The Classics Retold project was inspired by Project: Fairy Tale. Simply choose a classic work of literature, and explore all of its sequels, retellings, reinterpretations. How you do this is completely up to you–character analyses and liveblogging can mix with reviews of the texts and/or films. September 2013 is when it all goes down!
Who: Emma Thompson, Kenneth Branagh, Denzel Washington, Kate Beckinsale, Robert Sean Leonard, Keanu Reeves, Michael Keaton, Imelda Staunton.
Where: A luminous Messina, Italy.
When: Late 1600s.
How: Kenneth Branagh’s love of Shakespeare is quite well-known in the world of film, and Much Ado is not his first adaptation, but it might be his brightest. Opening on shots of the gorgeous green countryside, Branagh directs a lively cast of experienced, intelligent actors through the Bard’s work with a light hand and an unmatched joy in each and every line.
Viewers familiar with the original text will find it easy to settle comfortably into the modified script used by the film, but newer audiences shouldn’t be worried–the cast delivers their barbs and confessions in a way that stays true to the text without losing touch with the audience. They play with it and barely half an hour in, I got the sense that this was a group of people that genuinely enjoyed and loved what they were performing. Framed by the beautiful Tuscan landscape, the film is lush with so much detail that it’s hard to know where to look first. The music is also a high point, building the emotion of each scene with care.
Branagh’s take on Benedick holds nothing back: he is self-deprecating and proud all at the same time, very much assured of his own triumph over Cupid and what arrows may fly. I took one look at him riding in on his horse and immediately liked him, even as I settled in—with a gleeful grin–to watch as he fell for the one woman he’d sworn never to love. He, like the rest of the cast, seemed to inhabit the text of the play almost effortlessly.
Likewise, Emma Thompson brings an earthy, powerful presence to Beatrice. Where some actresses might seize upon Beatrice’s sharp tongue, Thompson calls up her warmth and observant nature. True, she could put a sword to shame with how she cuts at Benedick’s ego, but it doesn’t take longer than two scenes with the two of them to realize that they depend on each other to be exactly what they are. In this version of the play, Benedick and Beatrice are literally played by a married couple, and conscious or not, they bring that easy chemistry with them and it lights up the entire film.
As for the supporting cast, Robert Sean Leonard stands out the most. I came close to sympathizing with his Claudio, while I had been mostly apathetic towards other actors in the role. Leonard plays up his character’s insecurities without excusing the actions they lead him to, and his command of the text is superb. Kate Beckinsale in her first movie role, while beautiful, never really made an impression on me, save for the wedding scene, in which she tore at my heart. Denzel Washington was the perfect Don Pedro, trusting and trustworthy, commanding respect from everyone he meets. And some readers may be surprised that Keanu Reeves made an appearance in this film as the scowling Don Jon, to which I say: not much about his performance has changed in 20 years.
The Final Say: The 1993 version of one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies comes alive in Kenneth Branagh’s capable, loyal hands. Much Ado About Nothing is entertaining, poignant and inventive all at once, bringing a refreshed spin to well-known and appreciated words.
Check back on Monday for a discussion of the women of Much Ado About Nothing!