Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh (based on the play by William Shakespeare)
Spoilers: moderate unto high—and I'm kind of serious, it's not one of the ones they make you read in high school, you know?
William Shakespeare's 1598/1599 play, Much Ado About Nothing, interferes somewhat with how I had planned on starting a discussion of Kenneth Branagh's 1993 film, Much Ado About Nothing; I had in mind an opening paragraph that talked about how Shakespeare's comedies have been enormously less well-represented onscreen than his tragedies and histories. I was worried this might have just felt like it was true, but this list of Shakespearean motion picture adaptations bears me out—it's not very difficult to find Shakespearean comedies inspiring movies, like the delightful musical Kiss Me, Kate, or 10 Things I Hate About You, or Deliver Us From Eva (people like Taming of the Shrew apparently), but actual film productions thereof remain few and far between. If I'm not mistaken, Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing is only the seventh theatrically-released Shakespeare-written comedy in the English language of the entire sound era. (Which, you infer correctly, does mean that there were a significant number of films based on Shakespearean comedies released during the silent era, because, as everybody agrees, the single best thing about Shakespeare's plays is their plots.) Out of those preceding six—cut me some slack if I missed something—two of them are Midsummer Night's Dream (1935 and 1968), two are As You Like It (1936 and, sneaking in just ahead, 1992), and the remaining two are the barely-the-sound-era 1929 production of Taming of the Shrew and 1986's Twelfth Night; Much Ado About Nothing had never heretofore been produced as a film in English, and had only been adapted in Russia in what Wikipedia tersely refers to as a "Soviet romantic comedy," which I assume means a movie that Ninotchka dutifully laughed at during the approved amusing parts.
I could hypothesize: while "comedy" in this context does not by necessity mean "ha-ha funny," they're still, to whatever degree, and by and large—I think—going for ha-ha funny or something adjacent to that (Much Ado About Nothing, for instance, is definitely but surely not exclusively going for ha-ha funny); and these are all, to point out the obvious, stageplays, so the possible mechanisms of humor are limited to what human actors in the 16th century were capable of doing in a live performance, and accordingly the lightness and breeziness of them is borne on the language itself and very few of us speak early modern English these days. As for the tragedies and histories, their significance is borne rather more upon their scenarios and upon the forcefulness, rather than only the gracefulness (or well-crafted ungracefulness) of their acting. It is therefore an extreme testament to one's love of the Bard that one would strive to bring one of Shakespeare's comedies to life in a populist, commercial medium, and Kenneth Branagh certainly loves him that Bard; I'm being facetious but it still might be literally true to say that fully half of the Shakespearean comedies made subsequent to Much Ado About Nothing are, themselves, also Kenneth Branagh films. And it's worth mentioning that Much Ado About Nothing rewarded Branagh's faith in his subject: it was a reasonably big hit because, I suppose, the early 90s really were just that different (and to get it out there, I like it myself, but wouldn't have bet on its financial success in any era).
Of course, the other reason that they might not make so many Shakespeare comedies into films is that Shakespeare's comedies can depend a whole lot on weird bedroom stuff that doesn't merely fail to jibe with modern sensibilities, but to no small degree fails to jibe with human experience in any way, frequently with people being unable to correctly identify faces or voices, and sometimes not being able to tell which specific person they're currently having sexual intercourse with (e.g., Measure For Measure). As noted, the best thing about Shakespeare's plays is the plots. I don't know, maybe this just seems strange to me because I have unusually good nighttime vision—even moreso, I guess, by 1599 standards.
"Weird bedroom stuff" describes Much Ado About Nothing—the title, by the way, is another vagina pun, Elizabethan-style, following the logic, hole = void = nothing, hence Much Ado About Pussy—and "weird bedroom stuff with attendant (plot) holes" would, likewise, describe the play. The plot hole is possibly more onerous in the movie, since here we see a scene only described in dialogue in the play, regarding a lady-in-waiting ravished by a lover who cries out another's name—given the volume, apparently to someone out in the courtyard, even—and she does not ever put two and two together to suspect she might have been used in a diabolical scheme such as unfolds exactly like a diabolical scheme would unfold, had someone intended her to be misidentified as one of our play's heroines. And we're already spotting the play its particular diabolical scheme, insofar as the villain and his villainy appear to exist purely to motivate the activity of the latter half of the story. As for that story, this is where I return to the way Much Ado About Nothing interferes with talking about Shakespearean "comedies," because—look, I am not a Shakespeare expert nor even all that literate in his works, and I have far too many things that I'm still trying to attain basic competence in to start now, so if you say it's a comedy based on the happy-ending rule, then I guess I have to accept that categorization (it is, after all, John Heminges and Henry Condell's categorization)... but how the hell is this not one of the problem plays? At the very least (I know this isn't what "problem play" means) it does have problems.
