Play: Much Ado About Nothing
Year Produced: 2006
Emma Thompson – Beatrice
Kenneth Branagh – Benedick
Kate Beckinsale – Hero
Robert Sean Leonard – Claudio
Keanu Reeves- Don John
What can I say about this movie?
It’s just, I mean, come on.
Ok, sorry, sorry. Yes, this one made an impression on me. The first time I watched it, I was over at a friend’s house in 8th grade for a sleepover. We were all scandalized by the presence of NAKED MEN and BUTTS and BOSOMS right THERE on the SCREEN, but all of the scandal (ok, there wasn’t that much scandal, but it was formative for 8th-grade-me, let’s all be real here) quickly faded into a warm sort of glow (shush it) and a sense of wonder at the flowing language, so strange and different and yet at the same time so lovely. In terms of how far it varies from the source material, this movie takes it pretty much verbatim, although the costumes do have a bit of liberties taken, who cares. BUTTS!
I think one of the reasons why this version works so well is the obvious chemistry between then-married Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh. There’s a million and five reviews that detail exactly why they work so well in this, so I won’t retread old ground. What does stand out to me on more recent viewings, though, is how sympathetic and complex Denzel Washington’s Don Pedro is in this. He is a man worthy of respect, a man that people follow and want to follow; when he shares a moment of honesty with Beatrice, in Act 2, Scene 1—
Good Lord, for alliance! Thus goes every one to the
world but I, and I am sunburnt; I may sit in a
corner and cry heigh-ho for a husband!
Lady Beatrice, I will get you one.
I would rather have one of your father’s getting.
Hath your grace ne’er a brother like you? Your
father got excellent husbands, if a maid could come by them.
Will you have me, lady?
No, my lord, unless I might have another for
working-days: your grace is too costly to wear
every day. But, I beseech your grace, pardon me: I
was born to speak all mirth and no matter.
Your silence most offends me, and to be merry best
becomes you; for, out of question, you were born in
a merry hour.
No, sure, my lord, my mother cried; but then there
was a star danced, and under that was I born…
He knows her, well enough at least to know that being merry best becomes her. I love the way these two play this scene, and it made me wonder, just for a moment, whether they actually would be quite well-suited.
Ah, but the key thing is with our dear Bea and Ben, anyone might think her most beautiful when she’s being cheerful, but he knows her best. He gives her the gift of his sincerity, his acceptance of all of who she is—vengeance and anger and rage at Hero’s ill-treatment—and he finally takes something seriously. The idea that true love is knowing how to break someone, knowing their weakest point, and then choosing not to harm them, is so true in this play.
Which of course, makes the Hero/Claudio dynamic so poignant.
Watching two of these in a row has just confirmed for me that Claudio is one of those really secretly meaty parts that it takes the right kind of actor to pull off. Because he has to sell it, the love, the adoration, the total devotion—and then the way he turns on her so cruelly. Kate Beckinsale is so gorgeous in this film, and she’s, what, nineteen? If I remember correctly this is her first proper film role, and I love the way her Hero is so open and honest throughout her performance, not a wholly innocent, naive child, but a young woman, in the full bloom of her youth. Robert Sean Leonard’s Claudio is everything a dashing young soldier should be. He sits his horse well, dances well, has heart-eyes every time he sees her. When he rejects her, based on the false information and the manipulation from the scheming Don John, his indignation is equal parts disgust at Hero’s purported falsehood as well as grief and rage at his own situation.
This, I think, is what makes Claudio, as a character, so difficult to redeem in the end. He has to make himself forgivable, and I don’t always think he can. In fact, at least one modern adaptation has it so that Hero doesn’t take him back. But it’s a comedy, and it’s supposed to end in a wedding, so of course by the text it does. I always wonder, though, what kind of a marriage the two couples would’ve had, after the end credits. Beatrice and Benedick have already seen the worst in each other, and have made the choice to love despite it all. Claudio believes the worst in Hero, and repents, but Hero herself does not really have that much of an arc. Is this unsatisfying? Nah, let’s just think about scruffy, ageless, shirtless, sweaty Keanu Reeves instead.