Shakespeare never thought to instruct the actors to get bare assed in the first scene of this dark comedy of love and revenge. Director Kenneth Branagh, the Irish firebrand who brought film audiences back to the Bard in the thrilling Henry V, rectifies that oversight. Everyone is dressing to welcome Don Pedro (Denzel Washington) and his lords, Benedick (Branagh) and Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard), home to Italy after a victorious battle. In interviews, Branagh has said he wanted something "sexy, fleshy and sensuous" and none of the usual "fruity-voiced, tight-assed museum acting." Joining Branagh's British wife, Emma Thompson, who plays Beatrice — Benedick's romantic sparring partner — are American actors Branagh finds "emotionally fearless." Besides Washington and Leonard, there's Michael Keaton as Dogberry, the clownish constable, and Keanu Reeves as Don John, Pedro's villainous half brother.
The setup is invigorating fun, especially when the soldiers gallop in hootin' and hollerin' like horny cowboys home from a long cattle drive. Heaving bosoms and bulging codpieces are the order of the day. But Branagh doesn't know when to stop. The picture is overripe, and with few exceptions, so are the performances. Keaton seems to be making up for his admirable restraint in the two Batman films. As for Reeves, such lines as "Come, come let us thither" do not fall trippingly off this surfer dude's tongue. Of the men, only Washington commands the screen without crowding it.
There should be fireworks when the men believe John's false accusation that Claudio has been betrayed by his intended, Hero (lovely Kate Beckinsale). But Branagh and the wimpy Leonard give Shakespeare's skewering of male vanity the impact of a Beverly Hills, 90210 episode.
Thompson, an Oscar winner for Howards End, is an actress of unflagging elegance. Even in thick pancake makeup, she's an enchanting Beatrice, with a sharp wit that is never merely shrewish. But Branagh, who brought such raw grace to Henry V, is now a ham in thrall to his plummy vocal dexterity. His Benedick is strong in flourishes, weak in feeling.
Since Henry V, spontaneity has vanished from Branagh's directing. Dead Again, a Hitchcock pastiche, was followed by Peter's Friends, a gross Big Chill rip-off. Now, by goosing Shakespeare, Branagh patronizes young audiences. The climax, in which all the characters link arms in a dance and sing, could serve as a textbook illustration of forced gaiety. Much Ado is much askew.