Kenneth Branagh's 'Much Ado About Nothing.'

Silence. Black screen. Three words appear--"Sigh no more," the opening of the lovely song in the play. The rest of the words then follow, and Emma Thompson's voice begins to speak them. The film cuts to a glorious Tuscan hillside, with a picnic of ladies and a few old men spread upon it and with Thompson, nestled in a tree, reading the song from a book.

As she finishes, a messenger arrives to report that Don Pedro and friends are returning from the wars. Then far below we see a group of galloping riders. Patrick Doyle's score surges in. The ladies rush to bathe and prepare. Under the opening titles, the horsemen arrive and plunge into their baths. And Kenneth Branagh's film of Much Ado About Nothing (Samuel Goldwyn) is off to a marvelous start.

If Branagh accomplishes nothing better in his film-directing career--and why shouldn't he do more?--his Henry V and Much Ado will lodge him securely in the world's gratitude. Much Ado, for reasons given below, is not quite up to the level of Henry, but once again Branagh has adapted Shakespeare dexterously. Once again he has followed Granville Barker's advice about pace in Shakespeare, understanding that the essence of pace is not speed but energy. Once again he has excellent colleagues off-camera, most notably Doyle, that open-throated composer, and the editor Andrew Marcus, who knows how to tip in glimpses of others to give dialogues a balletic lift. Once again Branagh has his attractive self on screen. Once again--and may I live to type these words a hundred times more--there is Emma Thompson.

Much Ado, as many have noted, is a peculiar play. First, there's the title. It's both a modest shrug of the author at his own brilliance and an Elizabethan joke. "Nothing" was probably pronounced "noting," which was a synonym for eavesdropping. But the chief problem is that the two most interesting characters are only marginally in the main plot. That plot is about the Claudio-Hero-Don John tangle, which is less interesting.

Shakespeare began (we can imagine) with a woman and a man, Beatrice and Benedick, who duel verbally because they enjoy their antagonism and tacitly respect each other for it; and whose facade of mutual dislike is cracked by scheming friends so that the pair are forced to confess their love for each other. But if the author had left it at that, the play would have been less than half as long as it needed to be for his theater.

So, to fill it out, he adapted a plot from several previous works about a maiden, a cousin of Beatrice, falsely accused of lewdness. He interwove it with the Beatrice-Benedick story, using the false-identity device that he later used in Othello, adding the dead-woman-returned-to-life idea that he used again in The Winter's Tale, and working in some bits with a comic constable whose stupidity delays the truth about the maiden. Thus he put together a full-length entertainment for the Globe Theater.

But, in one sense, to no avail. The interesting characters are still Beatrice and Benedick. (Which is why Berlioz called his opera by their names.) In any production those two performances must carry the play; and in this film, the two performances are, in quite different ways, absolutely scintillating. Branagh is feisty, persistent, lucid, completely taking. The one thing he is not is elegant: he has few traces of a Renaissance gentleman. But he has the magical ability to blend a modern-day persona with consummate ease in Shakespearean language and action.

As for Thompson . . . I'll try to restrain myself. She has elegance. She has the finest command of inflection and style. She has spirit and soul. She is the first film actress since Katharine Hepburn to make intelligence sexy. She lets us understand that Beatrice, much like Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, behaves as she does because she is employing the only means available to break out of the expected pattern--daddy's girl up for marital auction.

Thompson's Beatrice implies that, much as she loves her cousin Hero, the maligned virgin, she couldn't possibly behave in Hero's docile, male-determined way. She makes herself thorny to the man she wants, and she does it gaily. When Thompson says, "Then there was a star danced, and under that was I born," we can see galaxies wheeling.

There's more. After Hero's erstwhile fiance, Claudio, has excoriated her (and we know she's innocent), Benedick asks the shocked Beatrice, loyal to her cousin, what he can do for her. Thompson then speaks the two words with which Ellen Terry is said to have stabbed the audience with ice: "Kill Claudio." Ellen, thou shouldst be living at this hour--to hear Emma.

The entire play/film, dark strands and all, is enclosed in an atmosphere of celebration, a festival for returning warriors. This festive air is well dramatized in Phyllis Dalton's summery costumes: most of the women's dresses and men's uniforms are off-white. Many of the actors, too, "furnish" the screen appealingly: Kate Beckinsale as the pretty puppet Hero, Richard Briers as her father, Brian Blessed as his brother, Imelda Staunton as Hero's attendant who is unknowingly used to entrap her mistress.

But there are four lapses in the casting, three unfortunate and one dire. All are American. Robert Sean Leonard, squint-eyed, plays Claudio not quite tolerably--pale both in love and in hate. Keanu Reeves, as the villainous Don John, knows all his lines and speaks them clearly and gives the sort of performance that makes parents beam at college productions. Denzel Washington plays the prince of the returning warriors. I was advocating colorblind casting some thirty years ago, always with the proviso that a black actor in a white role should demonstrate by talent that the producer would have been misguided not to use him or her. That was in the theater. The proviso, for obvious reasons, is even more pressing in film. Washington is barely adequate, with little of the princely bearing that he showed in Malcolm X.

The disaster is Michael Keaton as Dogberry. I simply have no idea of what he was doing, what person he was trying to play. His painful performance proves yet again that Shakespeare's low-comedy characters need clowns, actors who are funny in themselves before they begin their parts.

Someone like Joe Pesci might possibly have had the shtick to do the thick-headed constable. But Keaton is just a straight actor, sweatily trying to be funny--with muggings, long pauses and an ire that may be meant as comic but seems Keaton's attempt to hide the fear that he is failing.

What was the reason for the casting of these Americans? Was it to "internationalize" the film, as a bow to the coproducers, American Playhouse? If so, it was self-evidently shortsighted. We could have seen the forest better without those four trees.

It's hardly a minor defect--four misjudged pieces of casting in prominent roles. But Branagh and Thompson and sixteen other actors, Doyle's enrapturing music and Branagh's cinematic grip of the play--inventive, lithe, somehow Shakespearean--are splendid. This Much Ado is a flawed gem. Certainly, regrettably, flawed; still, a gem.

Stanley Kauffmann is a film critic at The New Republic.

By Stanley Kauffmann