My thoughts on Shakespeare, the greatest ever scriptwriter, have been aired on this blog before (https://notlefthandedfilmguide.co.uk/2013/05/15/william-shakespeares-romeo-juliet/). My opinion on Joss Whedon, the greatest living screenwriter, is pretty much out there too. This means I can dispense with my normal waffly preamble and get straight into the film.
Hang on though because there is something to be said about this particular play. There have been quite a number of high profile stage productions in the last decade including a reportedly superb version with Simon Russell Beale and Zoë Wannamaker as the central duo and two years ago there was one reuniting The Doctor and Donna; David Tennant and Catherine Tate. The reasons for the play’s popularity are fairly clear regardless of who plays the leads.
Much Ado About Nothing is a brilliant example of Shakespeare’s ability to deftly mix comedy and (near) tragedy (see also Malvolio in Twelfth Night, parading around in funny socks one minute and incarcerated for insanity the next). Judd Apatow, who clearly thinks himself a contemporary writer with skills in this area, should watch and learn. More than this though, the play is very funny. This might seem an obvious thing to say because I know Will had a reputation for writing comedies but often these were just the plays where people escaped death at the end. They were slight in story compared to the histories and the tragedies but they weren’t really full of laugh out loud moments by today’s standards. I am happy to agree that Midsummer Night’s Dream is hilarious if played right but Much Ado About Nothing is one of Will’s few scripts that is properly witty on the page, even now. The humour centres around the banter and the ‘will they, won’t they get together’ relationship of Beatrice and Benedick earning the play a deserved reputation as the original romantic comedy. Arguably it has never been surpassed so is both the original and the best, although there are no lines about partaking in a piece of pecan pie or making a woman miaow and the play is much poorer for it.
This new Much Ado About Nothing is only the third cinema adaptation of the play. The first was made in 1913 and as a silent movie must have been largely pointless. Experiencing a Shakespeare play without having to use your ears must be like trying to appreciate the Sistine Chapel without using your eyes. The other film is obviously Kenneth Branagh’s sun drenched adaptation from twenty years ago which was great but not perfect, the casting of Keanu Reeves making it a bit of a case of ‘Will and Ted’s Bogus Journey’.
Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is more intimate than Branagh’s, filmed as it was in his own house in the twelve days he had off between shooting and doing post production on The Avengers. The tight setting totally works for this play but when I say ‘Whedon’s own house’, clearly this is not a terraced property in Peckham. The first thing you pick up on watching this Much Ado About Nothing though is that this guy from New York who created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, bloodily deconstructed Horror films with Cabin in the Woods and is one of the key creative forces behind Marvel Studio’s Superhero movies, this guy really knows Shakespeare.
Presenting Elizabethan language in a way that is relevant for any audience in any age? Whedon has got it spot on. Making something of The Bard’s understated stage directions? That box is ticked. Maintaining that tricky balance between comedy and tragedy? Joss has nailed it.
Mind you, that last one is something that this writer/director has always done (see below) making you realise that rather than Tudor theatre being something he is dipping his creative toes into, it is something that has informed his work right from the start.
Another thing that makes Whedon and Shakespeare a perfect match is the commitment they share to strong yet feminine female characters with Buffy and Glory on one side and Lear’s Cordelia and Lady MacBeth on the other. (I’ve always struggled to rationalise Katherina’s behaviour in The Taming of the Shrew. It’s a satirical parody right? Like Echo in S&M gear in Whedon’s Dollhouse.)
With this in mind the playing of Beatrice’s ‘Oh, that I were a man’ speech in this adaptation is superb. In fact Amy Acker is excellent throughout this film and there is the real potential for this to be a star making turn for her. Alexis Denisof’s Benedick is great fun but does not handle the switch from pratfalls to pathos quite as smoothly. Still they make an excellent and believable pairing.
Elsewhere, Clark Gregg and Reed Diamond are really strong as Leonato and Don Pedro respectively and Sean Maher is magnificently malicious as Don John. This all highlights another aspect of Whedon’s work that makes him perfect for Shakespeare; he knows how to manage an ensemble cast. His abridgement of the text really emphasises this and no one is sidelined in the final cut. Nathan Fillian and Tom Lenk particularly shine as Dogberry and Verges, their scenes subtly played through the filter of Laurel & Hardy, most evident in a lovely moment with a jacket. This is just one example of what must have come from giving the cast the freedom to create their own tiny character beats. There is a similar bit involving a cupcake and these are just two examples of many in a film where all of cast members properly own their characters.
You really do get the impression that this is a company of actors working together rather than just someone getting his friends together to make a home movie. Whedon has surrounded himself with performers he knows he can trust and the results are there to be seen. There are many familiar faces here for any follower of Whedon, most of them from the director’s more recent projects. There is no Sarah Michelle Gellar but three of her Buffy buddies are there, no doubt all pitching in and helping out behind the camera as well as working in front of it.
Joss Whedon has clearly done lots of things here that we have seen from him before (including writing the music) but rather than it being any kind of retread of his previous works it is a wonderful example of a director playing to his many strengths. Once again he has taken on a project that wouldn’t have worked in the hands of most film makers and made it look easy.
This Much Ado About Nothing is a beautifully shot, wonderfully performed and masterfully adapted and directed film of a fantastic play. Don’t underestimate Joss Whedon just because of his sci-fi and fantasy geek credentials, he is a quite quite brilliant artist and Shakespeare may not be the only genius who’s work is on display here.
Is this one for the kids?
I was thrilled when my eleven year old daughter said she wanted to see this film but as it is a 12A we said we would need to see it first. Yeah, we won’t be taking her. It’s a little bit too sexy.
Is this one for the nerds?
There aren’t any demons or aliens but there is much here to satisfy fans of Joss Whedon’s sense of humour and heartache. On that last point, it would be needlessly nerdy for me to point out the most truly heart breaking moments in his filmography so far so here they are in no particular order:
– Willow and Oz’s campus reunion in the Buffy episode New Moon Rising.
– Buffy’s first visit to LA in Angel Season 1.
– Cordelia’s return in the Angel Season 5 episode You’re Welcome.
– Wash’s final ‘I am a leaf on the wind’ moment in the film Serenity.
– The Buffy episode The Body, the only thing I have ever seen on a screen, big or small, that properly captures the feeling of numbness and uselessness you get when someone close to you dies.
– Buffy realising that Angel has been saved when it is too late to save him at the end of Season 2. That’s a properly Shakespearean moment.
– Buzz seeing his arm has come off but being too dejected to care in Toy Story.