*. Did Patrick Doyle nail the score for this one or what? Now that’s what I call an overture! It’s one of my all-time favourites. And indeed the entire opening credit sequence is terrific, triumphantly drawing us in to its world while introducing us to the playful gals and Don Pedro’s colour-coded courtiers. We see the different sides getting dressed up in their respective uniforms and then the doors open like curtains parting, with the music sounding a fanfare. It’s all wonderfully theatrical and natural at the same time.
*. That’s Doyle, by the way, playing the musician Balthasar and singing the “Sigh no more” song. Nice of Branagh to get him in there.
*. Now on to other matters of casting.
*. I don’t mind American actors doing Shakespeare. What usually doesn’t work is mixing British with American actors in the same production. The accents can become discordant. It would be easy to use this film as a case in point, but would that be fair? Yes, Keanu Reeves is out of place. But then Don John is out of place, isn’t he? He’s a melancholy bastard, which means he’s always out of sorts. And Michael Keaton overplays Dogberry something awful, but then Dogberry overplays himself, what with his always using big words that he doesn’t know the meaning of. He’s a caricature.
*. And finally there’s Denzel Washington, who is perfect as Don Pedro: formal and reserved and oozing authority. He dominates every scene he’s in, and not in a flashy or annoying way. This is as it should be, since Don Pedro is very much the man in charge. But he is also cut off from the others, notably in the beautifully played scene when he asks Beatrice if she would have him as a husband (a response to her own signaling, it should be said), and in the final shot of him standing apart from the nuptial revels. If only Branagh was more comfortable with such subtlety.
*. OK, I’ve been playing devil’s advocate here. I do love Washington but in fact I think Reeves is much too heavy as the heavy here, with a scowl that never lifts and black leather pants that set him and his fellow malcontents (Borachio, Conrade) off from the good guys. He also seems to have real difficulty with the language, like he’s fighting to get the words out of his mouth. Keaton, meanwhile, is more Caliban than Dogberry, all dirty teeth and greasy hair. I do think it’s a part that’s hard to play subtly, though I think Nathan Fillion does just this, and effectively, in Joss Whedon’s film version. Keaton just seems to be too much of a distraction here, less tedious (as he should be) than grotesque.
*. Claudio and Hero are the Ashley Wilkes and Melanie Hamilton of the drama. Nobody gives a damn about them. We all just want to get back to Scarlett and Rhett (Beatrice and Benedict). But the drab couple are well cast. Robert Sean Leonard looks suitably drippy and dim as Claudio and Kate Beckinsale, in her film debut, is hard to recognize as someone who would turn into an ass-kicking fury in the Underworld franchise and the remake of Total Recall.
*. The weakness of the main plot, especially in comparison with the Beatrice and Benedict story, has always been a problem with the play. The paired gulling scenes are the highlight — as they are here — and they occur at the halfway mark. This is hard for any production to bear, but Branagh manages it as best he can.
*. I think Branagh is a great populizer of Shakespeare. He has a knack for making the bard work on screen, seeming to translate the lines into a modern idiom just by having them delivered in a hyper-realistic way. Sometimes, however, he tries too hard. I love his Henry V and this movie, though even here you can see signs of his trying to be too broad. His Hamlet (1996) was an epic production, but one that finally collapsed under its own weight. I didn’t like his As You Like It at all.
*. The script is a smooth adaptation. Most of the cuckolding stuff is dropped, which I think makes sense for a modern audience. I wonder, however, why Leonato’s quick rejoinder to Benedict’s asking if he had any doubts about being Hero’s father was cut: “Signor Benedick, no, for then were you a child.” That’s a zinger! Did Branagh not want us to think of Benedict as that much of a playboy? There is a sort of innocence about him. In Whedon’s version I think it was a mistake to show him at the beginning in bed with Beatrice. Yes, there’s some textual support for it (“I know you of old”), but I think it’s putting the cart before the horse.
*. I’ve said I love this film and I do, but even the play itself is a mixed bag and the movie is full of hits and misses. I think the good outweighs the bad though. Branagh and Thompson (married in real life at the time, though not for much longer) are as good a Benedict and Beatrice as you’re likely to ever see. The setting nicely captures a rustic court life not so much of luxury as of recreation and ease. Everyone is having a good time. Don John will be dealt with another day. Until then, we dance.