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‘Much Ado About Nothing’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 21, 1993

Shakespear's comedies were always meant for the people. Sure, there was all that timeless, pristine poetry many of us would be force-fed centuries later. But the subject matter was low: sexual politics, power games, nasty betrayals, romantic deceptions and other quintessentially human activities.

And with the Elizabethan custom of male actors playing women's roles, the comedy never strayed far from drag-queen implications. Lines uttered by "female" characters attained double, often triple, entendres. Maybe these plays were classics of the future, but they were the Benny Hill of their time.

With "Much Ado About Nothing," Kenneth Branagh has, once again, blown away the forbidding academic dust and found a funny retro-essence for the '90s. His spirited take on the Sicily-set comedy is enjoyable, primarily for its all-embracing attitude. It breathes modern life into old expressions like "fare thee well" and "by my troth," and it welcomes nontraditional New Worlders Denzel Washington, Robert Sean Leonard, Michael Keaton and Keanu Reeves into the traditionally British throng.

To make explanatory Ado about the plot, Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon (Denzel Washington), and his lieutenants, including bastard-brother Don John (Reeves), Florentine lord Claudio (Leonard) and Pauduan lord Benedick (Branagh), ride into the villa of Governor Leonato (Richard Briers) for a respite from war. The women (real women, that is), including the governor's comely, unmarried daughter Hero (Kate Beckinsale) and niece Beatrice (Emma Thompson), observe the soldiers with excited anticipation. It's time for shenanigans, including two romances, one backstairs liaison, one act of jealous treachery, several levels of deception and seedy comic relief from Michael Keaton -- essentially playing an Elizabethan Beetlejuice.

Director Branagh, who altered the play imaginatively for the screen, gives wonderful import to this silliness from long ago. (And if one American tongue, methinks, doth reveal its roots in the "Bill & Ted" adventures, it detracteth not from the playful, witty spirit of the original.) Though Branagh transmogrifies the play for the modern, box-office light, he and real-life wife Thompson are keepers of the poetic flame. Their classically trained performances -- particularly their romantic screwball jousting and Thompson's enticing reading of Balthasar's song of Act II -- ensure that, if anything goes, all is not forgotten.

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