The 1993 film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, by Kenneth Branagh, differs in many aspects from the original script written by Shakespeare. Branagh employs brilliant cinematography, manipulating lighting, camera angles to produce a carefree version to the original text. The soundtrack is dazzling and his interpretation breathes life and vitality into this old world play.
According to critic Vincent Canby, “He has taken a Shakespearean romantic comedy, the sort of thing that usually turns to mush on the screen and made a movie that is triumphantly romantic, comic and, most surprising of all, emotionally alive” (May 7th, 1993). Lighting, music and technology enhance the various moods that perpetuate the film and Branagh is thus able to overcome language barriers, which enables the performance to be more understandable for a modern audience. The movie is assumed to be more light-hearted and free flowing than the original text.
According to critic Todd McCarthy “The film is continuously enjoyable from its action-filled opening to the dazzling final shot. ” Much Ado about Nothing is a tale of friendship, betrayal and the power of love to conquer all obstacles. It is one of Shakespeare’s comedies and though it has a dark side, staying true to being a comedy, serious issues are treated light heartedly. Branagh moves the setting from Messina to the verdant hills of Tuscany. His choice of setting therefore determines his overall mood for the film. The production begins with the recitation of Balthazar’s song by Beatrice (Emma Thompson).
When the scene comes to light the audience is exposed to a striking panoramic shot of the rich rural setting. The shot then pans down to a society picnicking under the Tuscan sun. The society seems relaxed and warm as they loll on the grass listening to Beatrice (Emma Thompson), who is perched in a tree, reciting the song. The pace quickly changes from lethargy to one of excitement, as a messenger brings news of the forthcoming arrival of Don Pedro (Denzel Washington) and his men. Men and women scurry to the villa amid screams and laughter to get ready for the prince.
Thoughts of war are abandoned and replaced by thoughts of love. The plot then revolves around two couples, Hero (Kate Beckinsale) and Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard), and Beatrice and Benedict (Kenneth Branagh). Claudio seeks Don Pedro’s help in wooing Hero. Once successful the prince then turns his attention to older, warring couple of Beatrice and Benedick and plots to gull them into falling in love. However, Don John (Keanu Reeves), the bastard, plots to destroy harmony in the play as he tries to foil the plans of marriage between the younger couple.
His victory is fleeting as his evil plans are unearthed by Dogberry and his night watch. All ends well and the production ends in dancing and merriment. From the very beginning Branagh utilizes the advantages that technology has made possible producing a zesty film that is emotionally alive. He employs many techniques to make his production a success the first being the manipulation of different camera angles. As the film begins the audience hears the recital of what was originally Balthazar’s song by Beatrice, the words to the song appearing in white against a black backdrop, to the gentle lilt of a guitar.
In this opening scene the screen comes to light with a magnificent panoramic shot of the countryside scenery. This establishes a very light-hearted and airy mood, and thus sets the tone for the production as blithe and jocular. Branagh sets his film at the Villa Vignamaggio in the hills of Tuscany, the bright Tuscan sunshine adds to the nature of the film giving it a jovial feel. The scene ‘pans’ down to men and women, sitting in the grass, occasionally playing with each other’s hair, allowing time to pass in a carefree manner.
This slow ‘pan shot’ then quickly changes to a rapid flicking from scene to scene as Don Pedro arrives. The mood that is then highlighted is one of excitement as the camera switches from focusing of the scurry of characters to the villa and the victorious entrance of the prince and his men. As the film progresses Branagh exploits the use of the different camera angles to provide emotional information about the characters involved in the scene which thus allows the audience to form judgments about those said characters. For instance, when Benedick first speaks, the camera angle changes to focus on Beatrice – she scowls.
This close-up allows the audience intimate details of the character’s emotional state. Here it hints to a history, a painful one at that, between the two. Even in the shaming scene, Branagh is able to focus on Margaret. In the original text Margaret is completely left out. Shakespeare was not privy to the advances of technology thus he was not able to do as Branagh did, thus Margaret was left out of the original scene. However through her show of guilt Branagh is able to reassure the audience that this will not last a feat Shakespeare achieved through manipulating language and plot structure.
Significantly, when the villains tell of the “betrayal” of Hero the plan is never revealed however, and the camera angle switches to show Hero in her bed alone again reaffirming to the audience the truth something Shakespeare attained through language. Also as Branagh abridges the two gulling scenes, he is able to then superimpose the end of each scene, one over the next to show both characters experiencing the same thing. The cameras focus on their faces highlighting the immense joy they are both experiencing and relaying it onto the audience.
Benedict is playing in the fountain and Beatrice is swinging on a swing, love is triumphant over the squabbles and the characters are now content. Another noteworthy technique that Branagh employs is that of character placement. In the opening scene Beatrice is shown perched in a tree, unlike the other women who are sitting, this immediately signifies that she is different. Shakespearean comedies usually have heroines possessing qualities beyond their time. Shakespeare is able to establish Beatrice’s character a witty and independent through her language and interaction with other characters.
Through her interaction with the messenger who yields, and her witty repartee with Benedick, Shakespeare produces a character way beyond her time. However, managing simple character placement Branagh is able to visually complement what is set by language and that is an independent, strong character. Even when the soldiers arrive from war, the riding formation is to character role and status: Don Pedro, the prince, is place in the middle to the forefront and he is flanked on both sides, to the left by the ‘villains’ Don John and his henchmen and to the right by the ‘heroes’ Claudio and the others.
