While Denzel Washington is certainly one of the most iconic movie stars of all-time, he’s just as active on the stage as he is in new movies. Washington has earned almost as many accolades for his work in theater as he has for his film performances, and like any great actor, he knows his way around the work of William Shakespeare. Washington often reprises his theater roles in films, and earned his most recent Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his performance as the titular Scottish King in Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth. However, to see a much different Shakespearean role from Washington, his fans should take a chance on Kenneth Branagh’s wild, eccentric 1993 adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. It’s unlike any of Washington’s other films — not the type of serious performance that he is so well known for. Much Ado About Nothing reveals a comedic side to Washington, and unsurprisingly, he’s just as believable in a humorous role as he is in a dramatic one.
Denzel Washington Understands Shakespeare
Maintaining the tradition of the original play, Branagh’s version of Much Ado About Nothing is set within the illustrious Italian city of Messina in the 17th century. While the film retains the original text note-for-note, Branagh finds other ways to modernize the source material. The film utilizes the sort of melodramatic music, eccentric physical comedy, and over-the-top performances that were commonplace in romantic comedies at the time. Staring at hot movie stars didn’t just convince a more youthful audience to check out the works of Shakespeare; it allowed the film’s cast to experiment with characters that had been brought to life countless times before. In Washington’s case, it allowed him to take a break from the dramatic roles that had dominated his recent filmography; between Malcolm X, Philadelphia, Glory, The Mighty Quinn, and Cry Freedom, he could be forgiven for choosing a lighter project.
Much Ado About Nothing opens with a gloriously illustrious image of the war hero Don Pedro (Washington) and his fellow servicemen Bendick (Branagh) and Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) as they ride their horses gallantly into Messina to celebrate their victory over Don Pedro’s power-hungry half-brother, Don John (Keanu Reeves). The sequence is about as cheekily silly as it could be, but within the men’s early interactions with the women of Messina, it’s evident that the style of comedy that Washington is going for is more subtle than what Branagh and Leonard are doing. Benedick is presented as an overconfident, yet clever oaf, and Claudio is so ridiculously naive that it’s absurd. However, Don Pedro carries himself with a formality that feels patently ridiculous considering how silly the rest of the performances are.
Washington is an actor who has always been very conscious of his own image; he selects roles that earn him the respect that he most certainly deserves. If Washington had chosen to adopt a similarly outlandish performance to the ones that Branagh and Leonard were delivering, it may have prevented the audience from believing him in future dramatic work. It was necessary for Washington to distinguish himself, which makes sense considering the context of the story. Don Pedro is the senior nobleman of Aragorn, and has led a successful life in service of his great city. He commands a certain amount of authority, and Washington is able to carry himself in a way that explains why he’s become so successful. In his early interactions with Reeves, it’s clear that Don John doesn’t need to be reminded twice that his half-brother will not tolerate any further attempted rebellions.
Washington Has Great Comedic Timing
Despite his serious demeanor, Don Pedro is just as clueless as the rest of the characters. He acts as if he’s unaware of the effect he has on a plethora of women that most certainly would wed him in aheartbeat. Washington delivers each line with flirtatious charm that appears to be second nature. This becomes increasingly hilarious as Don Pedro notices Claudio’s growing infatuation with the young woman Hero (Kate Beckinsale), and Benedict’s flirtatious chemistry with his frequent critic Beatrice (Emma Thompson). Even though it is more than obvious that the two men are smitten with their respective counterparts, it takes them both admitting their feelings out loud for Don Pedro to pick up on them. Washington hilariously captures the presence of a man who’s more used to swinging a weapon than he is having any normal romantic interaction.
This faux gravity that Don Pedro carries himself with becomes even funnier amidst his interactions with the city’s long serving constable, Dogberry (Michael Keaton). Keaton is playing Dogberry as an absolute buffoon, yet Don Pedro treats him as a voice of legal authority. The drastic differences between Keaton’s wackiness and Washington’s intensity becomes increasingly hilarious. Washington acts as if Don Pedro treats Dogberry as he would any other member of law enforcement. It’s as if Don Pedro treats every situation as if he would a wartime battle, and hasn’t been awarded the chance to relax since he returned from combat. Washington seems to be applying military strategy to what amounts to little more than a few crushes and a few misunderstandings.
However, Washington certainly gets his chance to play up the melodrama. He simply chews the scenery during Don Pedro’s initial invitation for Hero to join Claudio, once again giving casually romantic gestures that he seems to be unaware of. Despite being the most decorated man in the city, Don Pedro is ironically the only one within his company that is still single at the film’s conclusion after Benedict and Claudio reveal their feelings to Hero and Beatrice, respectively. There’s a twinge of sadness in Washington’s smile as he watches his friends celebrate. Don Pedro has done extraordinary work in service of others, but must remain alone, content in the happiness of his friends.
Much Ado About Nothing is an outlier within Washington’s filmography, but it’s hopefully not the last comedic performance that he will ever give. Given his advancing age, it seems infeasible that he would continue to make action films like The Equalizer for the rest of his career. Perhaps Washington’s retirement from physically demanding roles will allow his fans a chance to see “goofy Denzel” again.