THE Swan of Avon has been converted rather disconcertingly into the Bard of Tuscany in Kenneth Branagh's new film of Much Ado About Nothing. Branagh has played Benedick on stage, with the Renaissance Theatre Company (the director on that occasion being Judi Dench), but this is not a filmed record of a particular theatrical production, rather something a little more ambitious: an attempt to set what is, on stage, an almost foolproof comedy (with, admittedly, a rather dark subplot) in a magical landscape of vines and olives, of dolce far niente, where Branagh feels the play's essence is somehow enhanced.
His idea seems to have been almost to enlist the sun as an assistant director, to ripen and deepen the cast's performances, giving a disparate group of British and American actors an even thespian tan. Shakespeare's specified, though notional, setting was Sicily, rather less lush, but it would be churlish to begrudge a talented troupe their shoot in Chiantishire.
Branagh, as screenwriter, has made cuts and reordered some of the action without changing the overall shape of the play. But having streamlined things in this way, he delays the opening of the drama proper with a picnic scene of his own devising. Leonato (Richard Briers) paints a picture, Beatrice (Emma Thompson) slowly recites the song 'Sigh No More, Ladies', which Branagh takes to be the play's theme tune, the rest of the court lounges around laughing and digesting. This is a rather self-indulgent moment, with Shakespeare's wittiest heroine being rewarded inordinately with applause for reciting lines that he did not put in her mouth, in a way that makes us think we must be missing something.
Then, to accompany the credits, Branagh offers an elaborate sequence of the arrival of the victorious war party, and excited preparations on both sides - showers, primping - for the eventual charged meeting of warriors and court. When Orson Welles filmed a sequence in a bathhouse for Othello, it was for reasons of typical flair and desperation: there were no costumes. Branagh's sequence of bathing and preening, complete with many shrieks of artificial Renaissance excitement, is less purposeful, a fanfare of images from a director normally restrained in his use of the camera, who only flourishes it in a ceremonial way, to signify beginnings, interludes, conclusions.
The sequence of the war party arriving on horseback, with its strong overtones of a western, functions as a sort of trailer within the film, and introduces some actors you would not look for in Shakespeare on stage, such as Denzel Washington (Don Pedro) and Keanu Reeves (Don John). Washington acquits himself well and if another surprising recruit, Michael Keaton, is an unfunny Dogberry, then he is not the first nor the last. Branagh gives him some slapstick to do, and Ben Elton as his Verges. The pair of them ride imaginary horses, an idea seemingly pinched from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Keanu Reeves, though cutting a fine figure in the sexy uniform Phyllis Dalton has designed for the soldiers, makes a fairly feeble Don John. The problem seems to be that Don John is a paradoxically neutral villain, who practises evil on principle against his legitimate brother and anyone his brother favours, but isn't dynamic enough to come up with actual plans. This doesn't suit Reeves, for whom acting is an energetic business. So he gives us plenty of inappropriate fire, culminating in a scene of maniacal triumph as Don John runs cackling down an underground tunnel to make his escape.
In fact, it would be hard to find another play where language so predominates over action. If there is any point of connection between the plot, where two people fall in love by virtue of each believing the other is already smitten, and the subplot, where a woman's reputation is taken away by false witness, it is the magical but deeply troubling power of words to create reality.
A physically committed acting style has no relevance to such a play, but here it is anyway. When the wedding of Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) and Hero (Kate Beckinsale) goes horribly wrong, there is much scuffling and scattering of benches. Then when things have simmered down a bit, and Beatrice, having no power to make things right herself, begs Benedick to challenge Claudio to a duel, blow me if she doesn't start throwing the pews around in the little chapel where they've gone to talk.
Emma Thompson is normally a very reliable performer on screen, but Beatrice is not one of her successes. For once, it is true, Beatrice can accurately describe herself as 'sunburned' since Thompson is as brown as a nut. But there is something tired about her vitality and forced about her brightness; she relies too much on an all-purpose quizzical expression.
Benedick lets his guard down more often than Beatrice, but it can't be said that Branagh makes us feel the character's vulnerability. His charm always has an edge of smugness. It has been remarked more than once that the thinness of Branagh's lips is a real liability for a screen actor in close-up, which is perhaps why this Benedick retains a protective beard throughout, though Shakespeare stipulates that the character shaves the better to play the part of the lover.
Branagh has imbibed enough of an American approach that he boasts of having constructed a 'back story' for Benedick - his upbringing, his family, likes and dislikes - but the audience is unlikely to detect these mystical preparations, unless Benedick's history includes traumatic experiences with deckchairs. In the scene where Benedick learns he is loved, Branagh carries just such an item of furniture, and makes heavy comic weather of his inability to put it up.
After the principals have separately committed themselves to love, Branagh constructs another ceremonial set piece of studious montage. Benedick splashes about in triumph in a fountain, while elsewhere in the same garden Beatrice swings herself into a state of chocolate boxy bliss. Patrick Doyle's music swells, and the two ecstatic images combine in slow motion in the frame. If we felt a real tension between these two characters it would be positively damaging to our reactions that Branagh, as the director of a star-studded but lacklustre production, visually unites the lovers so long before Shakespeare got round to that part of his job.
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