Shakespeare Plays Available in Video Format
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All’s Well That Ends Well
Antony and Cleopatra
As You Like It
The Comedy of Errors
Coriolanus
Cymbeline
Hamlet
Henry IV, part 1
Henry IV, part 2
Henry V
Henry VI, part 1
Henry VI, part 2
Henry VI, part 3
Henry VIII
Julius Caesar
King John
King Lear
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Macbeth
Measure for Measure
The Merchant of Venice
The Merry Wives of Windsor
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Much Ado About Nothing
Othello
Pericles
Richard II
Richard III
Romeo and Juliet
The Taming of the Shrew
The Tempest
Timon of Athens
Titus Andronicus
Troilus and Cressida
Twelfth Night
Two Gentlemen of Verona
The Winter’s Tale
Shakespeareana

Available versions

1967: Alan Cooke

1973: Nick Havinga (Joseph Papp)

1984: Stuart Burge

1987: Herb Roland (Peter Moss)

1993: Kenneth Branagh

2010: Brandon Arnold

2011: Josie Rourke

2012: Joss Whedon

2012: Robin Lough (Jeremy Herrin)


Adaptations

2005: ShakespeaRe-Told: Much Ado About Nothing


Much Ado About Nothing
1993: Kenneth Branagh

There are certain intersections of art and experience that tend to color each other to such an extent that one loses all objectivity. Having flown to Los Angeles to file my Ph.D. dissertation, I found myself with a little extra time on my hands before my return flight, and accordingly went to see this film in a theater not far from the airport. I watched it in that delirious haze that marks the end of a lengthy ordeal, and I loved it. I probably would have liked just about anything, though.

Intervening years, however, have done little to dim its luster. It’s a bright, sunny production of a generous and witty play. Beatrice and Benedick are played by Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, who were at the time married. From the first frames, it shows an expert hand, and it’s completely cinematic — consciously referring to a number of other classic films. The setting is what appears to be a Tuscan villa (Messina is in Sicily, but it’s the same general part of the world), and its costumes make it effectively timeless.

The script is cut, as most Shakespeare films are; several of those cuts really erode the repartee between Beatrice and Benedick, which is unfortunate. Both of them bring enormous experience and personality to their roles, however. Thompson is completely engaging from the opening phrases of her recitation of “Sigh No More”, with which the film begins. Branagh is occasionally somewhat excessive, but he indisputably has the funniest scene ever filmed with a folding chair, and he covers the range from the ridiculous to the serious that the play requires.

A number of the secondary roles are equally well done. Brian Blessed plays Antonio, and he’s always entertaining to watch. Leonato is Richard Briers, who worked with Branagh on many occasions, including Twelfth Night, Henry V, Hamlet, and As You Like It; he never really disappoints. Imelda Staunton and Phyllida Law have very minor roles, but they’re almost always spot-on, and this is no exception.

Some of the side parts are less assured. Most commented-upon were Denzel Washington’s portrayal of Don Pedro, which I found perfectly adequate, but at least one reviewer characterized as being “phoned in”. His performance is not a masterpiece of subtlety, but it suits the tonality of the production overall, and the scene where the three men are misleading Benedick is unabashedly hilarious. Keanu Reeves, on the other hand, is beyond doubt quite wooden as Don John. My own question here is whether it’s really possible to play Don John otherwise in most other contexts, especially if the role is cut: it may not have been his acting as much as the direction and the reductive treatment of the lines themselves. Don John is in the best of times scarcely more than a one-dimensional villain: the only person I’ve ever seen rise above that is Vernon Dobtcheff in the Stuart Burge BBC version (1984). It’s a masterly stroke, but he had more lines to work with, and he is a seasoned veteran of Shakespeare. There’s nothing like that here.

It’s hard to say what to make of Kate Beckinsale and Robert Sean Leonard as Hero and Claudio. They’re both capable actors; the roles they have taken are quintessentially bland, especially as directed here, as a kind of foil to the spicy interaction of Beatrice and Benedick. They fulfill them well enough, I think, though there could have been room for more nuance, especially in the later passages of the play, in the wedding scene and beyond.

Opinion remains divided on the performance of Michael Keaton as Dogberry. Keaton plays it (under Branagh’s direction) very broadly indeed; he’s represented chiefly as gross and stupid, which is certainly one way to play the role. There are other approaches, less monochromatic, that I personally prefer. He and his sidekicks prance around town on imaginary horses in a way that recalls nothing so much as Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It’s unrelieved silliness, and if that’s what you’re looking for, it’s well done.

After the theatrical success of Branagh’s Henry V, this was more amply funded, and it shows: the art direction, the costumes, and the settings are masterful. The cinematography is brilliant, though occasionally somewhat over the top (the final dance scene is one continuous boom shot moving through an arch and then some thirty or so feet into the air). The score by Patrick Doyle is sunny and generous as well; he has worked with Branagh on a number of films, including Henry V, Hamlet, As You Like It, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. His range is, to my way of thinking, impressive and well adapted to the films he has scored. He appears himself in the role of Balthasar, singing his own rendition of “Sigh No More”.

There is a little non-sexual nudity (bathing) and one distant representation of sex (the scene with Borachio and Margaret in the window), but fairly little that will trouble most viewers.

Altogether this is a warm and charming film, even taking my biased perspective into account. If one could only see one version, I think I would still recommend the BBC version for reasons recounted there, but this is a great piece of film all the same.


Antonio: Brian Blessed

Balthazar: Patrick Doyle

Beatrice: Emma Thompson

Benedick: Kenneth Branagh

Borachio: Gerard Horan

Claudio: Robert Sean Leonard

Conrade: Richard Clifford

Dogberry: Michael Keaton

Don John: Keanu Reeves

Don Pedro: Denzel Washington

Francis Seacole: Chris Barnes

Friar Francis: Jimmy Yuill

George Seacole: Andy Hockley

Hero: Kate Beckinsale

Hugh Oatcake: Conrad Nelson

Leonato: Richard Briers

Margaret: Imelda Staunton

Messenger: Alex Lowe

Sexton: Edward Jewesbury

The Boy: Alex Scott

Ursula: Phyllida Law

Verges: Ben Elton