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MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, Robert Sean Leonard, Michael Keaton, Kate Beckinsale
Director:  Kenneth Branagh
Audio:  Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  MGM
Features:  Original Trailer, Featurette
Length:  111 Minutes
Release Date:  January 7, 2003

“For man is a giddy thing...and this is my conclusion.”

Film ****

Some films you love with a deep, thorough love that comes from years of nurturing, exploration, and familiarity.  And some you love like that first momentous pre-teenage crush that you never get over.  Much Ado About Nothing has been like the latter for me for a decade.  I am still absolutely head over heels in love with this sunny, gorgeous take on Shakespeare.

When it was in theatres, I used to see it a couple of times a week after work, especially if I had a bad day.  Now, to my surprise, it has re-emerged on DVD just in time to revive me after one of my worst days on the job ever.  The timing was impeccable; no terrible day I’ve ever had has stood a chance against the lilting power of this movie.

Kenneth Branagh made a name for himself starring in and directing a modern version of Henry V, and he would go on to create the boldest screen vision of Hamlet ever filmed.  But in between, he kicked up a lark with his talent and tackled the supposedly “unfilmable” Bard’s comedy, and created a funny, romantic, and completely accessible movie.  You don’t have to love Shakespeare to love this film.

The title pretty much sums it up, but for way of better exposition:  Benedick (Branagh) and Beatrice (Thompson) have had nothing but scornful words for the other as long as they’ve been acquainted.  At the same time, Benedick’s comrade-in-arms Claudio (Leonard) has fallen for the lovely Hero (Becksinale, in her first movie role).  But while the Prince Don Pedro (Washington) is concocting a clever plan to bring the feuding Benedick and Beatrice together, his half brother Don John (Reeves) schemes to ruin the happy plans of Claudio and Hero.  Hearts are bared, broken, and set afire…but everything will be all right by the end, thanks to the help of a half-wit constable (the outrageous Keaton).

But a plot summary doesn’t do the film justice.  Reading the play is better, but it still won’t give you the magic of this beautiful production, nor the rhythm and timing of the witty dialogue as delivered by Branagh and his excellent cast, nor the feeling of elation you’ll have at the end, even though it is, after all, much ado about nothing.

The gorgeous scenery plays a part in that…the lush wine country makes a picturesque backdrop for such a romantic tale.  The music by Patrick Doyle is another plus…not only his score, but his setting of two of Shakespeare’s rhymes to music as well (the “Pardon Goddess” number is strikingly beautiful).  The courageous casting is also helpful.  Mixing Americans with Brits?  Why not?  Casting an African American in the role of an Italian prince?  If he’s as good as Denzel Washington, sure.  Give Michael Keaton some free reign to inject physical comedy into already funny situations?  No question.

Save the best parts for you and your (then) wife?  If you’re Kenneth Branagh, absolutely.  He and Emma Thompson have wonderful chemistry and deliver their lines with wit, feeling and utter conviction.  They were an attractive and talented couple, and I still find myself saddened by their break-up after all these years…I suppose the one dim spot in an otherwise tremendously uplifting movie going experience!

Much Ado About Nothing is perfectly simple, yet simply perfect in my book.  It may not get mentioned today in the same breath with a lot of other monumental cinematic Shakespearean adaptations, including a couple of Branagh’s own, but I defy anyone of any age or background to watch this movie and not fall under its spell. 

Video **1/2

I couldn’t tell any difference between this MGM offering and the one previously released by another studio now out of print.  This material looks mostly good, but given the shooting with natural and available light, probably difficult to transfer.  The brightly lit outdoor scenes are gorgeous, but the dimmer ones are occasionally murky with some loss of detail here and there.  Some images seem a tad softer than normal, though others have more sharpness and clarity.  Not quite a top notch presentation, but still serviceable enough.

Audio ***

The stereo surround track works well enough, with a mostly dialogue driven audio.  Patrick Doyle’s score gives it dynamic range and impact, and sounds quite lovely on DVD.  Those thundering horses’ hooves at the beginning come across well even without a .1 channel.

Features **

The disc contains a trailer and a short production featurette, as well as previews of other MGM titles.

Summary:

Much Ado About Nothing is a classic bit of Shakespeare turned into an ultimate romantic comedy of a film.  Filled with humor and romance, of heartache and happy ever after, this sure handed adaptation by Kenneth Branagh is just about as good as it can get.