Much Ado About nothing is Shakespeare at his most basic. No lofty themes, no deep and meaningful pronouncements about the human condition—when all is said and done what we are dealing with is a sex romp. Or at least the closest thing that someone writing in 1592 could get to a sex comedy. Don’t believe me? The title tells you all you need to know: apart from the winking reference to the spun-sugar lightness of the plot, it is also a fairly graphic sexual pun. Kenneth Branagh has taken all of the sweat and sex that Shakespeare had to be content with leaving on the page and put it right on the screen.Returning to Italy after a successful military campaign Don Pedro (Denzel Washington) and his company of men stop off at the home of the governor of Messina (Richard Briers) for some much needed R&R. The youngest of Don Pedro’s soldiers, Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard), is immediately smitten with Leonato’s daughter (Kate Beckinsale) in the way that seems to be unique to Shakespeare. That is to say his love is immediate, unswerving, and almost painfully earnest.
Meanwhile a sarcastic lieutenant of Don Pedro’s, Signior Benedick (Branagh) has his own thing goin’ with Leonato’s niece Beatrice (Emma Thompson). Theirs is a relationship with some history it seems Benedick spurned her long ago and now they are constantly fighting. Don Pedro decides that the best way to pass the time between the engagement and the wedding is to play cupid and reunite Beatrice and Benedick.
Finally there’s the villain of the piece Don John (Keanu Reeves) who decides that the best way to get back at his brother Don Pedro is by messing up Claudio’s romance. We don’t ever really find out why Don John hates his brother so much, and it doesn’t much matter anyway because he is only there to cause the titular ado and then disappear until the end. His purpose is to throw a roadblock between the two young lovers.
What the source material lacks in plot twists and turns it more than makes up for in character and wordplay. That ribald pun I mentioned earlier is a perfect example. Nothing was slang for the vagina (Thing apparently has meant dick for quite sometime, so ‘no thing’ you get the idea…) so if the story were being pitched today it would be called “All That for The Poontang.” Plus if the words themselves aren’t enough to hold you enraptured the cinematography is breathtaking as well. There is an almost overwhelming sensuality that is evident from the first shots of Emma Thompson lounging in a tree reciting poetry. Speaking of the cast: With the previously noted exception of Mr. Reeves, they are standouts all the way across the board.
In the way of defects I would have to say that the filmmaker’s over use of slow motion was the most annoying to me. Sometimes it seemed that when they didn’t know what else to do they would throw in a slow-mo sequence. The problem with Keanu’s role is that it doesn’t suit him. It reminded me of having him pop up in Coppola’s Dracula he is just distracting to me.
People who venerate Shakespeare as this high-toned poet who created ‘literature’ are missing part of the point. No piece of Art survives for that long without being universal enough to apply down the years. (Want proof? How many movies did the studio system crank out the same year as Casablanca? How many do we remember regularly just 63 years later?) Much Ado about nothing was written sometime around 1598. Which movies from 2004 do you expect will still be prescient four hundred years from now?There is a natural selection in Art just like in nature, and part of that process will always be putting life, blood and sex back into those things which time would turn into ‘literature.’ So it’s good that movies like this come along every so often to remind us that Shakespeare was putting out popular entertainments, so that we don’t loose ourselves in the dry and pedantic world of THE BARD.