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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.”

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