Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #64

A romantic comedy for anyone
who’s ever been in love.

Country: UK & USA
Language: English
Runtime: 111 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 26th May 1993 (France)
UK Release: 27th August 1993
First Seen: VHS, c.1997

Stars
Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, Hamlet)
Emma Thompson (Howards End, Sense and Sensibility)
Kate Beckinsale (Underworld, Love & Friendship)
Robert Sean Leonard (Dead Poets Society, House)
Denzel Washington (Glory, Training Day)
Keanu Reeves (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, The Matrix)
Richard Briers (Watership Down, Hamlet)
Michael Keaton (Beetlejuice, Birdman)

Director
Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, Thor)

Screenwriter
Kenneth Branagh (In the Bleak Midwinter, The Magic Flute)

Based on
Much Ado About Nothing, a play by William Shakespeare.

The Story
When Don Pedro and his chums visit his friend Leonato at his villa in Sicily, they wind up arranging a marriage between Leonato’s daughter, Hero, and one of Don Pedro’s men, Claudio. To bide time until the nuptials, the happy friends attempt to reconcile argumentative pair Beatrice and Benedick — but Don Pedro’s good-for-nothing half-brother, Don John, plots revenge by ruining Hero’s reputation…

Our Heroes
The plot hinges on the romance of Claudio and Hero, and the machinations of Don John to disrupt it, but the central characters are Beatrice and Benedick and the witty verbal sparring that characterises their love-hate relationship.

Our Villains
Don John, the bastard. Because he’s an illegitimate son. But also because he tries to ruin someone’s wedding by faking infidelity, which isn’t exactly the nicest way to behave.

Best Supporting Character
Don Pedro, a prince who has just quashed an uprising by his duplicitous half-brother (see above), seems to be an inveterate matchmaker, first arranging Claudio’s marriage to Hero, then plotting to see Beatrice and Benedick coupled — despite quietly professing his own feelings for Beatrice.

Memorable Quote
“He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man. And he that is more than a youth is not for me, and he that is less than a man, I am not for him.” — Beatrice

Memorable Scene
The plan to dupe Beatrice and Benedick into loving each other in action: in the villa’s gardens, Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio ensure Benedick is eavesdropping while they stage a conversation about how much Beatrice loves him, and Hero and her maid Ursula do the same to Beatrice.

Letting the Side Down
I’ve always thought the scenes featuring Michael Keaton and Ben Elton hamming it up are a bit… broad.

Making of
The CliffsNotes on the play also cover this film, and notes that “the [opening] scene is cut by more than half, and yet the omissions are seamless to any viewer who has not memorized the lines or is not following the script. Branagh has omitted or cut to the bone several subsequent scenes and their lines, sometimes inserting in their place a visual scene that conveys the incident more dramatically than the words. At other times, he has cut lines and thinned out long speeches to keep the story moving and to eliminate unnecessary details.” Other major cuts are listed at the link.

Awards
Nominated for the Palme d’Or
1 BAFTA nomination (Costume Design)
1 Razzie nomination (Worst Supporting Actor (Keanu Reeves))

What the Critics Said
“Shakespeare’s comedies were always meant for the people […] the subject matter was low: sexual politics, power games, nasty betrayals, romantic deceptions and other quintessentially human activities. […] 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.” — Desson Howe, The Washington Post

Score: 91%

What the Public Say
“For those who don’t find Shakespeare’s comedies funny, this is the film to see, because it’s hilarious. It isn’t just the lines that create laughter, but the manner in which they’re set up and delivered. Expressions and actions often play a large part in the comedy, some of which is decidedly physical. These are the kinds of things that don’t appear on the written page. The film also contains its share of drama, and the pathos and poignancy come as easily and naturally as humor. […] I’m not sure if ‘feel good’ has ever been used to describe a picture based on the Bard’s work, but the expression fits.” — James Berardinelli, ReelViews

Verdict

There’s a lot of comedy in Shakespeare — not just in his Comedies, but scenes in his Tragedies too (even a pretty dark one like Macbeth sees the story put on pause to indulge in a comedic monologue). The problem is, to modern ears at least, it’s just not funny (that one in Macbeth is commonly cut). So it’s an even greater achievement that writer-director-star Kenneth Branagh here produced a film that was both accessible and genuinely funny. Combining intelligent cuts to the text with assured performances produces a film that, at its best, plays like a period screwball comedy. Consequently, it was that rare thing: a Shakespeare adaptation that became a box office success. That’s something worth making much ado about.

#65 is… number one. All others are number two, or lower.

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