The last time Kenneth Branagh adapted Shakespeare for the big screen, he gave us the powerful and surprisingly contemporary "Henry V," which earned all sorts of accolades.
With the bawdy, decidedly adult "Much Ado About Nothing," Branagh has taken on lighter fare and seems to desire nothing more than to simply have fun and it's apparent Branagh and his all-star cast are indeed having a ball. The good news is that the audience will have just as much fun as the players with this one.
The ensemble story revolves primarily around two sets of couples: The witty, tart-tongued Beatrice (played by "Howards End" Oscar-winner Emma Thompson, who is also Branagh's wife), and the caustic rake Benedick (Branagh), who has a reputation to live down (or up to). And young Count Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) and Beatrice's cousin Hero (Kate Beckinsale).
They all come together when Benedick and Claudio are among the soldiers who return triumphantly from war, led by their prince, Don Pedro (Denzel Washington). Also in the group is Don John (Keanu Reeves), Don Pedro's half-brother and the villain of the piece.
The setting is an Italian villa in a lush landscape, where the prince and his warriors settle in for a monthlong vacation, hosted by Leonato (Richard Briers), who is Hero's father.
The two main plots have Don Pedro and Leonato conspiring as matchmakers to bring together Beatrice and Benedick, and evil Don John attempting to tear apart the young lovers Claudio and Hero.
Branagh has obviously directed members of his cast to clearly express themselves for the modern audience, as their emphatic readings of the dialogue and the physical comedy here indicate. But he may have miscalculated a bit with the business surrounding Don John, which doesn't seem to have enough foundation for us to understand his jealousy of his half-brother. Reeves' stolid playing doesn't help.
The weirdest casting, however, is Michael Keaton as the constable, Dogberry, as he seems to think he's doing "Beetlejuice, Part II." (And his riding an imaginary horse seems right out of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail.") Still, after an initial sequence that feels awkward, Keaton gets the desired laughs.
The rest of the cast especially Thompson and Branagh is terrific from beginning to end.
Purists may complain that with his casting here especially that of Keaton and some other obvious attempts to shake up the material and make it more palatable to contemporary audiences, Branagh has lost some of the Bard's integrity. Balderdash.
"Much Ado About Nothing" is funny, witty and as bright as anything to grace the screen in some time, and if Branagh's attitudes bring in some audience members who might otherwise not be caught dead at Shakespeare, more power to him.
The film is rated PG-13 for a sex scene, considerable nudity in the opening sequence, some mild vulgarity and some violence.