Shakespeare in the Sun

Much Ado About Nothing

a film by Kenneth Branagh

Much Ado About Nothing the Movie by

by William Shakespeare, Screenplay, Introduction, and Notes on the Making of Kenneth Branagh, photographs by Clive Coote
Norton, 131 pp., $14.00 (paper)

Much Ado About Nothing (1598) is one of the most resolutely urban of Shakespeare’s comedies. The house of Leonato, Governor of Messina, stands in a Sicilian city of churches, law courts, and jails, where crowded streets as well as private dwellings need to be patrolled and kept quiet at night—however inefficiently—by Constable Dogberry and his shambling subordinates. Although Leonato’s town house, like that of his brother Antonio, is grand enough to boast a spacious garden, in which some of the action takes place, no one in this play ever escapes to the equivalent of As You Like It’s Forest of Arden, the wood near Athens of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or even Petruchio’s country estate in The Taming of the Shrew. Outside the tightly knit family world of Leonato’s Messina, but never visited in the play, there seem to be only that unidentified battlefield on which Don Pedro, Prince of Arragon, has just defeated his bastard brother, the vicious and disaffected Don John, and those Italian cities in which Leonato’s other aristocratic guests were born: Florence in the case of Count Claudio, Don Pedro’s youthful favorite, Padua in that of Benedick, the prince’s older and comically misogynistic companion.

In the film version of Much Ado About Nothing, adapted as well as directed by Kenneth Branagh (who also plays Benedick), Messina has disappeared. Shakespeare’s main plot, about Leonato’s daughter, Hero, the young girl falsely accused of unchastity and cast off by her fiancé, Claudio, on their wedding day, and the subsidiary action involving Benedick and Leonato’s niece, Beatrice, arch-enemies maneuvered by their friends into love, both unfold at or near a ravishing rose-red villa in Italy’s Chianti country: “Vignamaggio,” once the home of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa Gherardini.

From the very beginning—a picnic in an olive grove—Branagh’s version of Much Ado is boldly rural and openair. “Church” weddings happen out of doors, and even the few scenes set “inside” tend to place characters in interior courtyards open to the sky, or on balconies and upper loggias framing a panorama of the Tuscan hills. There are losses involved in Branagh’s decision here—not least a virtual obliteration, beneath the generalized bucolic bonhomie, of Shakespeare’s carefully structured social hierarchy—but there are gains as well.

The movie is visually stunning. The other advantages are largely those stressed by Branagh himself in his Much Ado About Nothing: Screenplay, Introduction, and Notes on the Making of the Movie, the book released simultaneously with the film. Branagh reports that in 1988, when he toured the United Kingdom as Benedick in a stage version directed by Judi Dench for his own Renaissance Theatre Company, he was struck during one performance by how much “the play seemed to beg to live outside, in a vivid, lush countryside.” In publicity for the film, he has elaborated on this feeling:

I wanted to come to Italy for its sensual quality. To feature wine, grapes, bread, cheese and the simple way of life. Reduce it to a primitive passion where people live in the sun, eat, drink, and have sex. The sun changes the rhythm of the way you act and think about the characters.

The movie produced five years after Branagh’s stage production has, indeed, an arresting sensuousness and vitality. This Much Ado is flooded not just with sun, food, and physical desire, but with music of various kinds, including choric ensembles. “Sigh no more, ladies,” the bittersweet lyric sung just once in Act II of Shakespeare’s play, becomes something like a leitmotif as it returns yet again in Patrick Doyle’s catchy setting, while even the tonsured Friar Francis (sympathetically played by Jimmy Yuill) turns out, as he assists in the rites of atonement around the “dead” Hero’s tomb, to be a deft hand at the guitar. There is also a great deal of communal, and spiritedly informal, dance. It is all very fresh and beguiling, and one must have a heart of stone to object that Leonato’s house and garden sometimes seem to be accommodating an improbable number of jolly locals unaccounted for in Shakespeare’s play, busily folding up laundry, or whirling hand in hand through cypress alleys and among the fountains, topiary, and statues.

