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MUCH ADO ABOUT SHAKESPEARE

                            

Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker, left, and Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh in the same roles in different films of "Much Ado About Nothing."

For Hicksflicks.com, June 28, 2013

Joss Whedon's much touted black-and-white "Much Ado About Nothing," rated PG-13 and set in 2012 Santa Monica, Calif. (and now playing at a theater near you), is far from the first movie adaptation to stuff a William Shakespearean plot into modern dress or otherwise change the story, shifting the location and culture from Elizabethan England to, say, New York ("West Side Story") or feudal Japan ("Throne of Blood") or contemporary U.S. high schools ("10 Things I Hate About You," "She's the Man," "O") — or even outer space ("Forbidden Planet").

And by the way, if you know (without Googling) the plays on which those films are based ("Romeo and Juliet," "Macbeth," "The Taming of the Shrew," "Twelfth Night," "Othello" and "The Tempest," respectively), congrats. You must be a movie buff. Or a Shakespeare buff. Or perhaps both. Hey, it happens.

True, none of those examples sticks to the original text, as does Whedon's film; they all progress without Elizabethan English. But there are a number of films draped in updated wardrobe, which, like the new "Much Ado," employ Shakespeare's dialogue, however anachronistic it may seem.

"Coriolanus" (2011, R for violence) marks Ralph Fiennes directing debut and he also stars as the Roman general of the title. This one is set in an alternate version of modern-day Rome as war rages with a neighboring city, and Fiennes is great in the lead role, supported well by Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave and Jessica Chastain, among others.

"Hamlet" (2000, R for violence) stars Ethan Hawke in the title role as a student filmmaker and is set in modern-day New York City, with a plot that attempts to comment (somewhat) on our technological age. Co-stars include Julia Stiles, Liev Schreiber, Kyle MacLachlan, Sam Shepard, Casey Affleck, Steve Zahn, and, believe it or not, Bill Murray.

"Love's Labour's Lost" (2000, PG) is Kenneth Branagh's offbeat 1930s musical take on the comedy. Though Branagh is better known for his more faithful Shakespeare films ("Henry V," "Much Ado About Nothing," "Hamlet"), this one has the actors singing recognizable '30s songs in between the Elizabethan dialogue. Branagh co-stars with Nathan Lane and Alicia Silverstone, among others.

"Romeo + Juliet" (1996, PG-13) is an adaptation by Baz Luhrman, whose razzle-dazzle version of "The Great Gatsby" is still playing locally. Here he gives the title roles to 22-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio and 17-year-old Claire Danes, in a hip-hop, music-video reboot, with Brian Dennehy and Paul Sorvino as their feuding fathers.

"Twelfth Night" (1996, PG) sets the cross-dressing farce in late 19th century Europe, where a shipwreck separates adult twins Viola and Sebastian (Imogen Stubbs, Steven Mackintosh). Thinking her brother dead, Viola adopts his gender to become a page, which leads to romantic complications. Helena Bonham Carter, Ben Kingsley and other familiar British actors take part.

"Richard III" (1995, R for violence and sex) is a mesmerizing and occasionally shocking re-creation of the ultimate power play set during a fictional history, the rise of fascism in 1930s England. Ian McKellen delivers a knockout performance in the title role, and his all-star supporting cast includes Annette Bening, Jim Broadbent, Robert Downey Jr., Kristin Scott Thomas and Maggie Smith.

Then there are the animated "Gnomeo and Juliet" (2011), with garden gnomes as the primary characters; "Titus" (1999), as in "Titus Andronicus," set in a strange mix of historical periods and starring Anthony Hopkins; and Orson Welles' "Chimes at Midnight" (aka "Falstaff," 1967), an amalgam of scenes from "Richard II," "Henry IV" (Parts 1 and 2), "Henry V" and "The Merry Wives of Windsor."

While I enjoyed some of these, and although I don't consider myself a purist, I must confess that I return more often to traditional Shakespeare films, especially "Henry V," both Branagh's 1989 film and Laurence Olivier's, from 1944; "The Taming of the Shrew," Franco Zeffirelli's adaptation starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton; and three "Hamlets": Olivier's 1948 version, Zeffirelli's in 1990 with Mel Gibson, and Branagh's 1996 epic.

And having just revisited Branagh's hilarious 1993 traditional adaptation of "Much Ado About Nothing" (rated PG-13), with a great cast that includes Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington and Michael Keaton, among others, I have to say that Whedon's version can't hold a candle to it.