MOVIE REVIEW: "Much Ado About Nothing"



As a fan of both Shakespeare and of Joss Whedon, I was delighted to hear that the latter had decided to tackle the former in film form.  Filmed in 2011, in less than two weeks at the director’s house in Santa Monica, Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing wound its way through various film festivals until it secured a wide release for June/July 2013.  This adaptation, shot in black-and-white but placing the original Shakespeare dialogue in a modern-day setting, combines many actors who have worked with Whedon before. 

As it is one of my personal favorite Shakespeare plays, I have seen several productions of Much Ado About Nothing on both the stage and on the screen.  I am always in the mood to hear the witty barbs tossed between Benedick and Beatrice and to see their sharp edges sanded down (to a degree) by mutual love.  While the 1993 Kenneth Branagh film is a classic and both near and dear to my heart, I particularly delight in the creativity that is afforded to a production of this well-known play when the director changes the setting.  I had the good fortune to see a fantastic production of Much Ado in London in 2011, starring David Tennant and Catherine Tate, which was set in a sort of a beach-side resort.  While no adaptation of Much Ado can top the sheer giddiness and belly-aching humor from the London 2011 stage production or the sheer ease of the 1993 film, Joss Whedon’s stab at the material is absolutely worthy, featuring some stellar performances and providing satisfying levels of depth through its direction that the dialogue alone does not convey.

The direction itself is in a constant state of motion, taking the point of view of a spy lurking high in the rafters of Whedon’s house, or viewing the action of the play through doorways.  Whedon’s house is a lovely 3-dimensional stage, and suits the production well with its many balconies and interconnected rooms.  The use of a photographer taking photos during the action of the film also lends itself to the feeling that we, the audience, are voyeurs in this production.  The actors do not address us as if on a stage, and the use of cinematography, giving us often quick, shaky, peripheral glances of some of the action, adds to this impression. The film itself is simply but gorgeously shot.  The lack of color unifies the overall visual aesthetic of the film, allowing individual details to shine through.  In particular, a sequence during Hero (Jillian Morgese)’s candlelit vigil, wherein a line of mourners holding candles walks down a zigzag pathway framed by a black mass of trees and foliage, is quite striking.  The texture of the flora in this shot, combined with the soft, small glow from the candles of the mourners, is reminiscent of an old daguerreotype photograph and thus visually pleasing.

The true test of creativity in staging a well-known production of a Shakespeare play lies in how the director has the actors behave physically in the moments between lines—the visual moments of humor or violence that are not spelled out in Shakespeare’s words.  Whedon succeeds immensely in this regard.  Reed Diamond’s Don Pedro and Fran Kranz’s Claudio display a convincing rapport.  The famous “Benedick/Beatrice overhears their friends discussing how the other is in love with them” scenes (as in most adaptations, I daresay), are amusing sequences of slapstick comedy.  Much of this film’s depth comes from such visual moments involving supporting characters. Nathan Fillion’s foolish Dogberry is made even more of a laughingstock during his silent “good cop, bad cop” interactions with his partner Verges (Tom Lenk).  Don John (Sean Maher)’s henchman Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark) is given a more sympathetic side due to the direction allowing him to wordlessly demonstrate a pining, unrequited love for Hero that is not in the original text.  In a surprising twist, Don John’s other henchman Conrade is made into a woman, played by Riki Lindhome, who in this production not only is fellow evildoer but is also Don John’s sexual partner.  These choices give the villains more to do than the textual “be evil”, and in Borachio’s case, stir up genuine emotion towards his unacknowledged feelings for Hero.

The music in this production is spare and well-used.  However, it is always awkward for me to hear how the production will handle the associated song “Hey Nonny Nonny”, and hearing those lyrics transposed in the form of a modern pop song did not quite work.  Overall, though, the choice of when to use accompanying music works effectively, like the choice to not use any music for some dramatic scenes, or the perhaps over-obvious Jaws-esque musical change when the evil Don John enters a lighthearted exchange between Don Pedro and Claudio.

While it is hard to imagine a better Benedick and Beatrice combination than Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson from the 1993 film, Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker turn in compelling performances.  I do not believe that this film is the first Much Ado adaptation to have established a previous encounter between Benedick and Beatrice (in this case, a one-night stand after which Benedick snuck away), but the film’s inclusion of such a backstory lends real weight to the eventual declarations of mutual love.  Amy Acker’s performance perhaps eclipses her foe’s due to the greater range of emotions Beatrice displays throughout the play.  Acker’s Beatrice is sharp, witty, alluring, but capable of wry regret, introspection and well-played teary grief.   She is a delight to watch.  Alexis, while amusing as declared bachelor Benedick, is less natural in the role, and lacks the physical exuberance of David Tennant in the London 2011 stage production or the wry ease of Kenneth Branagh in 1993.  


