Directed by Kenneth Branagh. UK. 1993.

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A prominent theme in the plays of William Shakespeare is that of the ambiguous or unjust accusation of infidelity. Proteus' treatment of Julia in Two Gentlemen of Verona, Angelo's of Mariana in Measure for Measure, and Bertram's of Helena in All's Well That Ends Well as just a few examples.  It is a pervasive motif as well in Shakespeare's comedy Much Ado About Nothing, brought to the screen with exuberance in 1993 by Kenneth Branagh. Much Ado is the story of Claudio and Hero's excellent adventure thwarted by Don John, the sullen half brother of Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon. This Branagh adaptation is filled with gorgeous scenery, outstanding costumes, and an all-star cast that includes Denzel Washington, Emma Thompson, Keanu Reeves, Richard Briers, Robert Sean Leonard, Imelda Staunton, and Kate Beckinsale. The film is so full of high spirits that it successfully undercuts the darkness of the theme and renders it much ado about nothing. 

Set in a 14th-century Tuscan villa in the village of Messina, Sicily at the home of Signor Leonato, the local Governor, the film opens with Leonato (Briers), his niece Beatrice (Thompson) and daughter Hero (Beckinsale) welcoming soldiers returning from battle. Branagh creates a flurry of activity as everyone jumps naked into the pool to bathe in preparation for the occasion. The soldiers are old friends and there is an atmosphere of relaxed joy when they arrive. The returning contingent is led by Don Pedro of Aragon (Washington), Benedick (Branagh), a lord from Padua, Claudio (Leonard), a young lord from Florence, and Don John (Reeves), Pedro's half brother whom he defeated in battle. Upon his arrival, Claudio instantly falls in love with the radiant Hero (Beckinsale) and everyone joyfully prepares for the wedding, with Hero, as was customary for that day, accorded no say whatsoever in the matter. 

Two courtships take place in the story: Claudio and Hero and Benedick and Beatrice. Shakespeare shifts back and forth between the stories of the two couples, interweaving them into a unified whole. Benedick and Beatrice pretend to dislike each other and exchange verbal thrusts and parries. Beatrice is exuberant, tantalizing, and full of wit, remarkably portrayed by the great Emma Thompson while Branagh, a confirmed bachelor, has a boyish charm and a keen intelligence. In spite of his outward disdain for Beatrice, Benedick inwardly burns with love for her and there is strong chemistry between the two (they were husband and wife at the time). It is interesting to note the similarities between Beatrice of Much Ado, Rosaline of Love's Labour's Lost, and Rosalind of As You Like It. All are witty, sharp-tongued women, reminiscent of the fiery Anne Vasavour, a woman of the court who was the lover of the Earl of Oxford and whose courtship offended the Queen and landed Oxford in the tower. 

As everyone looks forward to the wedding, the jealous Don John and his associate Borachio launch a scheme involving Hero's attendant Margaret (Imelda Staunton) to convince the susceptible Claudio that Hero was unfaithful to him on his wedding night. Rather than confronting Hero immediately, Claudio, supported by Don Pedro, cruelly waits for the wedding at which he interrupts the ceremony with a verbal tirade against his bride to be. He tells Leonato, ''Give not this rotten orange to your friend. . . .  She knows the heat of a luxurious bed''. Her father, Leonato, takes Claudio at his word, believing Hero is a whore and despicably says that he would prefer his daughter were dead. The wedding scene causes Hero to faint and Benedick to challenge Claudio to a duel at the behest of Beatrice. To teach Claudio a lesson, Hero goes into hiding and everyone pretends that she has died. 

The theme of wrongful accusation of infidelity is a reminder of the cruel treatment by Oxford of his wife Anne, whom he also wrongly accused of infidelity and who was destroyed by his disbelief in her loyalty. If the play does represent a defense of his behavior, however, it is unconvincing as the accuser shows no remorse and never apologizes for his wanton behavior. As Benedick and Beatrice are manipulated by overheard conversations into believing the other is madly in love with them, Don John's scheme to thwart the marriage is uncovered by the dimwitted Constable Dogberry (Michael Keaton) and the play proceeds in typical Shakespearean fashion with justice and all good things prevailing. Much Ado About Nothing is rousing entertainment that cannot help but leave you in an upbeat mood. 


Howard Schumann
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