Much Ado About Nothing has a machismo problem. It’s not writer, director, and star Branagh’s fault; it’s just the historical patriarchy. Though Branagh does try to do some initial counterbalancing, opening the film with a quote about the sexual dynamics. Still, that moment only carries through the first scene, setting up Emma Thompson’s character… And to the degree it’s Shakespeare’s fault, well, again, what can you expect from the sixteenth century. But everything until the end of the second act, when the machismo boils over—and then whenever Branagh and Thompson are on screen together and then whenever Branagh gets to show off his directorial chops—everything else about Ado is pretty much golden.
The story’s set in gorgeous Tuscany, with Branagh and cinematographer Roger Lanser somewhat muting the brightness, but only so Patrick Doyle’s music can emphasize the light when they find it. Branagh and Lanser have this striking repeated technique of bringing the actor monologuing into direct sunlight by the end of a monologue. The actor walks around to find that lighting; otherwise, their face is, if not in shadow, at least in overcast. Doyle’s also going to score based on the pace of conversation or content, which is phenomenal stuff to watch and hear. Much Ado constantly impresses. And not just when Branagh manages to make Keanu Reeves into a reasonable enough villain.
Reeves is a jealous prince, out to ruin half-brother Denzel Washington’s day. Not his life—there’s no overthrowing Washington’s command of the nobles—just messing around with him to make him miserable. Reeves and Washington not having an onscreen relationship should be a sign the characterizations will have problems. Still, given Branagh’s able to give Reeves at least one good scene (though having him shirtless and dousing him in oil qualifies as sleight of hand) and Ado being so much endless fun, you don’t think about it.
The plot involves Washington, his nobles, and Reeves arriving at a friendly town. Richard Briers is the governor, a sweet old guy with a marriage-ready daughter, Kate Beckinsale, and a sharp-tongued, great-hearted cousin in Thompson. Brian Blessed’s his brother and sidekick, though mostly only in the third act. Robert Sean Leonard, sidekick to Washington, has the hots for Beckinsale, but he’s shy, and so Washington’s going to court on his behalf. Actually, Washington’s going to broker a marriage. While Much Ado is great and all, it is just a situation comedy involving Washington messing with his friends to amuse his other friends. Specifically Branagh and Thompson.
While Leonard and Beckinsale’s romance is first act stuff, with Reeves and his cronies failing to make Leonard believe Washington’s courting Beckinsale on his own behalf, so they have to work a secondary plot throughout. The second act focuses on Washington’s attempts to bring banter rivals, Branagh and Thompson, together. Just to prove he can, which ought to be another warning for Washington’s character, but it’s so much fun, and Washington’s infinitely charming, no red flags.
Reeves’s eventually successful plot will force Branagh into Thompson’s against the bros, and the second act is often glorious comedy with Branagh and Thompson monologuing and mooning. Thompson’s the film’s best lead performance, able to bring fire to the third act no one else can muster. Branagh’s excellent as well, but he’s not as good as Washington at Washington’s best. Washington’s part is on literal mute for the third act, while Branagh gets a character arc. The supporting cast is good or better, but almost entirely with third-act problems. Briers is excellent, but he’s got a not-great guy arc in the third act. Beckinsale’s good, but she disappears just as she becomes the natural protagonist in the plot. Leonard’s good (with a bunch of caveats and asterisks) since it was Branagh’s job to figure out how not to make Leonard come off like a dick, and Branagh punts on it. And then Reeves is not unsuccessful. Reeves’s chief goon, Gerard Horan, will end up more important than Reeves and Horan’s solid.
The best performance in the film, of course, is Michael Keaton. He’s the local constable. However Keaton and Branagh came up with the characterization—where Keaton mixes sight gags, affected delivery, and physical presence unseen since a Marx Brother—is Ado’s finest achievement. Keaton’s singular. And he never steals scenes, always leaving space, particularly for Ben Elton as his sidekick. Elton’s hilarious too. Branagh’s balance between Keaton’s subplot’s belly laughs and then the gentle romantic comedy is exceptional. Much Ado About Nothing is expert work.
Shame the resolve is all about every guy taking the agency away from one woman or another as women are, after all, just property. Except for Thompson. Sort of. In those plot constraints, when Washington becomes a de facto conquerer (at least from his own perspective), Leonard is just an obnoxious, brutish dickhead… I mean, it’s Shakespeare. Branagh’s not going to change it. And he does try to leverage Thompson against it, which is almost successful. She can’t overcome the failure of two significant, third-act events, stray threads Branagh didn’t even need but for adaptation’s sake.
Slight bummers. But an expertly produced motion picture, with some superlative performances and masterful filmmaking.