In recent years, I have taken to repeatedly viewing Kenneth Branagh's 1993 film adaptation Much Ado About Nothing. It's as close to romantic comedy perfection as possible. Taking place in Italy, a household containing the patriarch Leonato (Richard Briers), his innocent and lovely daughter Hero (Kate Beckinsale), Hero's maidservant Margaret (Imelda Saunton), and Hero's saucy and staunchly single cousin Beatrice (Emma Thompson). They are visited by some soldiers fresh from war, the prince Don Pedro (Denzel Washington), the young and lovelorn Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard), the joking and bachelorific Benedick (Kenneth Branagh), and Don Pedro's bastard brother (literally and figuratively) Don John (Keanu Reeves). So pretty much everyone ever is in this movie.
Anyway, the plot is that Claudio wins the love of Hero through the kindly Don Pedro (7th grade style). To kill time in the week interrum before they marry, Don Pedro proposes a plan to get Beatrice and Benedick together. Awesome hijinks ensue. But then Don John is still all bitter about his life situation and jealous about Claudio, so he plans to ruin the wedding. Things get real at the wedding (this is a romcom!), and eventually a death is faked (thanks, Shakespearean priest!). Michael Keaton plays the gross and tedious Dogberry who ends up clearing up the whole misunderstanding, and then there is a celebratory dance!
The overarching story line doesn't interest me so much as the fun Beatrice/Benedick plot. They start off bickering and disagreeing in a fun witty banter sort of way. They exchange insults, and don't hide their dislike for each other. At the masked party (of course), it's revealed that Beatrice and Benedick have some sort of past where Benedick didn't quite love Beatrice as much as she loved him. Apparently things have been hilariously antagonistic ever since. Anway, the rest of the gathering conspires to get them to fall in love. They do this by making sure they are overheard in turn by Benedick and Beatrice talking about how much the other loves them, but how they're too proud to reciprocate. B&B's responses are to prove the conspirators wrong be requiting the love.
How quickly Don Pedro bounces back from Beatrice's refusal. And how awesome his plan is.
As evidenced by his many cinematic forays into the Bard's works, Branagh is one of the few actors that give Shakespearean speech prosody and nuance that sounds familiar to modern audiences. It's really easy to start zoning out when actors start delivering lines in a lovely cadence that shows off the iambic meter, but tends to blur all the words together. But Mr. Branagh actually delivers the lines as if he's expressing the ideas rather than just the beauty of how they are expressed. And Thompson is a very close second in this adaptation, being so sassy with her words.
In fact, the whole cast does a nice job of expressing things in a more conversational way. And as ridiculous as it is to cast Keanu Reeves in Shakespeare, he does an adequate job, mostly in the form of keeping an angry face to match his angry beard. He gets the general ideas across, and does much better when he's not soliloquizing. But overall, the performances are a success.
I could keep extolling the virtues of this movie, including the vibrant lighting and romantic score, but I want to get to the last ShakespeaRe-told adaptation because it was a fabulous.
It starts out with a hint at the backstory between Beatrice and Benedick, with Beatrice (Sarah Parish) being stood up on a date while Benedick (Damian Lewis) hits the road out of town. The story then picks up 3 years later. Beatrice is a local news anchor. Here we meet fair Hero (Billie Piper) and Claude (Tom Ellis) and see their romance start up. But Beatrice's skeevy co-anchor has a bad fall, so Leonard (Martin Jarvis), the boss, decides to bring a former anchor, Benedick, back along with a former director, Peter (Michael Smiley). Also working at the studio is Don (Derek Riddell), a slightly pathetic man who's just been left by his wife and carries a large torch for Hero.
It's actually a fairly faithful adaptation, at least in feeling. Slight changes include the reason Beatrice and Benedick are fooled into loving each other (for the peace of mind of every one who has to work with the bickering pair), simplifying the plot to ruin Claude and Hero's wedding (it's just Don being jealous), cutting down the soldier/security guard parts, and making the ending choices by Hero more realistic and empowering to modern audiences.
When Beatrice "mistakes" Benedick for Claude at the welcome party (in fancy dress of course). Pretty great modern translation, no?
But in the end it's always about Beatrice and Benedick. Sarah Parish is wonderful, playing Beatrice as smart and biting; I do so enjoy seeing sassy women onscreen. And I got a huge kick out of seeing Captain Winters be a sort of sleazy flirt with bad facial hair. Seeing Damian Lewis say "I am horribly in love with her" whilst sliding against a wall makes my life. As made-for-tv contrived the romance is, it comes off well. There are good moments before they fall for each other (thanks to scheming coworkers) that show that they have some things in common, so their liking each other isn't completely out of nowhere. And I just adore a good hate-turned-to-love story.
Anyway, it's worth investigating if you love romantic-comedies as much as I do. Both the 1993 and 2005 version are on YouTube here and here. Enjoy. Watch them back-to-back. You won't regret it.