Also in the shaming scene all the women take Hero’s side with the exception of Benedick who stays to support his love Beatrice, while the men are on the opposite side defending their honor against the ‘unchaste’ Hero. Costuming in this film is quite simple. The characters are dressed in white cotton which evokes a sense of simplicity which matches his vision for the play and complements the setting perfectly however, it does then produce a society that is quite leisurely and not like original society which was overly concerned with outward appearances.
In Shakespearean times, dress was very important especially since it shows status and that was one of the most important things even in the original script of the play. However Branagh makes simple variations which are quite as successful. For instance Don Pedro and Don John don leather pants; all soldiers wear the same uniform with the exception of color to show their roles. The villains’ pants and jacket collars are black while the heroes don blue pants and blue collared jackets. The prince is the only character seen wearing a gold chain and pendant.
With these slight variations in costuming Branagh is able to achieve the same means and stays true to his vision for the play. The soundtrack to the film was brilliant, at the beginning a cadence of guitar complements the languid feeling at the picnic as the mood changes so too does the music. The soundtrack soars to add excitement and hint victory as the Prince arrives. When the scene changes and Don John takes center frame the tune is ominous, the music is threatening and thunder booms as he puts his first plot to work.
The soundtrack take on a melancholic tune as Claudio believes that the Prince is wooing Hero for himself. Shakespeare knew the importance of music. It is Balthazar’s song that Branagh employs suitably as the theme song for the film as it comments on the inconsistencies of men who “are deceivers ever”. Branagh’s use of props not only adds visual insight but comedy as well. In the beginning when the men arrive from war the flag thrusted upwards symbolizes their victory. For the masked ball, the characters wore appropriate masks which related to characteristics of the characters that wore them.
Leonato wore a skull which signifies his old age, Borachio had a Cyclops mask which highlights his evil, Beatrice wore a cat mask which symbolizes her cunning nature and sexual prowess, Benedict wore a fool’s mask as he is frequently the joker, Hero had a pure white mask showing her purity, and Claudio had a baby mask symbolizing his youth. Benedict is seen fidgeting with his mask as Beatrice bashes him mercilessly, which shows his deflating ego as he endures the verbal abuse. Benedict has a fold chair as his prop for his soliloquy; he fidgets with the chair to add comedy.
Once again this shows that Branagh uses his ability to have props to his advantage to make the movie more appealing to a modern audience. Branagh chose Denzel Washington to portray Don Pedro despite the fact that all Shakespeare’s actors were white. It was a smart thing to do however, because he is instantly recognized, being the Prince, and this blatantly shows the infidelity due to the stark contrast between him and Don John who is played by Keanu Reeves. The actors for Benedick and Beatrice are Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson who were married in real life and their natural chemistry comes out while portraying these characters.
Shakespeare uses language to emphasize incompetence. Critics say that Dogberry’s language is lost in the squabble of Michael Keaton’s overacting. While Shakespeare depends on language Keaton is more dependent on his movements and antics to be comedic. According to critics from ‘Cinema For Crazy’ “Some of the characters are a bit annoying, like the constable played by Michael Keaton, and some of the scenes are overly dramatic, but it is Shakespeare after all and when it comes to playing with words, there’s no one better.
Branagh and Thompson are wonderful together, Leonard and Beckinsale embody everything young lovers should be, Washington is powerfully sexy as the lonely leader and even Reeves delivers as the sullen villain. ” Branagh makes full use of the lighting and setting, some of the things that Shakespeare was not fortunate enough to have in his time. All of the scenes where love blooms are usually outside in Branagh’s production; the outdoor landscape is very light-hearted and highlights the affectionate nature. The talks of love and courtship take place out in the green, in an airy setting where the mood is tranquil and cheerful.
Villainy thrives in dimly lit areas. When the audience is exposed to Don John’s true nature it takes place in the dark sort of dungeon-like place, which is suited for evil. Branagh must also be commended on his use of the outdoors; he takes advantage of his environment by taking his production outside whereas Shakespeare was limited to the stage. Branagh’s use of this also enables his production to be more appealing to the audience and more understanding as most of the playful scenes take place outdoors.
The wedding scene takes place outside in a merry environment which is supposed to make the shaming scene lighter. Branagh’s rendition of Much Ado about Nothing is very similar in meaning to that of the original text and deserves a certain level of credit for his precision. Branagh saw to the needs of a modern audience and set his production to their appeal. His use of comedy, lighting, cinematography and costuming each contribute significantly in their own way to the play. Although Branagh made a few mistakes; for example casting Keaton as Dogberry, which was the most negatively critiqued character.
The critic James Berardinelli also says that Reeves’ casting has “missed its mark” and “modern actors who seem out of place in the period setting”. Branagh chose to base his main focus on the Elizabethans’ preoccupation with loyalty and chastity rather than on their fixation with outward appearances. It can be concluded that Kenneth Branagh’s interpretation of Much Ado about Nothing is without a doubt considerably accurate in terms of its acquiescence with the text. Despite the fact that he does not capture everything in the play, the pieces which he does, enables a clearer understanding of the play for a modern day audience.