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Much Ado About Nothing.

It is easy to recommend Kenneth Branagh's production of "Much Ado about Nothing" (Samuel Goldwyn) as a summer movie: Tuscany has rarely looked better, and the duel between Shakespearean lovers with above-average IQs should be as enjoyable for teenagers as for older audiences. It's worth the admission to hear the clearly delivered exchanges between Benedict (Branagh himself) and Beatrice (Branagh's wife, Emma Thompson, who recently won an Oscar for "Howard's End").

Writing a romantic comedy that also sees the lovers as puppets, Shakespeare is as eager as a studio head to make sure it's entertaining. Where Branagh's movie goes wrong is when it doesn't trust Shakespeare enough and, like an overly insistent social director, keeps reminding the audience that it's supposed to be having fun.

This is no bardolatrous plea to simply photograph a staged presentation of the text; Orson Welles' attempt at a free re-creation of Shakespeare in properly cinematic terms is the best, if also the most demanding, approach. Branagh is right to open up the play, to show the surrounding countryside, the fountain and views of Leonato's country estate from different angles, but his overall approach is too busy. The elaborate opening, for example, in which an outdoor picnic is interrupted by the arrival of Don Pedro and his troops fresh from battle, riding to the scene in the exaggerated magnificence of slow motion, is much ado to no purpose.

Even the scenes in which Benedict and Beatrice are gulled into believing that each is loved by the other are marred by excessive close-ups, depriving the viewer of the fun of seeing both the comic conspirators and the newly converted lovers in perspective. But at least Branagh has confidence that this material is funny; the scenes involving Dogberry and the watch are his biggest failure because here he obviously thought Shakespeare needed help. Michael Keaton is presumably following orders in playing a mean-spirited Dogberry who beats his assistant, but the effect is simply ugly.

The much-discussed casting of Denzel Washington as Don Pedro is never distracting, and the actor's reserve adds a needed sense of gravity to the proceedings. Keanu Reeves, as Pedro's bastard half-brother, is an elegantly selfdeclared villain; his unprompted malevolence leads to the near tragedy of Hero, played by Kate Beckinsale, who projects the needed sweetness of Shakespeare's more passive (and less interesting) type of heroine.

In the end, Benedict and Beatrice are the heart of the play, and the performances of Branagh and Thompson will make audiences glad they came. They convey the rich comedy of their relationship and manage to make the declaration of their love something one wants to cheer.
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Author:Cunneen, Joseph
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Jul 2, 1993
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