Shakespearoids assemble! Joss Whedon has tamed the geeks, but now he tackles an even tougher crowd: art house cinemas.
Of all the plays of William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing is perhaps the most quietly influential. The central warring romance between Beatrice and Benedick serves as the template for almost every unrequited love comedy since, and their rapid fire barbs is textbook screwball comedy, centuries before the term was coined. There have been several adaptations of the play over the years, most notably Kenneth Branagh’s wonderful 1993 film, yet Joss Whedon‘s is both the most surprising and logical. Shot in his house on a micro budget, quietly slipping it between his commitments to that other small change film The Avengers, it’s a fresh and modern taken on one of the Bard’s most joyful plays.
Whedon shifts the setting from the Sicilian port of Messina to something more contemporary, although the original text is kept in tact. Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) visits his friend Leonato (Clark Gregg), the governor of Messina, after a successful campaign against Pedro’s rebellious brother Don John (Sean Maher). With him are comrades Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Claudio (Fran Kranz), the latter of whom is besotted with Leonato’s daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese) and resolves to marry her. Benedick is involved in something of a “merry war” with the governor’s niece Beatrice (Amy Acker). While Pedro and Leonato lightheartedly conspire to bring about a union between Beatrice and Benedick, John plots to separate the blissful couple of Claudio and Hero by spreading slander.
Much Ado About Nothing is perhaps notable for being one of Shakespeare’s best plays to deal with gender politics, mostly in Beatrice who rages on Hero’s besmirching: “Oh, that I were a man! What, bear her in hand until they come to take hands and then, with public accusation, uncovered slander, unmitigated rancor—O God, that I were a man!” It’s interesting that Whedon actually mixes the gender up with the characters, switching Don John’s Conrad to Conrade and implying a sexual relationship between the two. It changes the dynamic between the typically isolated and vindictive John to one of cat-stroking super villain, but it doesn’t alter the central buoyancy of the piece. Indeed, more than any other of his plays, Much Ado About Nothing remains fresh and sharp in the hands of Whedon, who has hand-selected a cast of familiar faces from his previous productions.
For the most part, the casting is spot-on. Those used to seeing Acker in the meeker role of Fred in television’s Angel will delight in seeing her tear strips off Benedick and mankind generally. She also gets a decent dose of physical comedy, with at least one classic pratfall down a flight of steps. Denisof downplays his Benedick with a slow drawl, convincingly delivering “I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart, for truly I love none” with all the apathy he can muster. While some of Don John’s henchmen don’t quite hit the mark, the performances feel so immediate and real, as though the events were unfurling before our eyes. Fan favourite Nathan Fillion is priceless as the bumbling constable Dogberry, and maybe even the definitive version of the character.
For a play that truly is much ado about nothing, this film has a hell of a lot of character. Whedon demonstrates that while he might be able to rake in billions of dollars at the box office, his heart is still in human drama and comedy. In interviews, he has indicated that he wants to do a ballet after The Avengers sequel, and who could possibly stop him. If it’s half as good as Much Ado About Nothing, our tickets are already bought.
Much Ado About Nothing is released in Australia on 11 July 2013 from Sharmill Films.