrice is supposed to be the jewel at the center of the play. It's in these speeches that Shakespeare distills to their essence his feelings about romantic love, men, women and the possibilities of the two sexes living together in conjugal happiness. It also features the film's marquee couple, and though it looks as if they're having a fine old time, mugging and grimacing and hurling insults at each other, their work together is completely sexless and superficial.

All the performances, in fact, seem a bit distant, both from the audience and one another. As Don Pedro, Washington handles the verse nicely and looks suitably noble (except for the unfortunate ear-to-ear grin that spreads across his face at the most inappropriate times). As Don John, Don Pedro's other half brother (and archenemy), Keanu Reeves is a surly brat with a chip on his shoulder. Reeves plays him as if his face were frozen into a perpetual sulk.

Then there's Michael Keaton, who as Dogberry, the "constable of the watch," merely recycles his performance from "Beetlejuice," and in so doing manages to be unfunny, incomprehensible and out of period. Leonard as Claudio comes across as kind of moonstruck and droopy.

All the emphasis seems to have gone into making a movie about which the director-star could say, "Look, see how much fun Shakespeare is?" As a result, the film works moderately well as modest light entertainment. But after "Henry V," we had every reason to expect more from Branagh than Shakespeare dumbed down for the masses.

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