I’m not going to admit I’m old enough to have seen Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing in theaters, but let’s just imagine that it happened. It was 1993 and the world was a simpler place. The Cold War was over! The economy was booming! Crime was down! So the overall fluffiness of this film–while still landing as silly–was less of a shock than it would be now. Branagh was making a name for himself with his adaptations of Shakespeare plays, having already adapted and directed Henry V to great acclaim. His ability to bring The Bard to the big screen using Hollywood actors was a unique calling card that helped him start his career on a high that I’m not sure he’s maintained. But in the early 90s, he was the man, as we would’ve said at the time. His Much Ado was heralded as a feel-good movie, a sweet and gently funny comedy. A lot of it is! Some of it, decidedly, is not. The movie begins with a “Hey, nonny, nonny!” and ends with one, too. In between there is a horrifying amount of lying, betrayal, and epic slut-shaming, but somehow it still manages to feel sunbaked and cozy and happy.
The location in Italy is gorgeous, because Italy. The actors are all gorgeous, too. The young lovers, Hero and Claudio, are portrayed by a luminous Kate Beckinsale in her first role and Robert Sean Leonard fresh off of his turn in Dead Poets Society. They moon over each other and that’s about it for their characterization, but they’re so pretty that it doesn’t matter. Hero, in particular, is a cipher. She barely speaks, letting the characters around her define her by their descriptions: she’s sweet, and beloved by all, and a virgin. That’s it. That’s her entire character, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the “virgin” aspect is really the only thing that matters.
This is offensive, and it was even in 1993. But the film ignores the inherent ugliness of a sweet young girl whose only worth is her purity. Not only is it ignored, it’s at odds with the way other women are treated in the very same movie. Imelda Staunton’s Margaret, who actually does have extramarital sex in full view of other people, thereby ruining Hero’s reputation, is never punished and is instead forgiven with a laugh and a fatherly kiss from her lord. And Emma Thompson’s Beatrice is, for lack of a better word, a maneater. She’s fiercely independent and funny, mocks men until they are all half in love with her, and openly declares that she never intends to marry. The most this earns her is an exasperated-but-loving shake of the head from her uncle, who presumably will have to support her single ass for her entire life.
Women generally seem adored and appreciated in the house of Richard Briers’ Leonato, in fact. The household is a group of white-clad lovely people who never seem to work, but spend a lot of time hanging out together singing and eating grapes and listening to Beatrice read poetry. They also laugh. A lot. Like, a LOT. It’s frequently difficult to understand what exactly they’re laughing at, but I believe Branagh wanted us to think that they simply laugh because they’re happy. Maybe I’m dead inside, because I don’t tend to walk around chuckling when I’m in a good mood, but then I don’t live in a gorgeous villa in Tuscany.
Apparently there is a war going on when the story begins, because Claudio is off fighting. The house receives news of his safety–and victory–while they’re all lounging in a grove of fig trees laughing at a poem. So I guess they weren’t super worried about the war. Still, they’re happy to hear that Claudio is okay–better than okay, a war hero!–because Hero has a crush on him. Hero doesn’t say that, mind you. The other characters around her say it, and she just blushes prettily.
Claudio, along with his commander, Don Pedro, are on their way to Leonato’s right this minute! That’s happy news! Everyone laughs. They all run home and change from their white clothes into other white clothes, laughing the whole time. Meanwhile, Don Pedro’s group rides in slow motion toward the house. They’re also laughing and beautiful. Don Pedro is played by Denzel Washington, so…beautiful. His best friends and loyal soldiers, Claudio and Benedick, are portrayed by Leonard and Kenneth Branagh…beautiful. And his bastard brother Don John (an actual bastard, in every meaning of the word) is played by Keanu Reeves, who… “beautiful” doesn’t even begin to describe Keanu in this role.
It’s hard to remember now, but Keanu began his career being a doofus. He was a memorable doofus in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and he was the same doofus in Parenthood. He also came off as a doofus in real life, because we hadn’t yet learned that the doofosity was actually Keanu’s special version of Zen. Long story short, to see Keanu in this movie, sneering and being buff and shirtless and oiled was a whole Thing. It did not, at all, mean that his acting was good. Reader, his acting in this movie is terrible. Embarrassingly bad, which was true of many Keanu roles in the 1990s. At the time, we all realized this and made fun of it. But we also couldn’t help noticing that he was So Hot. SO HOT. Branagh obviously noticed this too, because he had shirtless Keanu being massaged with oil in order to distract us from the wooden line delivery.