The exigencies of Shakespeare’s plot make it necessary for a cloud momentarily to darken all this al fresco joyousness (literalized in the film by a colossal electric storm the night before Hero’s wedding) as Keanu Reeves’s silkily sinister Don John moves into action. A proto-Iago figure who would really like to poison everyone at Leonato’s overflowing banquet table, he has to be content with breaking off the wedding by slandering the bride, to the dismay of all concerned, including his brother, Don Pedro, who arranged the match. Branagh, who states in his book about the movie that he wanted “a certain fairy tale quality to emerge,” finds it easy to accept Don John’s essentially unreal evil—not, after all, unlike that of the cold Duke in Thurber’s The Thirteen Clocks, who announces that “We all have flaws, and mine is being wicked.” What he seems anxious to expunge are those far more troublesome doubts raised by the character and behavior of Shakespeare’s Claudio: doubts that would complicate and qualify the sunny ending of Branagh’s film.

Like Proteus in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Angelo in Measure for Measure, and Bertram in All’s Well That Ends Well, Claudio is one of Shakespeare’s cads: a young man who behaves abominably to a loving and generous woman, causes her great suffering, and then, after a perfunctory repentance, is dismissed with her into a happiness he scarcely seems to deserve. Long before the appearance of feminism, the outrage of Shakespeare’s Beatrice over the way Claudio waits to expose her cousin Hero until the church ceremony itself—“What? bear her in hand until they come to take hands, and then with public accusation, uncovered slander, unmitigated rancor—O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place”—was something audiences and readers, male and female alike, needed no prompting to endorse.

There are other deficiencies visible in “the most exquisite Claudio”: his mercenary concern, before he embarks on his love suit, about whether Hero is Leonato’s sole heir; the ease with which, instead of wooing Hero himself, he allows Don Pedro to do so in his name during the masked ball; his inclination to believe Don John’s accusation immediately, even before he overhears his henchman Borachio’s midnight courtship of Margaret (Hero’s waiting gentlewoman) disguised as Hero, at her mistress’s bedroom window; the callousness of his attempts to jest with Benedick after Hero’s supposed death, and the alacrity with which he agrees, after Don John’s plot has been uncovered, to marry another daughter of Leonato’s house. Although a variety of separate excuses can be offered for Claudio’s actions—not least the fact that Don Pedro also credits his brother’s lie—he still does not add up to anything like Romeo. Indeed, it takes an extensive and strategic cutting of Shakespeare’s text, together with surging violins in Doyle’s musical score, to bring Hero’s lover even within hailing distance of Juliet’s.

In drastically shortening Much Ado for the screen, Branagh has stripped out not only most of the verse Shakespeare positioned so carefully in this predominantly prose comedy, but also the play’s intricate double-entendres. For the fast-moving verbal bawdy of the original, he substitutes an equally fast-moving but far simpler visual sexuality. The result, more accessible to modern audiences, is arguably better suited to cinema as a form. It also serves, crucially, to render Robert Sean Leonard’s Claudio much less sophisticated and knowing than Shakespeare’s character. Leonard’s performance, it has to be said, is distinctly wooden. Behind it, however, Branagh’s own reading of the part shines clear, raising—not for the only time in the film—the question of how attentive he has been to character clues in Shakespeare’s text. Leonard’s Claudio is meant to be a very young man, barely past adolescence, who remains (despite his precocious feats as a soldier in Don Pedro’s wars) emotionally vulnerable and unsure. His romantic idealism springs from an innocence that vies with that of Kate Beckinsale’s Hero, a young woman who comes across (for all Branagh’s insistence in an interview that he was “keen not to produce a Hero who was wimpish, not just a victim”) as equally featureless, and certainly very immature.

It is one of the virtues of Branagh’s Much Ado that, unlike some Shakespeare films—Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books comes immediately to mind—in which it is hard to see how anyone not already familiar with the plot could possibly piece it together from the movie—it tells the story of the play very clearly. In achieving this clarity, Branagh has not only added and transposed scenes, but smoothed out many of the twists and turns in the comedy, including the initial misapprehension, encouraged by Don John, that Don Pedro intends to marry Hero himself. In the screen version, no one but Claudio ever entertains this idea, so that Benedick’s “But did you think the Prince would have served you thus?” becomes an exasperated inquiry, instead of being, as it is in Shakespeare, an attempt to commiserate. The effect is to increase the sense of Claudio’s naive gullibility, an over-readiness to jump to conclusions that helps to explain the speed with which, later, he will credit the allegation that Hero is false.

A movie audience, too, that has been allowed to join Claudio, Don John, and the Prince as they watch a particularly lusty Borachio (Gerard Horan) making vigorous love to Imelda Staunton’s Margaret on Hero’s balcony (a scene Shakespeare calculatedly did not stage) is far more likely to forgive the violence of Claudio’s response. As for Claudio’s heartless witticisms in the first scene of Act V, they have been tactfully omitted.

