This low-key adaptation of William Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing caught plenty of people off guard when it appeared in film festivals a little over two years ago, primarily because of director Joss Whedon’s association with a string of fantasy, sci-fi and comic book-related hits on both the small and the big screen. A black and white take on one of the playwright’s more joyful comedies is one of the last things I would have expected from the man behind The Avengers and Buffy The Vampire Slayer, too, but thankfully the surprise is a pleasant one: Whedon has a keen ear for Shakespeare’s jokes and oversees an enjoyable and energetic cinematic translation.
A light, humorous play with occasional flashes of darkness, Much Ado About Nothing focuses on the burgeoning relationships between squabbling lovers Beatrice and Benedick, as well as the impending nuptials of Beatrice’s cousin Hero and Benedick’s companion Claudio. Benedick and Claudio are travelling with Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, and are staying at the residence of Leonato, Beatrice’s father, for a week. Various characters connive behind the scenes to engineer a romance between Benedick and Beatrice while Don John, Don Pedro’s scheming bastard brother, attempts to sabotage the other couple’s wedding plans for his own nefarious and spiteful reasons. Much of the humour in the original work arrives courtesy of the character Dogberry, a constable and a favourite among fans of Shakespeare thanks to his ability to fashion malapropisms out of thin heir.
The director calls upon regular colleagues from his previous excursions in TV and cinema to act in this film: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Reed Diamond, Fran Kranz and Nathan Fillion will all be familiar to Whedon’s fans and each is given a prominent role, while there are also smaller parts for the likes of Tom Lenk and Ashley Johnson. The cast’s familiarity with each other (as well as the two-way link with the director) is evident from the off, with excellent chemistry between the actors and, it would seem, a general sense of collective ease with the aims of the project itself; perhaps this shouldn’t be all that surprising given that we are essentially watching the TV/film equivalent of a theatre company that has worked together for many years, but there is a sense of togetherness here that is worth mentioning. The chemistry between Acker (Beatrice) and Denisof (Benedick) is particularly enjoyable, with flirty insults traded throughout much of the film before their fabricated love takes on a more serious edge. It’s also interesting to note the assured performance by Jillian Morgese, who was employed as an extra on The Avengers as a waitress fleeing a typical scene of utter carnage, and was picked out by Whedon for the important role of Hero here.
Whedon shot the film during a two-week break from The Avengers in 2011 (he had finished filming Marvel’s hit-in-the-making but had yet to begin work on the post-production). Increasing the sense of familiarity for all involved, and perhaps ensuring a welcome dose of relaxation, Whedon used his own Hollywood mansion, built by his wife Kai Cole, as the location for the adaptation; its open spaces and beautiful exterior double for the Sicilian city of Messina, and it never feels for one second as if the film is an extended brag of the couple’s wealth and status, or an ill-judged episode of Through Ye Olde Keyhole.
In fact the incongruous choice of location works very well indeed. The kitchen is packed with modern equipment, while amusingly the characters of Benedick and Claudio (Kranz) must sleep in a young girl’s bedroom, replete with dolls and other toys (naturally they are oblivious to their surroundings and actually interact well with them). The garden and outdoor pool area are large enough to stage the story’s grand parties, while the director’s knowledge of the best spots in and around his house for light ensure that the contrast is crisp when needed; every time the duplicitous Don John appears, watching over events inside the house, the chiaroscuro is redolent of that used on criminals or during dramatic moments in 1940s and 1950s crime thrillers, but the blacks are never crushed.
Despite being performed in the original English the play is set in the modern day, so the suits and cocktail dresses reflect sharp, current fashions while the guests drink tequila and nonchalantly use modern technology (a list of soldiers returning from battle is checked on a smartphone, for example, while laptops are also employed). In one scene a couple of characters even share a joint, but importantly these glimpses into the good life enjoyed by Hollywood A-listers actually feel natural, and the use of such props does not dominate or come across as being gimmicky. In fact at times it is easy to forget that the house interiors and fashions are from the 21st Century, such is the cast’s poker-face ability to speak their lines in a natural and convincing way whilst ignoring the fact that the language they use doesn’t tally with their surroundings.
Whedon’s direction is sure, and he coaxes good performances from the assembled cast; the lines are delivered and captured clearly, and as a result it’s quite an easy adaptation to get into, even if you are unaware of the plot beforehand or if you (like me) find Shakespeare’s dialogue tough to follow. There are exaggerated moments of farce here that still remain funny today, an incredible feat given such scenes were written over 400 years ago, and Whedon captures the intended spirit very well. Occasionally the director’s background in TV drama shows through – a quick prologue hinting at a one night stand between Beatrice and Benedick that falls outside of the original story, for example, is informed by countless cheesy jewellery adverts as much as anything else – but again much of his input is welcome, and the task of staging the play so that it is accessible to a modern audience (particularly one that may not be too familiar with Shakespeare) is one that Whedon clearly approached with relish. He even went as far as scoring the film as a result of budget constraints, creating modern versions of two songs Shakespeare included in the play that are performed by his brother Jed Whedon and Jed’s wife Maurissa Tancharoen with ever-so-slight hip-hop stylings.
It’s hard to think of a more successful recent cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare’s work, certainly out of the ones that I’ve seen anyway; I’d have to go back as far as Baz Luhrmann’s camp and extravagant MTV-style take on Romeo And Juliet if I wanted to find a better film, though this is like an earnest mumblecore effort by comparison. Shot crisply, engagingly-performed and creatively-staged, this is well worth a try if you’re a fan of Shakespeare (or even just Bard-curious) and a sign that Whedon may have started down an interesting and broad mid-career path. The production company he shares with his wife has already made and distributed this year’s low-budget paranormal rom-com In Your Eyes, so it’s nice to see the huge sums of money generated by The Avengers series trickling down to smaller, personal projects. Much Ado About Nothing appears to be a good example of it, too.
Directed by: Joss Whedon
Written by: William Shakespeare, Joss Whedon (screenplay)
Starring: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Jillian Morgese, Fran Kranz, Clark Gregg, Nathan Fillion, Reed Diamond, Sean Maher, Spencer Treat Clark, Riki Lindhome
Running Time: 106 minutes