Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"Much Ado About Nothing" - one of my all-time favorites

For some time, Kenneth Branagh got the "golden calf" treatment. Men and women everywhere worshiped him as the greatest contribution to film in a decade. Many trumpeted him as the person who was single-handedly reviving Shakespeare for the 90s (and uneducated Americans).

Others adored his good looks. And many felt that he was the next Lawrence Olivier, for obvious reasons (great Shakespearean films, good looks, quality acting).

But like the American obsession with Australia in the 1980's, that star has faded. The man is undoubtedly skilled, but some folks confused remarkable talent with perfection, and KB is certainly not perfection. Why do I feel less impressed than before?

I'll take 4 sentences to expound: KB was dating Helena Bonham Carter (who wouldn't?) long before divorcing Emma Thompson (big no-no). He directed and starred in the vomitous "Frankenstein" with DeNiro (I need Mylanta just thinking of it). And he created an awful 4-hour "Hamlet" that made Mel Gibson's the best film version in my generation. These sins stand beside his "Wild Wild West" atrocities - urp, that did it, I need a bucket...

Ok, I'm back - I brushed and gargled - and finally getting to the bloody review. Though I feel KB is way over-rated, 1993's "Much Ado About Nothing" IS just about perfect. It's not hard to see why he was heralded as the second coming of William S : the scenery is magnificent, the score pulls you in, the casting shows inspired choices and letter-perfect acting (save one "dude").

To me, this may be the last good thing Branagh directed. I love love love this movie, got the DVD as soon as I could, and watch it less often than presidents are elected. It will never get old for me, and I'm willing to help that by watching on special occasions only.

The plot of Shakespeare's comedy, in brief: Claudio returns from war, with his comrades. He proposes to Hero, possibly the hottest girl ever. Everyone is friendly, welcoming, the women of the town happy to talk to brave, single, men... But Benedick (Branagh) and Beatrice (Thompson) get into verbal brawls all the time. Upon learning that B & B were intimate, everyone conspires to make them fall madly in love.

Some things go right, some things go wrong, some things go right again. It's funny, romantic, and dramatic (in the best way).

Every year, thousands of high school students struggle as they read Shakespeare for the first time. Some think it's dumb, some dull, others think it's cool... But most have trouble connecting with the words, despite footnotes. If they're lucky, they have teachers that stress this vital fact: plays are supposed to be seen, not read - much less read by distracted kids in a hormonal and emotional crisis.

Of course, plays are written to be performed, not read; for old plays, the necessity is even greater. One reason is that it's hard to imagine the entire content of a play in one's mind; only the location and players for each scene are conveyed outside of dialogue. And [Scene IV, airport lavatory, enter Senator Craig and Undercover Cop] gets your imagination going way more than examples from real plays.

More importantly, the work of a skilled actor can convey the meaning of words faster and better than a footnote, especially unfamiliar words. Stopping to read "Bodkin: a dagger" is both dry and pulls you out of the story. Movies are often taken to be as poor a substitute for reading as for going to plays - this flick is certainly an exception.

The entire film was shot in Italy's Tuscany region, in places with names like "Chianti" and "Florence." Every single shot shows achingly-beautiful gardens, a castle, old cobble-stoned european towns, beautiful skies. The camera work captures it all to impressive effect.

The shots run the gamut: long- and mid-range, overhead, tracking, closeups. A singing scene at the end is one long shot. Your eyes practically thank you for watching this movie. Seeing Italy was one of my major goals, and this began it for me.

The music matches the movie perfectly - especially effective is the recurring theme wrapped into much of the film. It's pretty and catchy. The score helps carry the words so well; and, taken together with the scenery, really casts a spell over the audience. The character's hearts swell, the music follows, and you can't help but feel happier with them.

The music becomes playful as a prank is played, or dark as some betrayal is carried out. The score is not only delightful and emotionally-arresting, it helps you decipher the language that much faster. I think the second time you hear the opening song, you might want to sing it too. "Hey, nonny, nonny!"

The cast is both dead-on and surprising (save the "dude"). Brian Blessed (to me, "the man with the big face," or "Pavarotti II") and Richard Briers are obvious choices (as Antonio and Leonato, respectively) - they are such mainstays of modern Shakespeare that you can almost overlook them. For these seasoned folks, Shakespeare must be as natural as breathing.

Margaret is played by Imelda Staunton, known now as the evil female teacher in the Harry Potter films; she's always solid and very comfortable with 1600's blank verse. For Kate Beckinsale, this is her first film - as Hero, she's the "perfect, inside and out" young woman at the heart of it all... If her looks stand out more than her acting, it's only because her beauty is impossible to ignore.

But the surprises come from across the Atlantic: Someone chose to put Denzel Washington and Michael Keaton (I kid you not) in featured roles. Their performances fit the movie like a glove. I often feel bad for Americans tapped for all-British productions of the UK's great writers - do the Brits talk down to them, ask them if they've ever heard of Shakespeare?

Here we have the blindingly-charismatic Denzel in something unlike any of his prior roles. As the prince, Don Pedro, he's utterly calm and regal; he conveys the bearing of high nobility and smoothly delivers dialogue we've never heard from him before. Meanwhile, Michael Keaton - former comedian/everyman/Batman - carries the role of the filthy fool without a flaw in performance or accent; every single joke he's given hits, and hits well. When I saw MK in this, I thought I'd stepped into a parallel dimension - an incredibly funny parallel dimension.

The only sour note comes from the villain of the play: the prince's brother, Don John, played by Keanu Reeves. I've come to like Keanu in the last decade - an opposite to my feelings for Branagh - but that came via two consecutive movies that (a) each amazed me well beyond my expectations, and (b) both showed Keanu die (I cheered each time).

Those films prepared me to give him a second chance. Here, he does everything that bothered me before - leaden voice, "heavy" moods that don't excite anything in the character or audience, a dead delivery that adds little to his scenes. This is the "duuuuuuude" that I never thought much of until 1999 and after. That he's supposed to be Denzel Washington's brother is the least in-credible thing about his performance. Still, old not-good Keanu can't stop the show, only slow it down a little.

This movie is great for a laugh, great for edutainment, and great for romantics born in any century. Watch this movie, whether you see it with a date or not. I promise you'll feel happier and lighter for doing so, even if you don't have anyone to press up against (during or after).

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review! I've seen this movie probably 5 times since my 13th birthday -- I just love it, especially the music and scenery, and the Michael Keaton character. This should be every middle- and high-schooler's introduction to Shakespeare; an overboard romantic story sprinkled with tragic or wince-worthy misunderstandings but also with comic relief, characters you care about, and a happy ending, and delivered in such a way that the changes in English vernacular since its writing don't distract from the telling of the tale. ~RS


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