William Shakespeare is hailed as the greatest english writer ever. You can argue that. I’m not that sold on the man's work for the most part. Every year in high school, I had to read one of his plays. In order from freshmen to senior: Romeo & Juliet, As You Like It, Macbeth, Hamlet. Of the four I enjoyed Macbeth the most, Romeo & Juliet still confounds me, Hamlet whines too much and honestly can’t remember As You Like It.
Still I find myself trying expand my horizons and Shakespeare seems like a good start. Obviously I am not an expert in Shakespeare, I’ve hardly read his poetry or seen his plays. But you have to start somewhere. So I set out to watch as many film versions of his plays: both straight and twists, as possible and maybe eve a documentary.
The goal however is to NOT compare these film works to their written and stage counterparts. These are films and should be judged as such. Not compared against, or qualified with “Well for and adaptation of X”. They should stand and be judged on their own.
Much Ado About Nothing (1993) is currently streaming on Netflix Instant
I start with Much Ado About Nothing(1993), a comedy. Now the difference between tragedy and comedy is best shown in how they end. Tragedy ends with lots of bodies on the floor. Comedy in the Elizabethan era ended with marriage, much like modern romantic comedies. Comedies tend to also have more focus on the situation than the characters, something I didn’t find in Much Ado About Nothing.
The 1993 film was adapted for the screen, starred, and directed by Kenneth Branagh. Branagh playing Benedick, assembled quite the cast with Michael Keaton as Dogberry, Robert Sean Leonard as Claudio, Keanu Reeves as Don John, Emma Thompson as Beatrice, Denzel Washington as Don Pedro and surprisingly Kate Beckinsale as Hero.
Two actors stood out to me once the trailer rolled. Kate Beckinsale, best known to me as the master of all submachine guns and other necessary badassery needed for killing zombies,vampires,lycans and humans. The other being Mr. Reeves, best known to me as Neo and that meme of looking sad. Neither really spring to mind when one thinks of dropping Shakespearean beats. There casting was well done, both of them working very well for their limited roles.
Much Ado follows a band of bachelors led by Don Pedro coming to Messina for a month after a successful battle. While in Messina Pedro plays matchmaker for Claudio-Hero and Benedick-Beatrice, coupling them both through trickery in order to get them to openly express their underlying feelings. This trickery is extremely necessary when it comes to Benedick and Beatrice, the pair have a “merry war” steadfast in their want to remain bachelor and bachelorette. They have a glib sarcastic relationship, constantly trying to outwit the other with wordplay. Trickery isn’t exactly necessary when it comes to Claudio and Hero, who seem unable to speak they are so in love with one another.
All this romance wouldn’t be any fun unless someone spoiled it, by playing villain. Our villain is Don John, the half brother of Don Pedro. Yes in this movie Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves are related. “I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in/his grace, and it better fits my blood to be/disdained of all than to fashion a carriage to rob/...I am a plain-dealing villain” (I.iii.25-30) John assures his men. His disdain for Pedro is for his successes and adoration, jumping at the chance to ruin his plans by breaking up Claudio and Hero. He is being a villian just to amuse himself and be a dick. John is a man of few words, which is perfect for Reeves since it requires him to only express anger and not something with more depth.
His plot? Trick Claudio into believing Hero is committing infidelity and end the wedding. His plot works at first, Claudio public accuses Hero of dishonor. This leads to some death faking and happy coincidences allowing for Don John to leave in shame and give us a happy marriage.
The Claudio-Hero plot is hardly interesting, they are just SO in love with one another it's unbearable. They ultimately become the center point for everyone else to operate around. What is interesting is the wordplay between Benedick and Beatrice. The pair constantly bicker with each other, yet are instantly sold on the idea that the other is in love with them. Seeing them then fumble in expressing their feelings while trying to prove dominance was the most entertaining part of the movie. Branagh and Thompson have good chemistry together, the pair were romantically linked during the time. Branagh played Benedick slightly narcissistic and womanizing transitioning perfectly to the bumbling fool as he tries to figure out Beatrices intentions and write poetry. Thompson is strong through the entire film never stopping to fawn over Benedick.
Than there is the character of Dogberry, played by Michael Keaton. On first watch I found him to be hard to understand, growling his lines with some kind of european accent. Everyone else in this move had been great then Keaton showed up and I had nothing but contempt. While doing some reading it came to my attention that Dogberry uses malapropism, the misuse of similar sounding words. I consider that a interesting bit of trivia since understanding him was rather hard. What wasn’t hard to understand was that Dogberry is a buffoon who considers himself smarter than he really is. He succeeds through luck not smarts. Maybe back then having a buffoon character was necessary for genre but now this type of stock character has either been appropriated elsewhere or disappeared completely.
There is something so right however about Denzel Washington speaking Shakespeare's words. Nearing 40 at the time Washington leads with a joyful charisma that fits a beloved Prince like Don Pedro. As the film went on shifting focus to the Cluadio-Hero Benedick-Beatrice plots I missed his presence.
Beatrice is a strong character who more than holds her own against the men. Hero is the opposite Beckensale is there to look cute for the most part, more of a living breathing plot device than a character. This works though since Beckensale isn’t exactly the best actor out there.
Even if this wasn’t a comedy in the modern sense Branagh adds enough physical humor and the actors are able to express a base level of comedy that I found myself laughing several times. Even if some of the puns and other wordplay were lost upon me.
One of the harder parts of Shakespeare is the language. It just isn’t how we speak anymore. When it dialog is so important and it is laced with puns from hundreds of years ago, decoding and understanding it in real time can prove to be difficult. The audio and actors are all easily understandable and don’t run through their lines at lightning speed sans Keaton.
Plays back then didn’t really have much in the way of elaborate sets. Viewers had to imagine the setting. Imagination isn’t necessary with Much Ado, while a simple vineyard like setting there is a certain grandness to it and the surrounding hills. Some of the larger sets have a musical quality. The opening is a large montage of Pedro and his men and Beatrices women quickly and joyfully bathe, in order to look their best when they meet. The only thing that is missing is them singing some sort of song. This grand scale fits well perfectly with the heightened drama and melodramatic nature of Shakespeare's plays.
Much Ado is one of the more enjoyable pieces of Shakespeare related media I’ve sat through. A tad outlandish in how gullible characters are but never gets overly trapped in its conflict. Clocking in at just under two hours it doesn't overstay its welcome.
I don't know which movie I'll do next. Hamlet sounds like a rich vein to mine since it provides and excuse to watch The Lion King. There is also a modern version of Macbeth starring Sam Worthington streaming on Netflix at the moment. Any suggestions?