Branagh Loses Focus In Film Version Of `Much Ado'

The skilled actor takes on tasks of writer, producer, director of Shakespeare's comedy

FROM all the evidence, Kenneth Branagh wants to be Orson Welles and is working hard to achieve this lofty goal.

His new movie, "Much Ado About Nothing," is the latest installment in Mr. Branagh's effort. In the best Wellesian style, he has directed the picture and written the screenplay - closely based on William Shakespeare's comedy about pride, deception, and twin love affairs - in addition to playing the most important role. He is also credited as producer, and he has surrounded himself with an impressive array of supporting players.

All of which puts Branagh squarely in the footsteps of Welles, who similarly enjoyed controlling all aspects of his productions and flaunting his talents on both sides of the camera.

So why isn't "Much Ado About Nothing" likely to enter the film-history books alongside Welles's great "Othello" and "Falstaff"?

The answer is simple: Welles was a towering artist with prodigious insights and a steady stream of innovative ideas, while Branagh is just a talented young man with more energy than inspiration. He does things correctly, and at times he brings a noticeable bit of flair to a shot, a scene, or a piece of comic business. But there's little in his new movie - or his three previous outings as a multiple-threat filmmaker - to put him anywhere near the Wellesian status he seems too eager to reach.

He would have a better chance at future greatness if he stopped spreading his abilities over so many areas, chose one aspect of his career to concentrate on, and worked like crazy to realize all its possibilities. "Much Ado About Nothing" indicates that his strongest suit is in the acting department. So the best course is clear: Branagh should leave the writing and directing to others, and focus on becoming the most exciting on-screen presence of his generation.

That's a goal worth reaching, and it's a lot more realistic than competing with a legend like Welles.

Branagh's screenplay for "Much Ado About Nothing" takes the traditional Hollywood route of condensing the text, clarifying the action, and highlighting the broadest comic and dramatic ingredients. He goes for speed and economy by trimming the play to slightly more than 90 minutes. And he retains only the essence of Shakespeare's romp about two couples who marry despite foolish vanity and the machinations of an evil betrayer.

Less successfully, Branagh also tries for dreaminess and poignancy by stopping the story in its tracks for silly slapstick and dreary music interludes. His camera style is efficient but ordinary.

His directing of performances has varying degrees of success. Emma Thompson and Denzel Washington come off superbly as Beatrice, the sharp-witted beauty, and Don Pedro, the handsome prince. Robert Sean Leonard and Keanu Reeves are competent as love-struck Claudio and the villainous Don John. And Kate Beckinsdale plays the sadly betrayed Hero with a good deal of charm. Michael Keaton makes a wretched impression as Dogberry, however, and Branagh shares the blame for clumsy mishandling of what should be the

film's most amusing moments.

By contrast, Branagh's own portrayal of Benedick is first-rate on almost all counts. He speaks his lines with a fine mixture of deft characterization, self-deflating humor, and poetic lilt; his gestures are thoughtfully conceived and wittily executed.

In his previous Shakespeare movie, "Henry V," he fell short of his ambitious goal, which was to render a familiar hero more "psychological" and "complex" than previous interpretations (including Laurence Olivier's classic version) had done. His acting is much closer to the mark in "Much Ado About Nothing," and that's cause for celebration.

There will be more to celebrate if Branagh realizes that acting is where his fullest talents lie and puts all his attention into developing this.

* "Much Ado About Nothing" is rated PG-13. It contains some nudity and sensuality, and deals with adult themes.

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