Between the mud-stained medieval warfare of Henry V and the emotional operatics of Hamlet, Kenneth Branagh, dipped his toe in one of Shakespeare’s lightest and airiest comedies and produced one of the most accessible and genuinely delightful versions of the Bard’s plays to reach the big screen. Its plot, boiled down to its essentials, will probably seem familiar to fans of modern romantic comedies, proving that the genre is one of oldest, and most durable, in English literature.
Don Pedro (Denzel Washington) returns from an unspecified war and visits the home of his friend, the Governor Leonato of Messina (Richard Briers) with his men, included Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard), whom Pedro favors like a brother, and Benedick (Branagh), a confirmed bachelor who wages a near constant war of words with Leonato’s niece, Beatrice (Emma Thompson). For his part, Claudio is in love with Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Kate Beckinsale in one of her earliest roles) and plans to marry her, much to Benedick’s horror. Pedro’s illegitimate half-brother, Don John (Keanu Reeves), is jealous of Claudio’s favored status and conspires to sabotage his marriage to Hero.
In the week before the wedding, another conspiracy emerges, this one among Pedro, Claudio, Hero, Leonato and his brother, Antonio (Brian Blessed), to trick Beatrice and Benedick into admitting that they love each other. However, the night before the wedding, John is able is trick Pedro and Claudio into thinking that Hero is being unfaithful and accusing her at their wedding. Successfully conned into falling in love, Beatrice has one demand of Benedick to prove his affection for her: kill Claudio for what she knows is a false accusation.
Light as a feather and played strictly for laughs, this is easily one of the least consequential of Shakespeare’s plays, but that is not a criticism, but just an observation. Adapted by Branagh, the story ticks along smartly and doesn’t get lost in unnecessary subplots like Henry V did. Despite sticking faithfully to the original language, the movie feels surprisingly modern, another credit to the director’s light and sure touch.
One of Branagh’s goals with this movie was to prove that Shakespeare is not strictly the province of British actors, leading to cast several high-profile actors in key roles. This experiment is, however, only partially successful. Denzel Washington is a sure fit to the role of Don Pedro, able to project the necessary authority without breaking a sweat, but able to suggest sadness and tenderness without even looking like he’s trying. Unfortunately, Robert Sean Leonard always seem like he’s in over his head and out of his depth, like a high school batter digging in against Roger Clemens. His efforts to express the extremes of Claudio’s emotions suggest that he’s in physical pain not deliriously in love or in the grip of sorrow. Keanu Reeves gives Don John an emotional range from A to A.
Michael Keaton fares somewhat better than the younger Yanks, throwing himself into the role of Dogberry with comic abandon. He never, however, seems to mesh with what’s going on around him. Perhaps someone should have told him he wasn’t filming Beetlejuice and the Holy Grail.
Fortunately, the Brits that round out the cast are all experienced hands, most of them from the company actors that would follow Branagh from Henry V to Hamlet, and the material is strong enough to withstand the efforts of a few weaker actors.