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Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Remember that brief, shining moment in the early '90s when Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson were going to be the next Olivier/DeHavilland? After falling in love on the set of the 1987 BBC miniseries Fortunes of War, the couple took their undeniable chemistry to the big screen — in films directed by Branagh that included Henry V and Dead Again. Like the best screen couples, Ken & Em were a match of equals, establishing a sharp, playful rapport that was quickly becoming one of cinema's reliable pleasures ... until their 1995 divorce killed the collaboration dead. Thompson went on to become an Oscar-winning screenwriter and Branagh went on to spoof himself in Harry Potter; until they reunite for quick cash on some crappy BBC sitcom, fans will have to settle for memories of their third (and liveliest) big-screen duel, 1993's Much Ado About Nothing. The movie was Branagh's second Shakespeare adaptation, and compared to his near-flawless Henry V, it's kind of a mess — but at least it's a funny, sexy mess. The Bard's oddly structured, feather-light comedy tells two love stories for the price of one: While a "plain-dealing villain" (Keanu Reeves, horribly miscast) does his best to sabotage the wedding of Count Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) and Hero (Kate Beckinsale), Don Pedro (Denzel Washington) tries to trick confirmed bachelors Beatrice (Thompson) and Benedick (Branagh) into falling in love. The whole thing's basically an extended, beautifully written episode of "Three's Company" — albeit one that takes a fairly dark detour in the middle — and it's staged by Branagh to appeal to the broadest possible audience. Unfortunately, that well-intentioned stab at universality creates a few problems. The all-star cast (which includes a shamelessly hamming Michael Keaton as the clown Dogberry) is uneven, with actors frequently delivering their lines with a barn-broad lack of subtlety. (The occasional TV-movie compositions and cornball declarations of love don't help, either.) But for every moment that doesn't work in Much Ado, there's another moment that's passionate and funny — especially when Ken & Em are onscreen, verbally fencing in a lush Italian villa. The couple's chemistry was never hotter than it was here: Branagh throws hilarious hissy-fits and shifts dramatic gears with impressive speed as he mutters about the absurdity of love; meanwhile, Thompson, speaking poniards under what has to be a fake tan, brims with a sensuality she's never fully tapped since. There's also a smart, grounded performance by Denzel Washington, a magnificent opening-credits sequence, and a rousing score by Patrick Doyle — and the set-piece where Beatrice and Benedick are first tricked into thinking each loves the other is a favorite of hopelessly deluded romantics everywhere. Regrettably, MGM's new DVD re-packaging of Much Ado is another modest affair; Branagh did a terrific commentary for the Dead Again platter, but he hasn't uttered a peep on the discs for his first two Shakespeare films, which were worldwide art-house smashes. Still, at least there's a theatrical trailer and a six-minute 1993 promotional featurette, "Making Ado About Nothing." The disc offers a good anamorphic transfer as well as Dolby 2.0 Surround audio (with alternate French and Spanish dubs) and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
— Alexandra DuPont

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