Hello, old friend: “Much Ado About Nothing” (1993)

23 September 2012

“Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,” we see in white letters move across the dark screen at the same teasingly slow pace as Emma Thompson’s breathy voice reads it, almost as if she’s whispering into your ear across a pillow. Even after we break from the black screen to see the assembled, laughing group lounging on the grass on a Tuscan hillside, you know without a doubt that this is going to be the silliest ado about nothing ever, and you’re probably going to enjoy every minute of it.

“Men were deceivers ever,” Thompson continues, and slowly the camera moves to show her tanned skin, bare feet, and floating golden-brown hair as she sits in the crook of an olive tree.

Then sigh not so, but let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into hey nonny nonny.

Ahhh. Hello, old friend.

I saw Much Ado About Nothing when it was still in theaters, back when we all thought that Em and Ken (Kenneth Branagh, her director and co-star) were the model of a smart, talented, creative couple. Before they split up, that is. Here they appear golden, perfectly matched, the true stars of the story in every respect. When you remember this film, you remember their transcendence.

If coming back reminds you of their perfection, you have probably forgotten (as I had) how truly awful some of the other casting is. Let’s start with the worst: gawd, Keanu Reeves as the evil Don John. Even the directing in Reeves’ scenes gets worse, as if Branagh decided that nothing could be done with an actor who had no grasp of the role or the lines, so why even try? Second worst is Michael Keaton as the farting, spitting Irish night watch constable Dogberry — an appearance so awful I’d completely repressed it. Better, but still cringe-making, is a very young Robert Sean Leonard who falls for an equally very young Kate Beckinsale. One tends to want to forgive Leonard his acting excesses, as he manages just fine when he’s only responsible for appearing smitten.

If those American casting decisions make me want to cry, let me note that Denzel Washington does a great job as Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, who doesn’t win any woman at all. Those lines roll out of Washington’s mouth; it’s as if the Tuscan sun filled his body with the same grace that made Ken & Em so perfect. It’s a terrific feat considering that Washington had only done Shakespeare once before (on Broadway as Richard III; he appeared again, in 2005, in Julius Caesar).

Don Pedro sees the true worth of Beatrice (Thompson), even as she watches her young cousin accede to marriage so young. Pedro sits with her watching the proceedings. He even asks her to marry him, but she knows better than to believe they might be happy. He looks at her and pays her the most truthful compliment we can imagine:

Don Pedro: In faith, lady, you have a merry heart.

Beatrice: Yea, my lord, I thank it, poor fool, it keeps on the windy side of care.

“The windy side of care” — now that’s why Shakespeare still moves us. Those practically throwaway lines that make you want to roll them over in your mouth like Everlasting Gobstoppers.

So let’s return to repressing the film’s weaker actors and focus on what’s important: the tale of Beatrice and Benedick (Branagh), who love to bicker and tease one another. Of course their friends are able to trick them into loving one another: with all the knife-edge wordplay between them, it’s as if they’ve been having intellectual sex for years.

Maybe that’s what makes those scenes so ridiculously pleasurable on multiple viewings. Two people who love to hate one another, easily fooled into believing that the other is hopelessly in love; somehow the prospect of all that verbal sparring signifying an abiding love makes sense.

I caught Much Ado late last night on PBS (after grading almost 20 papers, thank you very much) and found my emotions going up and down relative to the amount of screen time for Ken & Em; and yet honestly, I’d watch it again this minute despite the atrocities committed by Reeves and Keaton. That scenery! those lines! the patina of Emma Thompson’s glowing brown skin! and most of all, the lesson imparted to all us ladies who know that men always have one foot on sea and one on shore:

Then sigh not so, but let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into hey nonny, nonny, nonny.

Sing hey, nonny nonny. It’s the only way to face all those remaining papers … and the work week ahead.

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6 Responses to “Hello, old friend: “Much Ado About Nothing” (1993)”


  1. Our Emma could make me bi; she and Helen Mirren both.

  2. phylly3 Says:

    I saw this again recently too. I had to laugh when you said you had repressed the memory of Michael Keaton’s performance. I had forgotten it too – but how can anyone forget such an atrocity? Repression is truly the only answer! Great review. I agree totally — sadly about Keanu Reaves and whole heartedly about Denzel Washington!

  3. Holly Says:

    i LOVE this movie. i used to watch it with my roommates in college periodically; we still like to roar jubilantly at each other, “NO! THE WORLD MUST BE PEOPLED!”

    its existence really seems like a boon to high school english teachers — like: here, you, adolescents, go watch this and you’ll see i’m right, shakespeare is fecking hilarious.


  4. […] Didion’s retroactive review of the Branagh “Much Ado About Nothing” (1993). s […]


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