Paradoxically, Branagh displaces what is genuinely disturbing in Shakespeare’s comedy onto Dogberry, a clown part written originally for the great Elizabethan comic actor Will Kemp. His conception of this character looks remarkably like desperation. Branagh himself has confessed to being scarred by his earlier stage failure to make As You Like It’s Touchstone funny. The indications are that he also worried, in this respect, about Dogberry, and so decided not to try. In the movie, moreover, he had the further problem, given a setting confined to Leonato’s rural estate, of deciding what to do with a constable, his sidekick Verges, and an entire crew of night watchmen explicable only in an urban setting. Cutting (particularly drastic in these scenes), although it removes some of the specific embarrassments, could never be more than a partial solution. Hence, as it seems, the necessity to transform Michael Keaton, as Dogberry, into a menacing, sadistic, and profoundly unamusing thug.

In his youthful autobiography, Beginning, published in 1989, and in subsequent statements, including some connected with the film of Much Ado, Branagh has consistently emphasized not only the importance of being as opposed to demonstrating a character, that favorite maxim of twentieth-century drama schools and rehearsal rooms, but what he calls the “utter reality of characterization.” Film cameras, he has asserted, are particularly ruthless in the way they expose “artificial ‘witty’ acting—flutey voiced young gallants with false laughs and thighs made for slapping.” The present movie, “based on character,” was not to be like that, both because Branagh deplores such performances in general, and because “it is the detail of humanity amongst the participants that helps make Much Ado one of Shakespeare’s most accessible works.”

Shakespeare invested Dogberry with quite a lot of humanity. Benedick complains of Beatrice at one moment in Act V, “Thou hast frighted the word out of his right sense, so forcible is thy wit.” Dogberry is continually terrorizing the English language, but out of incompetence, not wit. A man engaged in a non-stop struggle with those polysyllabic words he loves but can never get right, he uses them to bolster up an authority of which he is inordinately proud, but in which he feels anything but secure. If he patronizes the elderly Verges, his second in command and most appreciative audience, it is always with affection. The nature and strength of the bond between the two men is never in doubt. In one of those lightning glimpses of a character’s past typical of Shakespeare (but cut in the film) Dogberry provides a clue to his pomposity. He is, he explains, not only an officer, but

… which is more, a householder; and, which is more, as pretty a piece of flesh as any in Messina, and one that knows the law, go to! and a rich fellow enough, go to! and a fellow that hath had losses; and one that hath two gowns and everything handsome about him.

There is a tiny life history here, providing a vivid and clear basis on which to build the character. Dogberry has, at some time, experienced financial disaster, then an uphill battle to regain social standing, self-esteem, and the modest prosperity of which he is now so proud. It is both comic and, for Dogberry, a terrible thing when one of Don John’s henchmen, his villainy unexpectedly brought to light by a police force that normally sleeps on the beat, tells the constable in public, “You are an ass”—not just an insult, but a monosyllabic one at that.

Keaton’s interpretation of Dogberry would appear to take off from the constable’s observation in Act III that “an two men ride of a horse, one must ride behind.” He and Ben Elton’s badly acted Verges customarily arrive and depart, linked together, to the accompaniment of a clatter of hoofs—or, as Branagh puts it in the screenplay,

From out of a mad dark night come galloping on imaginary horses two comic psychopaths: the physical malaprops, taking with utter seriousness their role as Cassidy and Sundance of the local constabulary.

It is not entirely clear how law enforcers can believe themselves to be outlaws, but more worrying is the way Branagh (who also invokes Patton talking to the troops, Perry Mason, and John Wayne to characterize Dogberry) has with these two parts reduced the “humanity” on which he places so much stress to a matter of “comic” malaprops. Not so comic either. Borachio and his partner, Conrade (Richard Clifford), are not a pretty sight after their interrogation by the law. When the demented Dogberry begins to operate on Verges’s eyes with his thumbs (because Verges has threatened to upstage him), it seems for a moment that some of the Cornwall and Gloucester footage has strayed in from a film Branagh has yet to make—of King Lear.

The audiences, however, who will surely pack the theaters over the next few months to see Much Ado will be there not for Dogberry and Verges, but for Branagh’s Benedick, and Emma Thompson’s Beatrice. The Hero and Claudio plot may be at the center of Shakespeare’s play; but at least since the reign of Charles I, when Leonard Digges was referring to Beatrice and Benedick as well-known theatrical crowd-pullers, and the king himself carefully crossed out the title Much Ado About Nothing in his personal copy of the First Folio, replacing it with Beatrice and Benedick, the older pair of lovers have claimed the lion’s share of attention—and also the star performers.