Anyway. Don Pedro and his crew of laughing men and scowling Keanu ride toward the house, stopping for a naked dip in a fountain first. And then there’s a laughing, clapping meeting of the soldiers and the household, and the best part of the movie begins: Beatrice and Benedick see each other and start their verbal battle. These two are the genesis of the evergreen “sparring couple” plot, and it’s easy to see why. The actors, married at the time, had amazing chemistry. More than that, though, Shakespeare’s lines are devastatingly funny. The guy could write! Thompson and Branagh are both able to speak Shakespearean English as easily as they speak modern English, so there’s nothing stilted in the delivery, and their body language adds context where American ears might not catch the meaning of the words. Viewers, trained by a lifetime of romantic comedy, instantly recognize these two as lovers in spite of their avowed hatred of each other.
I could write an entire piece just about Beatrice and Benedick, and maybe I will! But for now, let’s just say that this film is memorable only because of them. We laugh at the barbs they toss at each other, but we also see that Beatrice is hurt by his words, though she’ll never let anyone know it. We see that Benedick is frustrated by his own response to her–he’s a joker, a man of such wit that nobody is quicker and nobody gets under his skin. But she does. We root for them to realize their dislike is actually attraction, but the fighting is such fun that we’re in no hurry.
Because there’s no character development, Claudio takes one look at Hero and decides he’s hopelessly in love. Don Pedro is instantly on board and decides to woo her on Claudio’s behalf. Which, what? Is that a thing men do? Seems weird. But soon we’re at a masked dance and Don Pedro is proposing to Hero while Beatrice and Benedick bicker amusingly. The bastard Don John tries to convince Claudio that Don Pedro is cock-blocking him and poor stupid Claudio believes it. (Again, though, why wouldn’t he? Another man proposing on your behalf is messed up.) Claudio pouts like a child until it’s revealed that Don Pedro is a true friend and has gotten Hero engaged to Claudio. The two young lovers look pretty but have nothing really to say to each other, so they’re shuffled offscreen in order to let Beatrice talk to Don Pedro. This scene consists of two Oscar-winning actors flirting in Shakespeare, so it’s incredible.
Denzel’s face as he proposes marriage! He’s besotted with her intellect. And Thompson’s expression as she realizes he’s being serious while she was joking. She lets him down gently, but it still hurts them both. Once she’s gone, Don Pedro shakes if off with admirable quickness and hatches a plot to hook her up with Benedick. Leonato, Hero, Claudio, and their friends are all recruited to help trick Beatrice and Benedick into falling in love.
But first, a song! A whole song, sung by a bard while we watch the household dance through their picturesque Tuscan chores. Nobody’s even sweaty, which is never true in Italy. It’s nice to see a movie willing to take the time for this lovely nonsense. It wouldn’t happen today. And then, song over, we’re back to business. Don Pedro, Claudio, and Leonato spring their trap, and the actors are clearly enjoying themselves here as much as the characters are. They know Benedick’s hiding nearby, so they spin a tale of Beatrice’s desperate love for him. A few minutes later, Hero and her serving woman Ursula do the same for her benefit.
It’s pretty damn funny watching Branagh and Thompson react to overhearing that they are beloved. My favorite part is Branagh’s not-entirely-true-to-the-source-material reading of “She loves me! Why?” Both of them are great actors, and both can be hilarious, and we get to see all of it on display here. The characters obediently fall in love, but separately. Without even talking to Beatrice, Benedick approaches her uncle, Leonato, to ask for her hand in marriage.
Alas, while all that good fun is happening, the bastard Don John is hatching yet another plot to make Claudio miserable. His plan is to accomplish this by absolutely obliterating Hero’s honor. His servant goes off to seduce her servant, Margaret, and Don John takes Claudio and Don Pedro to see the two getting it on in the window of Hero’s chamber. They easily believe it’s Hero doing the deed, not Margaret. Don John snickers in his evil way while the two goody-goodies react as if they’re watching a murder instead of sex.
