Kenneth Branagh's decision to set his film at the Villa Vignamaggio in the hills of Tuscany, rather than in a city, sets the tone of his interpretation of Shakespeare's play Much Ado About Nothing. Rather than the formal society overly concerned with outward appearances, which the play intimates, Branagh presents a gay, lusty, warmhearted society which is constantly outdoors in the Tuscany sunshine. The movie is a COMEDY which minimizes the darker strains of the play.

In order to support his interpretation of Much Ado as a joyous romp in the Italian sunshine, Branagh inserts and displays many details which the medium of film makes possible. The cinematography and sound track are glorious. The senses are overwhelmed in Branagh's introduction: Beatrice reads the song from Act II 4 accompanied by a guitar while sitting in a tree eating grapes--everyone else lolls about picnicking on a hill, birds chirp, all is peaceful. A messenger arrives to announce the approach of Don Pedro. Suddenly, the mood changes--the approaching soldiers are seen far below this bucolic scene, the sound track soars, a flag is whipping in the wind, there is a close-up of each soldiers face; they raise their fists to signal victory. The excitement is intense. Everyone rushes to the villa amid laughter, squeals, soaring music, shedding cloths, bare bottoms, and bathing. The mood is set. Utilizing the beautiful rose colored villa, gorgeous scenery, glorious music, imaginative cinematography, Branagh's Much Ado is more sensual and aesthetic than intellectual. Shakespeare relied almost wholly on his language for effect-- his sensuality was verbal, Branagh's is visual.

Shakespeare's mood is formal. His society is insecure and so concerned with outward appearances that the people are easily deceived and fail to comprehend the truth. Branagh's characters are self-confident, happy, warm-hearted, affectionate-- but their naïveté makes them vulnerable to deception. Branagh makes his actors act and talk 'like natives of a warm country,' they laugh, applaud witty speeches, hug each other in joy, punch each other playfully. They are all dressed casually in peasant costumes--the ladies all in white, the gentleman in off-white and earth tones--to intensify this bucolic and innocent interpretation of the play.

Much Ado, the movie, had to be cut to fit into the time frame of a popular film. Branagh cut many lines and speeches and even entire scenes (Act I 2, and Act III 4). In order to support his interpretation of a more open and informal society Branagh omits lines which are purely ornate language, such as Leonato's comments:

A kind of overflow of kindness. There are
no faces truer than those that are so washed:
how much better it is to weep at joy that to joy
at weeping! [I.1.25-27]

In many cases Branagh deletes lines which would be incomprehensible to today's general public such as:

Don Pedro: My visor is Philemon's roof; without in the house is Jove. [II.1.100-101]

He also leaves out offensive references:

Benedick: If I do not lover her, I am a Jew. [II.3.284-285]

There are some unfortunate omissions, of course such as Don Pedro's poetic speech at the tomb:

Good morrow, masters: put your torches out.
The wolves have prey'd; and look, the gentle day,
Before the wheels of Phoebus, round about
Dapples the drowsy east with spots of grey. [V.3.23-28]

In Act I the characters are introduced; the two contrasting sets of lovers: Beatrice and Benedick, Claudio and Hero, plus Leonato, Don Pedro, etc. Our acquaintance with them unfolds in the sunny hills, courtyard and gardens. It is only Claudio's characterization which seems a bit askew with Shakespeare's intent. Branagh, or perhaps it is Robert Sean Leonard himself in his interpretation of the role, manages to make Claudio seem a victimized, but deeply sincere young man. This Claudio is naïve, but appears to be truly in love with Hero. His reactions to the deceptions arise from his sensitivity. Branagh and Leonard accomplish this by means of close-ups of Claudio's handsome and expressive face and its anguished reactions. The telling lines which provide the first clue the Shakespeare's Claudio is a superficial cad, whose love is not free of mercenary concerns are left intact:

Claudio: Hath Leonato any son, my lord? [I.1.304]

The line is delivered in such casual conversation that we hardly 'note it.' Act I concludes by fleshing out the antagonist, Don John. For the first time a scene is played in the interior of the villa--in a room lit by firelight. Branagh continues throughout the play to accent the villain in the underworld--the wine cellar of the villa. Don John is a one-dimensional villain as Shakespeare intended--merely a tool to create the drama of the play.