In the present movie, Beatrice and Benedick become even more fascinating by virtue of the off-screen facts. Branagh, whose talent and hard work have conducted him, while still in his early thirties, from working-class poverty in Protestant Belfast to control of an impressive mini-empire in theater and film (while inviting comparison as an actor with Olivier) and Emma Thompson, the former Cambridge undergraduate fresh from an Oscar for her performance as Margaret Schlegel in Howard’s End, are, we know, in real life husband and wife. Phyllida Law, as it happens, who plays Hero’s attendant Ursula, is also Emma Thompson’s mother, but the real focus of attraction—as in the Richard Burton/Liz Taylor Taming of the Shrew, or Olivier’s stage production of Antony and Cleopatra with Vivien Leigh—is bound to be that perennially engaging spectacle of a couple becoming husband and wife in fiction who already are so in fact. A situation exploited on the English stage ever since the Restoration, when the appearance of actresses (including such married theater couples as Susanna and William Mountfort) first made the phenomenon possible, it places Branagh and Thompson firmly in a line that also includes Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, the Lunts, and more recently, in what has become a far less attractive example of the imaginary spilling over into the real, Woody Allen and Mia Farrow.

Emma Thompson’s burgeoning reputation can only be enhanced by this film. She is an enchanting Beatrice: vibrant, spirited, and quick, but manifestly with hidden depths. Branagh, so ready to deprive Dogberry of his past, has wisely given full measure to those hints in the text which suggest that Beatrice has previously given her heart to Benedick (“Marry, once before he won it of me with false dice”) and come away badly hurt. Her aggressive behavior toward him now, that “merry war” of words between the two, in which she usually comes off best, conceals both a determination not to be wounded in that way again, and a smoldering love that Hero and her attendant Ursula can easily fan into fire simply by making her believe that Benedick feels the same for her.

As Don Pedro, Claudio, and Leonato, by means of a similar trick, have already brought Benedick to realize his true feelings for Beatrice, by whom he remains obviously obsessed, their happiness waits only upon a mutual and open declaration of love. That, ironically, the public shaming of Hero by Claudio provokes. Benedick not only believes in Hero’s innocence (which even her own father did not) because Beatrice does; he consents at her request to challenge Claudio to a duel, thus dividing himself at a stroke from his old, accustomed world of cynical, barracks room humor and male camaraderie.

Thompson’s beautifully nuanced performance projects in abundance that quality essential to so many of Shakespeare’s comedy heroines: a transparent goodness that never becomes sentimental or smug. A mistress of many moods, she manages to be both comic and touching in the big “overhearing” scene in the orchard, then deadly serious—and a little frightening—in her distress and anger on Hero’s behalf. Actresses often have trouble avoiding titters from the audience when Beatrice so abruptly asks Benedick, after their first kiss, to “Kill Claudio,” but Thompson’s emotional intelligence, and a sudden deepening of vocal register on the line, adroitly fend off the danger. Admirable too is her handling of that tense moment in Act II when she jests her way into a marriage proposal from Denzel Washington’s Don Pedro, suddenly realizes that he means it, and needs with grace and sensitivity to extricate them both.

The film contains a number of outstanding performances: Richard Briers’s Leonato, Yuill’s Friar, Clifford’s Conrade, Law’s Ursula, Reeves’s Don John. It also suffers from some bad ones, for which miscasting occasionally seems to blame. Hero’s uncle Antonio, for instance, is a frail and elderly man, who gamely if a little comically challenges Claudio to what must be a most unequal fight. But the hulking Brian Blessed, none the worse for his recent ascent of Everest (much publicized in England), looks in the part as though his sneeze would be enough to knock Leonard’s Claudio down for the count. The best acting, however, comes from Washington as Don Pedro and Thompson, as much in small details as in their overall handling of their parts. His face, in every scene in which he appears, speaks volumes. Her probing and wise reading of the two stanzas of “Sigh no more, ladies,” at the very beginning of the movie, is worth considerably more than its elaborate reappearances as a song.

