Keanu Does Shakespeare in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’

Kenneth Branagh has a knack for finding talent early in their careers. He cast relative newcomers Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston in the first Thor film and catapulted them to Marvel fame. He chose Lily James as his Cinderella in 2015, before she’d become a known name. He frequently casts recent graduates from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, of which he is president, in his films, giving them their first big break. Which is why it’s not that surprising that before Speed, The Matrix, or John Wick made Keanu Reeves a household name, he cast him as the dastardly villain in his adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing.

Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s comedies, despite having a fairly dark plot line in which Don John (played by Reeves) tricks Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) into thinking that his fiancée Hero (Kate Beckinsale) is cheating on him, leading him to publicly break off their engagement at the alter. Hero, her father, and her cousin Beatrice (Emma Thompson) are so upset that they decide to fake Hero’s death.

Of course this is a comedy, so eventually, they discover that Claudio was led astray by Don John and ‘revive’ Hero to be married to Claudio, while Beatrice marries Claudio’s best friend Benedick (Branagh) despite their earlier protestations of hating each other. The men, alongside the prince Don Pedro (Denzel Washington), vow to get revenge on his half-brother Don John (who fled to avoid getting caught in his treachery) after they enjoy the wedding festivities.

Branagh’s Much Ado is fantastic for many reasons: the way he captured Shakespeare’s humor, the gorgeous scenery, the fun summery vibes making it seem like a period Mamma Mia film, the chemistry between the then-married Branagh and Thompson. The cast includes Michael Keaton and Imelda Staunton, and even Patrick Doyle (who also composed its score) in a cameo as a musician. And before Joel Coen ever thought to put Denzel Washington into a film adaptation of a Shakespeare play, Branagh did it. Most notably, he cast him as the brother of Reeves, which was seen as progressive at the time.

Supposedly, promises of a shirtless young Reeves only a few pages into the script helped Branagh convince studio execs that his film was worth funding. His first entrance is his riding in on a horse in a uniform that makes him look like the romantic hero of a Jane Austen adaptation. Much Ado, both as a play and a film adaptation, is remarkably…horny, and the nude bathing scene towards the beginning of the film clues us into that while still remaining relatively non-graphic. So it’s no surprise that every shot of Reeves emphasizes his silky long hair, the way he fills out his white uniform, the way he strides across a room – and sometimes his lean physique and abs.

While Much Ado isn’t one of Reeves’s best performances, it’s one of the most interesting uses of his onscreen persona. One of his first lines is, “I am not of many words, but I thank you.” Don John is sullen and reserved, speaking little compared to the loquacious Don Pedro or Benedick. When he does speak, Reeves sounds exactly like what you would expect from a Shakespearean villain, lacking Branagh, Thompson, and Washington’s ability to make the language sound completely natural. But it works for a mysterious character like Don John. He is bent on undermining his brother in any way possible, continually scheming from the shadows. And yet, Reeves imbues him with a certain charisma that makes you wonder why none of the ladies of the estate are trying to win his favor.

Wick is often thought of as an action star, but his filmography extends to romantic comedies, period dramas, and even Shakespeare adaptations. He went on to play the titular role in Hamlet onstage in Canada after making Much Ado. Right now, rumors are circulating that Reeves might soon be making his Broadway debut in a production of Waiting for Godot. Thus, on this anniversary of Shakespeare’s birthday, it feels right to recognize Reeves’s part in Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing and perhaps even ponder if we’ll ever see him take on a Shakespearean role again.

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