Rather than quietly calling the whole thing off, Claudio and Don Pedro decide to publicly humiliate Hero with a sham wedding. At the altar, Claudio self-righteously accuses her of not being a virgin, shoving her violently to the ground as he does so. He rages and tosses furniture around, his voice cracking under the weight of the indignity done to him. Don Pedro joins in, using a slur for Hero and barely controlling the fury of the insult to himself–that insult being that a woman had sex. The two of them are bad enough in their injured pride, while Hero, in shock, screams, cries, and faints without them caring. But even worse is her father, Leonato, the jolly and loving lord. On a dime, he turns on Hero. He doesn’t even consider asking for her version of the story; he simply begins beating her and yelling that he’d rather she be dead than a woman who has had sex. When she protests her innocence, he doesn’t believe her. After all, he points out, two men said she was a slut, so it must be true.
Shockingly, it is Benedick–who earlier claimed that he has no use for women–and the priest who come to Hero’s defense. They realize there’s something fishy going on, and Leonato listens to them, of course, though he ignored Hero. The priest comes up with a typically ludicrous Shakespearean plot to fix things. It involves Hero pretending to have died upon being accused of the hideous crime of having sex, which will cause Claudio to feel bad and remember how much he loved her. Leonato, crying with grief over the very idea that his daughter had sex, is led away. And Hero is comforted by the priest with the idea that maybe his plan will make Claudio marry her after all. Yuck.
At this point, all the pretty frothiness of this film, all its singing, dancing, and joking cannot make the moment anything but irredeemable. Every woman watching is frozen in horror. I’m not sure, on the whole, whether Kenneth Branagh ever realized that. But I believe Emma Thompson did. Because in the very next scene, as she and Benedick declare their love for each other, Beatrice gives the most righteous female-rage speech in history. And Thompson nails it. It’s been decades, and I still think of her pitch perfect delivery of the line “O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the marketplace!” She is incandescent with fury, and she lists every reason for her anger: that the men are lying, that a woman’s life can be destroyed just by an accusation of sex, that they chose to do it publicly so as to have the most impact, that they are now considered “valiant” while her beloved cousin is destroyed, and that she, as a woman, is utterly helpless to avenge Hero. It’s a barnburner of a speech. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a brilliant distillation of women’s anger before or since, although I’ve certainly felt my share of it.
Benedick is stunned by her words, and chastened by them. When he first asks her to “bid [him] do anything” for her, Beatrice tells him to kill his best friend, Claudio. And Benedick says no. But that only unleashes more fury from Beatrice, and in the end Benedick realizes that she is entitled to her anger. He takes her side, agrees to challenge Claudio to a duel, and then goes and does it. Claudio and Don Pedro are in good spirits, having ruined Hero’s life, and they try to jest with Benedick as usual. But he stays true to Beatrice, and channels her anger into his challenge. Honestly, this is the manliest thing anyone in the movie does, and it’s sexy as hell.
Having detoured into tragedy with that attack on Hero, the film now returns to comedy as Michael Keaton’s annoying fool reveals that Don John was behind it all and Hero didn’t actually have sex. This, of course, is believed although Hero’s statement wasn’t. Leonato tells a tearful Claudio that his penance is to hang an epitaph on Hero’s “grave” and then marry her (unnamed) cousin instead. Great punishment, Leonato! This guy just killed your daughter with sexism, so why not reward him with another young woman? There’s more singing and pretty scenery as Claudio cries at Hero’s grave, and then we’re back at a wedding! Claudio’s new bride is unmasked…and it’s Hero! Yay! Now she can marry the man who stopped loving her the minute he thought she wasn’t perfect, roughed her up, and called her a slut. This is, apparently, their happy ending, and nobody seems bothered by it.
Beatrice and Benedick get married, too, which salvages the story ever so slightly. They’re such fun to watch. Margaret is embraced and forgiven for actually committing the crime that Hero was beaten for, Benedick lets Claudio off the hook for their upcoming duel, Don John is conveniently captured offscreen and brought back for one last scowl, and Don Pedro is sad because he’s the only singleton at the party. Then everybody dances and sings some more.
It’s hard to know what to make of this movie. It’s a lovely confection of a film wrapped around a gooey center of appalling sexism. That part is Shakespeare’s fault, but there’s no real indication that the filmmakers see a problem with it all these centuries later. I’ve often wondered if Branagh makes a point of showing the tolerance of Beatrice and Margaret’s unladylike behavior as a way to soften the blow of Hero’s mistreatment. But he leans into that mistreatment so much, including physical violence to punish her, that I’ve never been able to feel sure. So I simply watch the film for its dazzling scenery and brilliant (except Keanu) acting…and I keep my focus firmly on Emma Thompson channeling the fury of all women, everywhere, for the past four hundred years at least.
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