Act II opens with the masked ball, a ceremony devoted to enjoyable deception. Branagh places the ball outside by torch light instead of in the hall. The good humor continues--everyone laughs, applauds, Beatrice, Hero, Antonio, Margaret, Ursula, and Leonato enter arm in arm doing a little jig. The camera zooms in on close-ups of masks--as symbols of hiding one's true feelings as one hides ones face behind a mask. Branagh uses close-ups of facial expressions to emphasize the contrast between the two sets of lovers--Claudio and Hero, uncomplicated with open emotions; Beatrice and Benedick, witty, complicated and hiding their true feelings. The act moves to the happy deception of Benedick and Beatrice, which Branagh compacts into one scene to make a greater dramatic impact. Skillful use is made of props; Branagh's antics with a folding chair add to the comic quality of the scene. The climax with Beatrice swinging happily superimposed over Benedick dancing in the fountain with soaring music completes the happy revelations.

Branagh greatly abridges Act III to move the story-line quickly to the climax after the Benedick & Beatrice deception scene. He omits the paired scenes 2 and 4 with the long conversations pertaining to clothing (another metaphor for deception) between the gentlemen in scene 2 and the ladies in scene 4 and Benedick's, and Beatrice's pain in adjusting to their new emotional states. The film moves immediately to Dogberry's instructions to the watch to preserve peace at any cost. Dogberry is portrayed in high farce--pretending to arrive on horseback, grimacing, performing antics, affecting a growly voice, etc. This is unfortunate because it distracts the audience from the real humor of Dogberry's malapropisms and his penchant for getting everything wrong. He appears to be loony, rather than a slow-witted functionary trying to be something he isn't. Branagh adds a quick vignette of everyone banqueting happily in the hall, then a quick contrast of thunder and lightning to introduce Don John and Borachio plotting in the wine cellar--the evil plot contrasting with Don Pedro's happy plot. At this point Branagh throws in a few lines from scene 2 with Benedick primping in his room while Don Pedro, Claudio, Leonato, and Antonio tease him. Don John arrives to inform Claudio of Hero's supposed infidelity. Branagh adds the touch of having Don John conduct Claudio and Don Pedro to Hero's window to observe the enactment by Borachio and Margaret. This is graphically presented, so that the audience is more inclined to sympathize with Claudio. The watch arrest Conrad and Borachio and the Act ends with Dogberry's confused report to the impatient Leonato.

In Act IV Branagh is very faithful to Shakespeare. He stages the wedding scene out of doors in the bright sunshine. Claudio's rejections of Hero is self-righteous and physically as well as verbally violent--contrasted by the gentle friars reasoned advice and plan for a counter-deception. Beatrice and Benedick move into the chapel, where they affirm their faith in Hero and their love for each other. Claudio's shocking 'No' is echoed by Beatrice's equally shocking 'Kill Claudio.' The scene climaxes with Benedick's touching and chilling, 'Enough, I am engaged.' Finally Dogberry et. al. stumble onto the truth in their examination of Borachio and Conrad.

In Act V the deceptions are all revealed, which results in changed relationships and increased insight by the characters into their own feelings. Everyone's folly is revealed when Borachio says, 'I have deceived your very eyes: what your wisdoms could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to light.' All is resolved happily, of course, and Benedick sums up everyone's confusion, including his own '...for a man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion.' Branagh remains faithful to the play in this act and even edits very little. He winds it all up with everyone dancing through the sunny gardens with the theme music soaring gloriously.

Branagh's interpretation of Shakespeare's play leaves the viewer with the impression of a fairy tale in which everyone (except the villain) will live happily ever after. He hustles us through the play in a charming cheerful style, which successfully presents the essence of the story and the characters, but misses nuances. The film is a delightful introduction to Much Ado About Nothing, but to properly appreciate Shakespeare's work it is necessary to take the time to peruse the play in a leisurely and contemplative manner.