To single out Thompson and Washington in this way is not to slight Branagh as Benedick. His is a creditable, interesting performance which, in the chapel scene, becomes genuinely moving. It is hard not to feel, however, that despite having played the part before, and the precautionary measure of asking his former instructor Hugh Cruttwell to monitor his acting in rehearsals, Branagh this time, trying to play Benedick while also directing the film, has bitten off more than he can chew. With so much on his hands, he ends up making basic performance mistakes of just the kind he inveighs against in his introduction to the screenplay, and in the early pages of Beginning has mocked himself for committing as a novice: generalizing mood, demonstrating Benedick’s character, as opposed to living it through. The problem focuses itself in his prose soliloquies. Branagh, so good at communicating the plot of the play generally, seems as an actor oddly unresponsive to the story line of the character in these speeches, as it changes and unfolds before our eyes in a small space.

Part of the problem here would seem to be his insistence upon looking everywhere except into the camera. This refusal to address soliloquy to an audience in the way Shakespeare intended, although it is even easier to do so in film than on the stage, is in line with the naturalism of Branagh’s entire approach. But it cuts him off from us, making Benedick seem like a man suddenly talking to himself because he is in a generalized “state.” Branagh has some fine moments—the highly charged simplicity of his “I do love nothing in the world so well as you,” in the chapel scene with Beatrice, or his comic squawk of outrage from the cypress alley in which he is concealed, rapidly transformed into an unconvincing bird imitation, as he overhears Don Pedro accuse him of having “a contemptible spirit.” (The word means nothing worse than “contemptuous” in Shakespeare, but the modern sense produces a nice bit of business, and only a pedant would object.) But overall, this is a disappointingly exterior Benedick.

Here it contrasts markedly, not only with Emma Thompson’s Beatrice, but with Washington’s haunting, wonderfully inward Don Pedro: a performance of great dignity and depth. Washington’s dialogue with Beatrice in Act II provides one of the few moments of real intimacy in a film which in general prefers the communal to the private. (Branagh has even, in the interests of pace, cut the lovely, domestic scene between the three women in Hero’s apartment on her wedding morning.) Contained and humorous in the early part of the play, Washington later makes Don Pedro’s affronted Spanish honor very real. Unforgettable too is the silent eloquence of his pain in the monument scene, and his guilt at the end when, like Prospero with Caliban, he must confront the fettered Don John: a thing of irredeemable darkness, that he must “acknowledge mine.” Although directorially underplayed (the camera rests for only a split second on Washington, standing alone by the chapel as the revels begin), his absence from the final dance seems both very Shakespearean and right.

Imaginative, intelligent, and brilliantly filmed, Branagh’s Much Ado deserves a big success, not only for those reasons, but because it is likely to make many people—especially the young—understand that Shakespeare can be vital, interesting, moving, and fun. In Beginning, Branagh says of his Renaissance Theatre Company that “the appeal was intended to be very broad. We wanted to present popular art. Not poor art or thin art or even ‘arty’ art, but popular art that would expand the mind and the senses and really entertain.” That manifesto might have been written for this film, and it is not an easy brief. Certainly it is possible to complain that although Much Ado is one of Shakespeare’s shorter plays, Branagh has “thinned” his original more than was needed: that by abbreviating the dance sequences (especially the interminable one at the end) he might have found room for more of Shakespeare’s text.

There is something wrong when tangos and an extended ring around the maypole mean sacrificing lines like Leonato’s agonized

   mine, and mine I loved, and mine I praised,
And mine that I was proud on—

or the great heralding of dawn as the comedy lifts toward resolution at the end of the monument scene:

Good morrow, masters. Put your torches out.
The wolves have preyed, and look, the gentle day,
Before the wheels of Phoebus, round about
Dapples the drowsy east with spots of grey.

We are talking here about only a few minutes of playing time, but they are a crucial few. A different kind of “thinning” oversimplifies or sentimentalizes character, and bans other kinds of Shakespearean complexity from Branagh’s resolutely “fairy-tale” world.

Olivier’s classic, and visually even more astonishing, film of Henry V, although it too cut a considerably longer play to make it simpler and more positive, nevertheless retained a much greater proportion of text—and ambiguity—than Branagh has. Branagh is not yet Olivier, either as a director or actor. His own film of Henry V, although highly praised, is most unlikely to look as good after almost half a century as its great predecessor. Branagh’s Much Ado is significantly better than his Henry V. But he will need to take on and master a good deal more of what is challenging and difficult in Shakespeare, while retaining popular appeal, before that frequently made comparison with Olivier rings true. But it says a great deal for him—and for the future of the plays both on stage and screen—that he should already be coming so close.