Amy Acker as Beatrice (muchadomovie.com)

Clark Gregg’s Leonato is a stellar casting choice which exceeds that of the 1993 film.  Clark Gregg has mastered portraying warm and resolute father figures (as he arguably does in the Marvel Universe/Avengers franchise), and his Leonato’s heartwarming adoration of his daughter, easily read in the quirk of his smiles and the lines around his loving eyes, makes his treatment towards her when she is accused of impurity all the more poignant and sad.  Sean Maher’s Don John is another example in which this production’s casting trumps that of the 1993 version, or rather, any production of Much Ado that I have seen.  Where Keanu Reeves seemed stiff and ill at ease with Shakespearean dialogue in 1993, Sean Maher’s villain is gleefully snakelike and seductively evil; Maher is naturally compelling with this material and his Don John is a powerful man of few but devastating words.  Maher appears not to have aged since his tenure on Whedon’s short-lived television show Firefly from 2002, which gives his laconic villain an eerie air.  Fran Kranz also shines as the naïve lover Claudio.  I had previously seen Kranz as a typical stoner in The Cabin in the Woods (2012), and he convincingly plays a totally different type of character in this production. 

Nathan Fillion, a Whedon favorite, is perfectly cast as veritable buffoon Dogberry, the head of security at Leonato’s house.  He is adept in this role, at first glance seeming respectable and authoritative, but quickly revealing himself to be prone to idiocy and cursed with an inflated sense of self-importance.  I almost crowed with glee when I recognized Cracked.com’s sketch comedy BriTANick in the roles of the watchmen.  Due to the direction, Sebastian Treat Clark is able to shine as Don John’s henchman Borachio, giving a fair amount of emotional weight to a textually small role.  I cannot recall a production in which Borachio has motivations or emotional weight, and this choice was a pleasant surprise. 

Reed Diamond’s Don Pedro is also enjoyable.  Unfortunately, this film production chooses not to give much weight to his feelings for Beatrice, which denies his character key depth and emotional resonance.  This plot point is not often given the attention it deserves; only the London 2011 production I saw had the power to make me truly pity Don Pedro’s wasted feelings.  Riki Lindhome’s Conrade is surly and snarky, but beyond the initial surprise of her casting and her early intimate scene with Don John, she is not given much else to do than to deliver the famous announcement to Dogberry that is he is an ass.  Lastly, Jillian Morgese plays Hero as the requisite sweet, rather innocent Hero, but is not really given a chance to shine due to Hero’s passivity in the first part of the play and absence in the second part.  

The choice to make this film in black-and-white, but to place it in a modern setting, keenly parallels the juxtaposition of old-fashioned moral codes and the mindset of the contemporary audience.  To the modern audience, the scandal caused over Hero’s perceived sexual activity seems a long gone remnant of Shakespeare’s era, though placing this story in a modern setting also has the effect of highlighting how ridiculous it is that Claudio takes greater offense from his belief that Hero is not a virgin rather than the perception that she was unfaithful with another man.  Like the inherent unease of a black-and-white film set in the modern day, the treatment of the sexual double standard to which Hero is held alerts the viewer to be vary of old-fashioned mindsets about women’s sexuality that are not quite at ease with the modern world.   

While the film has its flaws, such as a disappointing lack of diversity in the casting and the aforementioned disparities in quality among some of the performances, it is an absolute must-see for any Shakespeare enthusiast.

Comments

  1. I too loved the movie and this review sums it up quite well. As on the 2011 stage version, the modern day setting and the Shakespeare script (and social mores) present a sharp contrast that make the story even more appealing. Very detailed and well thought out reveiw! I hope your readers take it to heart and go see this film!

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  2. Hmm. I'm glad Fillion was Dogberry. Brilliant he may be, but he only really shines in certain roles-- buffoonery, and, well, Mal-type characters. Yes, he has succeeded in other roles, but something always feels a bit off to me.

    Anyway, especially pleased to hear about the secret-watcher perspective. That's an interesting one that's rarely done well.

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  3. Actually in this delightful interview between Tom Lenk and Joss Whedon, Joss says that he interpreted Don Pedro as gay. I didn't catch that, but I guess it does sort of come across in his lack of interest in Beatrice.

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