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'Much Ado' About the Two Kenneth Branaghs

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Tuesday, Apr 19, 2011
(Much Ado About Nothing is) perhaps the best, breeziest adaptation of all of Shakespeare's works - warts and all.
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Much Ado About Nothing (Blu-ray)

Director: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Michael Keaton, Keanu Reeves, Kate Beckinsale, Robert Sean Leonard, Imelda Staunton, Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington

(MGM; US DVD: 5 Apr 2011 (General release))

There are two Kenneth Branaghs in the world of cinema. One makes undeniably brilliant adaptations of Shakespeare plays like Henry V, Hamlet, and Much Ado About Nothing (new to Blu-ray from MGM). He finds both the pomp and conversational circumstance in the Bard’s work and accents it with flourishes both inspired and experimental. Then there is the Branagh who begs to be scorned, who turns something like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein into a witless wash of overripe Method acting and dull David Cronenberg inspired bio-horror, or retrofits Love’s Labour’s Lost into a dreadful ‘30s musical (complete with newsreel footage and period tunes).


While it may seem exciting or even adventurous to sit back and wonder which Branagh you are going to get at any specific moment (Dead Again? Or - sigh - Sleuth?), it’s a concept that leads to some serious questions. Why, for example, is he capable of such wistful flights of romantic fancy ala Much Ado, and yet can get lost and cast adrift in the demented parameters of his colonial Japan set As You Like it? Since few have seen his work since bringing his epic vision of Shakespeare most famous tragedy to the screen, it’s imperative that one look back and see where the schism began. Oddly enough, the magical Much Ado may have played a bigger part in the bifurcation than originally thought.
  
The main premise of the narrative is as old as time itself. While complex, it centers around love, mistaken identities, betrayal, family honor, and that most hoary of classical cliches, destiny. When we meet the comical misanthrope, Benedick (played by Branagh), he is in the service of friend Don Pedro (Denzel Washington). They have just put down an uprising by the latter’s illegitimate half-brother (Keanu Reeves) and are visiting the home of Governor Leonato (Richard Briers). There, Benedick reconnects with Beatrice (Emma Thompson), a strong willed woman with her own opinions on relationships and his “sworn brother” Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard), who is in love with the lovely Hero (Kate Beckinsale).


Through the standard narrative constituents of the past, there are wedding plans and said strategies upended, a comedic interlude featuring a surly constable named Dogberry (played with vigor by Michael Keaton) and a last act intervention by the aforementioned brother as well as a resolution and good will amongst all. In between, servants serve as subterfuge, people speak in those remarkable couplets from centuries before, and everything has the warm, welcoming patina of a sunny Italian season (the movie was filmed in Tuscany). Branagh is relatively true to the author, keeping the language intact and making only minor story shifts to keep the film from running overlong. In the end, he delivers a delightful bit of proper poetry, a lite-rarity which would make even the most sour hater of the Bard stand up and sing “hey nonny, nonny.”


And yet Much Ado About Nothing is rife with the kind of problematic potential that would come to undermine much of Branagh’s later work. You can see it in the casting. For every move that succeeds - Washington, Leonard - you got one’s on the cusp (Keaton) and at least one that fails outright (Reeves). Sure, everyone looks the part, but by vying for a more commercial audience, the filmmaker lets some of his creative control slip. This would be especially true of his next project, an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s famed “modern Prometheus.” Instead of staying with actors who would do justice to the critical roles of the Doctor and his creation, Branagh let ego get in the way. He placed himself in the lead and then mauled mainstream thespian Robert DeNiro, turning him into a hulking, half-human joke.


When he could balance both the ambition and the need, things came together expertly. Much Ado is a perfectly example of this, even with Reeves precariously plotting the movie’s overall tonal demise. Similarly, Branagh’s Hamlet is a brilliant spectacle, and yet he again resorting to placing actors - or in his case, comedians Billy Crystal and Robin Williams - in roles they were definitely not suited for. He did manage to overcome this potential problem, mostly because the rest of the film was so undeniably forceful. As a version of arguably Shakespeare’s greatest play, it mirrored and managed said reputation well - and yet when he went back to the Bard again, the results were ridiculous.


Comparing both Love’s Labour’s Lost and As You Like It to something like Henry V and Much Ado may seem silly, but it does clearly demonstrate how to and how not to bring these well-worn works to the big screen. Instead of questionable casting choices, this time around it was the main aesthetic approach that undermined Branagh’s intentions. The musical just doesn’t lend itself to such stilted dialogue. Even Cole Porter was smart enough to redraft the world’s greatest playwright for his take on Taming of the Shrew, Kiss Me Kate. From the rock opera look at Two Gentlemen of Verona (a huge ‘70s counterculture hit) to the first Bard songfest on Broadway, The Boys from Syracuse (based on Comedy of Errors), a direct translation rarely works. In Branagh’s case, Love’s Labour’s structure was like a round peg in an already ripe square hole. It just couldn’t come together.


Similarly, As You Like It suffers from a surreal bit of transplantation. While the Japanese backdrop can make some historical sense, it seems oddly counterproductive to what Shakespeare was trying to do. Indeed, many critics complained that the Asian aspects of the film, including a couple of added elements that Branagh himself brought in, were a poor fit, no matter how faithful the final adaptation. In fact, the poor reception the film received initially kept it from a legitimate release in the United States. Instead, HBO, which helped with the financing, ended up premiering the piece on its cable network before a very limited theatrical release was allowed. As of now, it remains the last Shakespeare effort from Branagh - sad, indeed.


As the Summer Movie Season gets ready to warm up with the highly anticipated arrival of Thor to Cineplexes around the world, comic book devotees have a right to be worried, considering the contradiction sitting in the director’s chair. While Branagh’s hiring follows Marvel’s desire to turn their properties over to serious filmmakers, he remains a serious cinematic question mark. Early reviews suggest the filmmaker responsible for Much Ado is back behind the lens, not the hack who horrified audiences the wrong way with his wonky take on Frankenstein. Considering how he came out gangbusters (it would be hard for anyone to top Henry V, frankly), it may be unfair to completely dismiss anything he does. Yes, there are negatives to Kenneth Branagh’s oeuvre. Luckily, Much Ado About Nothing is not one of them. It’s perhaps the best, breeziest adaptation of all of Shakespeare’s works - warts and all.


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