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6) Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare; and film version directed by Kenneth Branagh

I have been unfaithful to Arkangel. I was quite enjoying their presentation, particularly with the excellent Saskia Reeves as Beatrice, but I kept on thinking back to the cinema version of 1993, which I remember with deep nostalgia because it was the year we got married; and eventually I thought, OK, I'll get hold of the Branagh version and watch it instead. Which was surprisingly easy, and definitely worth it.

The play itself is genuinely funny, not quite as funny as A Comedy of Errors, but a better play - the characters are better rounded, and the drama frankly more believable. Beatrice is surely one of the most memorable female roles in Shakespeare (I think only Portia is in the same league). I see from IMDB that her role was played by Penelope Keith in the 1978 BBC version, and by Maggie Smith in a 1967 version which also starred Caroline "Liz Shaw" John as Hero. But the overall frame is good too, the contrast between the Claudia/Hero and Beatrice/Benedick romances, neither of which is straightforward, but complicated in different ways. The Dogberry bits are, for once, pretty integral to the plot, though I suspect it is difficult to integrate them with satisfactory unity of style. (If I were staging it, I'd have Dogberry's guards and maybe even Dogberyy himself visible in the background in all the early crowd scenes, so that they don't appear out of nowhere in Act III.)

Branagh's version is generally beautiful to watch and listen to. The good points include the general sense of movement on screen; the quite gorgeous Kate Beckinsale, who dropped out of Oxford to make this (and who can dispute that she made the right decision); the brilliance of most of the cast (especially the elders, Richard Briers, Brian Blessed, and, where she is allowed, Phyllida Law); and above all the sparkling chemistry between Branagh himself and Thompson (indeed, they almost seem to like each other too much at the beginning). The most serious misfire is with Keanu Reeves, who doesn't quite seem to understand what he is doing there except being Bad. I didn't object as much to Michael Keaton as Dogberry, perhaps because he kept inflicting senseless violence on Ben Elton, which is never a bad thing. I did, however, feel that the darker passages of Act IV hit the tone unduly; most of Branagh's cuts to the script are from the funny bits earlier in the play, and I think that unbalances Shakespeare's original plot dynamic, and results a darker piece perhaps than was intended perhaps by Branagh and certainly by Shakespeare.

Henry VI, Part I | Henry VI, Part II | Henry VI, Part III | Richard III | Comedy of Errors | Titus Andronicus | Taming of the Shrew | Two Gentlemen of Verona | Love's Labour's Lost | Romeo and Juliet | Richard II | A Midsummer Night's Dream | King John | The Merchant of Venice | Henry IV, Part I | Henry IV, Part II | Henry V | Julius Caesar | Much Ado About Nothing | As You Like It | Merry Wives of Windsor | Hamlet | Twelfth Night | Troilus and Cressida | All's Well That Ends Well | Measure for Measure | Othello | King Lear | Macbeth | Antony and Cleopatra | Coriolanus | Timon of Athens | Pericles | Cymbeline | The Winter's Tale | The Tempest | Henry VIII | The Two Noble Kinsmen | Edward III | Sir Thomas More (fragment)


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 14th, 2008 09:28 am (UTC)
I was at college with Kate Beckinsale before her untimely departure. She was so beautiful that it almost physically hurt to look at her. I have never been able to convince myself that this is a gift to be welcomed.
Dec. 14th, 2008 10:50 am (UTC)
The 1984 BBC TV Shakespeare version with Cherie Lunghi as Beatrice, Robert Lindsay as Benedick and Michael Elphick as Dogberry is also very well worth a look. And Vernon Dobtcheff as an underplayed but quietly malevolent Don John.

One thing I liked about the Branagh version is that they made the Claudio/Hero story work, which is a difficult thing to do as to me it's probably the least plausible part of the story.
Dec. 14th, 2008 06:40 pm (UTC)
Mmm, I agree - Claudio has to turn in two seconds from a likeable, hot-headed youth in love, to an implacable bastard bent on publicly shaming the woman he adored, without so much as asking her to account for what he appeared to see. Lots of versions I've seen - even the utterly brilliant NT one from earlier this year, with Zoe Wanamaker and Simon Russell Beale as Beatrice and Benedick and a generally excellent cast - had trouble with that. I agree that Robert Sean Leonard does a decent job of appearing sufficiently broken as well as vindictive. I think if I were directing, I'd try to show that Claudio is a bit unstable even in at his happiest, and has a tendency to idolise or demonise others - you'd have to work with the bit where he thinks the Prince has wooed Hero for himself.
Dec. 14th, 2008 01:15 pm (UTC)
I liked the Branagh version, but I remember finding it unduly fluffy. Quite apart from Keanu "you can tell he's evil because of the music" Reeves, they could have made a lot more out of the dark parts of the story. I saw it not long after seeing a stage production in London, which not only had a hilariously spunky Benedict and Beatrice, but also made the dark bits really very very dark and authentically scary. After that, both the humour and the darkness in Branagh's version felt rather flat.

I also did a May week production in Cambridge, which was just silly of course. I played Leonato, and spent most of my time on stage trying to make the other actors giggle. With some success.
Dec. 15th, 2008 11:56 pm (UTC)
Leather pants! All the baddies wear leather pants.
Dec. 15th, 2008 11:56 pm (UTC)
i like the Branagh version too. I agree that the chemistry between Beatrice and Benedick starts too soon but I find myself not caring overmuch. I also love the casting of Blessed as the uncle who does a properly scary job of what is usually something of a pastiche scene of threatening bloody vengeance. Although the symbolism of the Prince being played by the only black actor has worrying Othello-esque overtones for me but I suppress, I suppress. I think Keanu was hired because in those days British actors seem to enjoy torturing him (accounts of what Hopkins et al did to him in the actorly bonding sessions of Coppola's Dracula read like nasty schoolboy bully stories). Day 1 riding English style in leather pants apparently resulted in chafing that created the distinctive walk for the character for the rest of the movie. ... Have just realised where I saw that handsome Dr Wilson in House before. Thanks!
Jan. 30th, 2010 08:19 am (UTC)
Maggie Smith version 1967
I was wondering where you saw the 1967 version with Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens and where i could buy it. I love Maggie Smith and I could not find it anywhere. Thank You! Please let me know in a comment ASAP. THANKS!!!!!!!!
Jan. 30th, 2010 10:25 am (UTC)
Re: Maggie Smith version 1967
Sorry to say I never saw it; just got the details off IMDB. I had a look for commercially available versions a few months ago but came up empty-handed.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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