Smiles of A Summer Night

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THE BOTTOM LINE: Begone, dull scruple! Sneak out of school and and enjoy this exuberant romantic romp.

We see a landscape of the Chianti region of Tuscany, as painted by the local governor, Leonato (Richard Briers). Then the camera pans to the real thing: a paradise of green and brown hills -- life outshining art -- on which his handsome family idles. The rest of this film of Much Ado About Nothing has the same seductive impact as the first shot does. It brings sunny vitality to an old canvas.

Shakespeare, who laced his plays with big fight scenes, multiple murders, romantic bantering and plenty of slapstick, was an ace screenwriter. Occasionally the movies have realized this and allowed distinguished actors to put one of his plays on film. Problem is that by the time they receive this reward for services rendered, it may as well be a gold watch. When MGM made Romeo and Juliet in 1936, it cast Leslie Howard, 43, and Norma Shearer, 36, as the star-crossed teens. Laurence Olivier brought sepulchral dash to his Hamlet, but at 41 he was a bit too mature to play a college student convincingly in close-up.

Kenneth Branagh will have none of this. At 31, after bustling triumphs on stage (Hamlet), in films (Henry V ) and on TV (Fortunes of War), he is still a young man in a hurry. His ambition is the best thing about him. Having directed the box-office success Dead Again, he confidently grabs some mogul by the Armani lapels and says, Mickey-and-Judy style, Let's put the Bard on right now! And put lots of pretty young people in it. Even Americans -- they can learn their lines phonetically. And we'll photograph them in loving slow-mo while they bathe naked. This is a play about star quality, so we'll do it in movie-star close-up. We'll have songs and dances. We'll make it so fresh and move it so fast that audiences will forget it's Shakespeare.

Branagh is a trollop for art. His bold mission is to ensure that everybody -- everybody on this planet for whom Shakespeare is unknown or a school punishment -- gets it, gets the power and the humor of the poetry, if not its unabridged grandeur. So he encourages Michael Keaton to play Dogberry, the lame-brained lawman, as a veritable triumvirate of Stooges -- all spitting and farts and head butts and scrotum grabbing. He wants similarly capitalized emotions from the romantic leads. Go bigger, higher, grander, clearer, he tells them. Speak loud if you speak love.

Well, it works. This isn't the best Shakespeare on film -- a photo finish between Olivier's Richard III and Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight -- but it may be the best movie Shakespeare. The skirmish of will and wit between Benedick (Branagh, never so charming a screen presence) and Beatrice (his wife Emma Thompson, here tart and intense) plays like a prime episode of Cheers. The characters' passions seem not revived but experienced afresh. There is wrenching melodrama in the perfidy that estranges the innocent lovers Hero (Kate Beckinsale) and Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard, a wonderfully vulnerable puppy-lover).

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