Much Ado About Nothing is a strange play, anyhow, and I suggest it means that Branagh really loves his Bard, if he elected to make this his second Shakespeare on screen—thereby defining himself as "the Shakespeare guy," since it was only his fourth movie as a director—after the much more straightforward affair of his directorial debut, Henry V. In Branagh's telling, and I don't know how it could be told much differently, it's a story that feels like Shakespeare was writing a comedy and got tired of it halfway through, whereupon he more-or-less obliterated the comedy and the character relationships within his comedy in favor of a tragedy, but then he remembered he'd promised somebody a comedy, and sort of just sketched in the happy ending that basically forgets entirely about the psychological and emotional reality of the middle acts; and maybe there is a light way to do this, but I personally have grave, grave doubts that a "comedy" would remain much of a comedy in any interpretation, when its plot hinges crucially upon a ruse involving the (fake, but still) death of a woman who died in shame—and it's probably supposed to be suicide, but the play doesn't really bother going into it, and as she's given a Christian burial, the stronger implication is that everyone assumes she's been murdered by her father and this is fine. Of course, it's still Shakespeare, so these characters readily could believe she just keeled over and died.
I'm way too ahead of myself. Much Ado About Nothing is significantly lesser-known than, say, Macbeth—let me be transparent, I previously had no idea what it was about (didn't we already establish it was "pussy"? I did, in fact, know that), but the upshot is that I'm not feigning my shock—so perhaps best not to assume you know, either. So: in Messina, Sicily, presently under Aragonese rule, the governor Leonato (Richard Briers) awaits the coming of his Spanish friend and aristocratic superior, Don Pedro (Denzel Washington), returned from a campaign on the Italian mainland. Waiting with him is his daughter, Hero (baby Kate Beckinsale), and niece, Beatrice (Emma Thompson), and for her part Beatrice waits with resentment because with Pedro comes Benedick, and while she has little use for men in general she really dislikes Benedick (who's Thompson's present husband, our dude Kenneth Branagh, so you can see the romcom phase shaping up already). Hero is more excited, because likewise in Pedro's retinue is Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard), whom she loves though he's too shy to realize this, and will require Pedro to help him get the girl, foreshadowing, I think, the idea that Hero might be easier to seduce than he initially believed. Nobody appears to have any associations, either positive or negative, with the arrival of Pedro's bastard brother John (Keanu Reeves), and as far as I can determine this is why he decides to ruin everybody's life.
But in the meantime, and it's a pretty extended meantime, Hero is engaged to Claudio and they get antsy enough during the wait between the betrothal and the marriage to prank Benedick and Beatrice into thinking the one secretly loves the other, for fun's sake, as well as for their own good. The interlopers succeed, but now it's time for John's devious plot to unfurl, when he stages a tryst between one of his men and "Hero"—in reality her maid, Margaret (Imelda Staunton)—for Claudio and Pedro to witness with their own eyes. Again, Margaret seems to have no objection to being loudly referred to during coitus by her mistress's name. Anyway, Claudio saves his ire for the wedding day, where he humiliates Hero—in Branagh's vision, literally launching her like a weapon at her own dad—and she and her family fake her death, as emotional revenge and to buy time to investigate. Benedick's loyalty is now tested, and he finds his heart lay with Beatrice. Thus, at her instigation, he demands of Claudio satisfaction. They will duel to the death.
They will not duel to the death. This just peters out (is that funny?), but I think one can find it objectively annoying how John's plot comes undone: the goofy constable Dogberry (Michael Keaton, clearly just asked to play Beetlejuice, and not exceeding his agreement with Branagh by one inch) finds out immediately, because the henchman are overheard openly discussing it, and I believe it's supposed to be funny that the main impediment to Leonato not also finding out immediately is Dogberry's lowborn manners, but this is swallowed inside a role that appears to have been designed under the impression that this comedy needed comic relief, which maybe, at this point, it did, though I prefer my comic relief to be funny and not just a silly voice and dreary malapropisms. Beyond the convenient resolution, anyway, it's just some of the most absolutely jarring tones imaginable—hey, I'm finally talking about Branagh's actual movie—and not so usefully as jarring tones had been employed one film earlier in Peter's Friends, let alone with the same superlative formal intelligence (or even the control of specific moods Branagh showed in the climax of Henry V). Yet it's very bewildering and hence interesting for as long as it's still going and you don't know exactly where it's going—I wonder if Branagh's goal was to explore how wildly distinct the two modes of the play were, "matchmaker farce" slamming headlong into "I. DO. NOT. JEST.", and it's notable that the characters overlapping these two modes are played by Branagh and Thompson—but it hoists itself back onto its "comedy" rails so incredibly easily and neatly, once the appointed hour arrives, that it's just not a very satisfying experiment, if experiment it were.
