Since his Oscar-nominated "Henry V" adaptation, Kenneth Branagh has come up with a simple, effective recipe: Blend 3 parts English actors well-versed in all things "Bard" with 1 or 2 parts Hollywood, sprinkle the mixture liberally over one of Shakespeare's plays, lift the material out of its original temporal and local context to provide an updated meaning, and garnish it by casting yourself and, until the mid-1990s, (then-)wife Emma Thompson in opposite starring roles.
In "Much Ado About Nothing," that formula works to near-perfection. A comedy of errors possibly written in one of the Bard's busiest years (1599) – although as usual, dating is a minor guessing game – "Much Ado" lives primarily from its timeless characters, making it an ideal object for transformation à la Branagh. Thus, renaissance Sicily becomes 19th century Tuscany (although the location's name, Messina, remains unchanged); and the intrigues centering around the battle of the sexes between Signor Benedick of Padua (Branagh) and Lady Beatrice (Thompson), the niece of Messina's governor Don Leonato (Richard Briers), and their love's labors won – initially the play's intended title; Benedick and Beatrice are a more liberated version of the earlier "Love's Labor's Lost"'s Biron and Rosaline – as well as the schemes surrounding the play's other couple, Benedick's friend Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) and Beatrice's cousin Hero (Kate Beckinsale) become a light-hearted counterpoint to the more serious, politically charged intrigues of novels such as Stendhal's "Charterhouse of Parma" and "Scarlet and Black:" Indeed, the military campaign from which Benedick and Claudio are returning with Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon (Denzel Washington) at the story's beginning could easily be one associated with Italy's 19th century struggle for nationhood.
While according to the play's conception it is ostensibly the relationship between Hero and Claudio that drives the plot – as well as the plotting by Don Pedro's illegitimate brother, Don John (Keanu Reeves) – Beatrice and Benedick are the more interesting couple; both sworn enemies of love, they are not kept apart by a scheming villain but by their own conceit, and are brought toghether by a ruse of Don Pedro's (although even that wouldn't have worked against their will: "Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably," Benedick once tells Beatrice.) And while Don John's machinations create much heartbreak and drama once they have come into fruition, the story's highlights are Benedick's and Beatrice's battles of wits; the sparks flying between them from their first scene to their last: even in front of the chapel, they still – although now primarily for their audience's benefit – respond to each other's question "Do not you love me?" with "No, no more than reason," and when Benedick finally tells Beatrice he will have her, but only "for pity," she tartly answers, "I would not deny you; – but ... I yield upon great persuasion; and partly to save your life, for I was told you were in a consumption" – whereupon Benedick, most uncharacteristically, stops her with a kiss.
Branagh's and Thompson's chemistry works to optimum effect here; and while every Kenneth Branagh movie is as much star vehicle for its creator as it is about the project itself, Benedick's conversion from a man determined not to let love "transform [him] into an oyster" into a married man (because after all, "the world must be peopled. When I said I would die a bachelor I did not think I should live – till I were married"!) is a pure joy to watch. Emma Thompson's Beatrice, similarly, is an incredibly modern, independent young woman; and scenes like her advice to Hero not to blindly follow her father's (Don Leonato's) wishes in marrying but, if necessary, "make another courtesy and say, Father, as it please me" only enhance the play's and her character's timeless quality.
Yet, while the leading couple's performances are the movie's shining anchor pieces, there is much to enjoy in the remaining cast as well: Richard Briers's Don Leonato, albeit more English country squire than Italian nobleman, is the kind of doting father that many a daughter would surely wish for; and what he may lack in Italian flavor is more than made up for in Brian Blessed's Don Antonio, Leonato's brother. Kate Beckinsale is a charming, innocent Hero and well-matched with Robert Sean Leonard's Claudio (who after Dead Poets Society seemed virtually guaranteed to show up in a Shakespeare adaptation sooner or later); as generally, leaving aside the appropriateness of American accents in a movie like this, the Hollywood contingent acquits itself well. Washington's, Leonard's and Brier's "Cupid" plot particularly is a delight (even if Washington might occasionally have gained extra mileage enunciation-wise). Keanu Reeves, cast against stereotype as Don John, is a bit too busy looking sullen to realize the role's full sardonic potential: "melancholy," in Shakespeare's times, after all was a generic term encompassing everything from madness to various saner forms of ill humor; and I wonder what – but for the generational difference – someone like Sir Ian McKellen might have done with that role. But as a self-described "plain-dealing villain" Reeves is certainly appropriately menacing. Michael Keaton's Dogberry, finally, is partly brother-in-spirit to Beetlejuice, partly simply the eternal stupid officer; the play's boorish comic relief and as such spot-on, delivering his many malaproprisms with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek.
The cast is rounded out by several actors who might well have demanded larger roles but nevertheless look ideally matched for the parts they play, including Imelda Staunton and Phyllida Law as Hero's gentlewomen Margaret and Ursula, Gerard Horan and Richard Clifford as Don John's associates Borachio and Conrade, and Ben Elton as Dogberry's "neighbor" Verges. (In addition, score composer Patrick Doyle stands in as minstrel Balthazar.) With minimal editing of the play's original language, a set design making full use of the movie's Tuscan setting, and lavish production values overall, this is a feast for the senses and, on the whole, an adaptation of which even the Bard himself, I think, would have approved.