The thing is, there is nothing Branagh could've done about it except not do Much Ado About Nothing in the first place. Saying so could be acceptable film criticism, but not very valuable. So, onwards: the goal of Shakespeare's play is to fret about cuckoldry to a degree distinctive even for Elizabethan literature, and so its goal lies more in the "serious" plot and the latter acts; but the goal of Branagh's movie lies in its first hour, and that's to be one more mash note from Branagh to his wife, giving them a chance to fall in love onscreen while battling each other again, though less shriekily and violently like in Dead Again and more by way of the haughty verbal sparring matches provided by his favorite playwright which, cutely, he mostly loses. Because of the extremely real-life events that would soon overtake the couple, this turned out to be Branagh's very last opportunity for this, and so I'm glad Much Ado About Nothing memorializes it, for it achieves this goal splendidly: as long as "being a romantic comedy" is what the play is actually doing, it's honestly pretty great, Thompson and Branagh being by an enormous margin the standouts amongst this cast much as Beatrice and Benedick turned out to be standouts amongst the play's characters way back when at the turn of the 17th century, something I understand to have been not entirely intentional, since, hypothetically, the play revolves as much or more around Hero and Claudio.
Out of diligence, then, it's a good cast overall: Washington is having fun being cool and flip, as is his wont; Beckinsale is adorable; I disagree with the Reeves-bashing (a product of its time), and while John is best appreciated as "a plot device" rather than "an antagonist" as such, I enjoy Reeves snidely whiplashing his way through his handful of scenes while maintaining a very Reevesy approach; if you were to ask me "who is the least capable young actor here," I'd reluctantly point at Leonard, who does not appear to be able to cry on command and so just scrunches up his face a lot when he discovers actions have consequences; the only ones doing genuinely bad work, mainly Keaton, are trapped inside Shakespeare's unlikeable caricatures of poor people, which unfortunately Branagh does not find as unlikeable as I do.
But it is overwhelmingly the Thompson and Branagh show, with appropriate supporting turns from other actors, with the required idiocy of Beatrice and Benedick—not inappropriate to this plot or to a character named "Good Dick"—being by a substantial margin the reason to watch it. As done by Branagh and Thompson, they are genuinely funny, and some of this—by no means none of it—is Shakespeare's dialogue, which describes a battle of the sexes scenario fought by way of offensive, essentializing quips thrown out by people who have honed their wits to a razor's edge yet are nonetheless very plainly morons whose fixation on each other is obvious to everyone besides them from pretty much their very first exchange. But as much of the comedy involves Branagh's direction, indulging in outright slapstick as each unknowing victim falls into the traps set by their fellows; and with due respect to a very good Thomspon (who bursts off the screen with actual fury in the dramatic scenes), Branagh is inevitably the real star of Branagh's movie, given a character he can treat with absolute disrespect, while using a perfectly-deployed cadence and a lot of strategic "ums" to bring out the humor that's in the lines already, and even inventing some of his own, to the point that he's committed a sin against his own idol by fundamentally rewriting at least the one line, given that "Love me! Why, it must be requited" is not at all the same line as [stare at camera] "Love me? Why?" [shrug] "It must be requited."
Moreover, as a director, Branagh is Branaghing, that is to say that he's having a blast. He's having a blast with the sunny Italian location (Greve in Chianti in Florence, and if I have one minor complaint about the form, it's that cinematographer Roger Lanser is overestimating the natural light); he is, naturally, having a blast with his customarily muscular camerawork and bubbly editing—that is to say further, he's doing better with the romcom than the drama, but I've explained at length why this is baked in, and while he "settles down" to do the more serious stuff, there's only so much seriousness that can be wrung out of it anyway. But the whole introduction is a delight—a prologue that begins in darkness and with onscreen text, "Sigh no more, ladies," before opening up on a long pan across the cast and the Italian hillside that gives Thompson a very Movie Star introduction, as she recites this "diegetic" poem about the inconstancy of men (so Branagh basically told Thompson, "I will cheat on you"), before giving some more Movie Star introductions to Pedro's magnificent band thundering across the landscape, and then diving into some complicated choreography and editing to show off the comune as well as to visually exposit the giggling homosociality of men and women which, at least in the men's case, will ultimately be revealed as a weakness. The "poem," incidentally, is actually minor character Balthasar's (Patrick Doyle's—that is, Branagh's composer's) song, repeated a few times over the movie, with Doyle supplying a melody that is very clearly knocking off a love song standard that, aggravatingly, I can't place; but it does impose a more sumptuously romantic quality onto the film that it would hardly have managed without it. As far as that romance goes, Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing is so bouncy and ebullient—the final shot is a real spectacle—so it's a pity that Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing spends such a startling amount of its time being grim and horrible instead.