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Non-Review Review: Much Ado About Nothing

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2013.

Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing has delightfully intimate roots. Apparently, the movie stems from occasions in various Whedon households where he would host “Shakespeare Sundays”, with friends and family reading through classic plays in a very cosy environment. Much Ado About Nothing represents an extension of that intimacy. It’s literally filmed in Whedon’s own home, using money saved for his and his wife’s twentieth anniversary. Whedon even wrote the music, and his extended family are heavily involved. Jed Whedon supervised the music and his sister-in-law Maurissa Tancharoen can be seen singing at points.

That’s the wonderful charm of Much Ado About Nothing, a movie that seems to have grown and developed out of a genuinely personal creative space, a project deeply personal and intimate to Whedon, filmed while he was editing one of the biggest movies of all time. In a way, Much Ado About Nothing feels like the most talented and highest quality student film ever produced.

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It helps that Much Ado About Nothing lends itself to this approach. It is very much a light piece of Shakespeare, but also a deeply charming one. At one point, Beatrice remarks that she was born to speak “all mirth and no matter.” Were one feeling especially cynical about the play, you could make a similar argument – but that’s a very shallow critique. Much Ado About Nothing is effectively a sex farce, written centuries before sex farces actually existed.

Whedon’s adaptation shrewdly acknowledges this. The text references Hero “talking with a man outside her bedroom window”, but it’s fairly clear what was implied between the lines. Indeed, the play explicitly articulates the insinuation that “a man made defeat of her virginity.” So Whedon takes the text and makes it a great deal more explicit. In fact, he turns the character of Borachio into a rather creepy little fellow with a bit of a fetish for Hero, what with dressing up the maid in her outfit.

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And it all makes sense in the context of Shakespeare’s play, contextualising it as a progenitor of the modern romantic comedy. There are several sequences in Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing that play up that aspect, even as the characters spout the beautiful language of William Shakespeare. The scene where Benedick attempts to eavesdrop on his colleagues in an increasingly inept manner is something that could easily have come from a more modern comedy, albeit a deftly executed one.

There are two real keys to a successful Shakespeare adaptation. The first is to find a way to make it resonate. Shakespeare and his plays have seeped so far into popular culture that each adaptation must distinguish itself in order to succeed. It’s all about finding a unique angle or style for the film, and Whedon does that with Much Ado About Nothing. Shakespeare’s language and the way that we teach his plays in school has rendered the writer inaccessible to a significant percentage of the population.

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The best adaptations find a way to break through that barrier, to demonstrate that Shakespeare isn’t this culturally elitist institution, and that his work has a fantastically broad appeal. As noted above, it’s quite easy to draw a straight line between Much Ado About Nothing and any number of modern romantic comedies, and the film versions succeed or fail on their ability to grasp and to play with those influences. This film does that with considerable skill.

Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, shot in black-and-white in Whedon’s Los Angeles home, evokes the romantic comedies of the thirties through to the early sixties. Benedick and Beatrice could easily be any number of flirtatious and adversarial male and female leads – dealing with their obvious sexual attraction through witty exchanges and brutal put-downs. Much Ado About Nothing lends itself quite well to the bright exteriors and the sharp suits of the West Coast. Indeed, Dogberry is fairly wonderfully reimagined as a brutal subversion of the no-nonsense Los Angeles police man archetype.

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Which, of course, brings us to the second necessary ingredient for a successful Shakespeare adaptation. The lines are great – that’s a given. In fact, Whedon only had to change two words of dialogue in the entire film. That said, the lines are only as good as those actors delivering them. By that measure, Much Ado About Nothing is a triumphant success. Kenneth Branagh is, for my money, the best living Shakespearean actor, but Whedon’s adaptation works because he doesn’t count on his actors having a style traditionally associated with Shakespeare.

Drawing on a bunch of actors with who he has shared a long history, Whedon is able to draw revelatory performances from Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof as Benedick and Beatrice. Whedon has always been great at drawing strong performances from his actors, but this is a completely different scale. Both are pitch-perfect in their roles, and it’s immediately disappointing that neither are truly marquee names. That said, the entire ensemble is fantastic.

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Fran Kranz is superb as Claudio. Nathan Fillion is absolutely fantastic as Dogberry, providing one of the best comedic supporting performances I have seen in a Shakespeare adaptation. Clark Gregg manages to be the alpha and omega of Whedon’s casting choices for Leonato, and is really just brilliant. His line readings find a way to convey so much so efficiently that it is genuinely stunning. It’s a shame that Gregg won’t be back for the next Avengers film.

In many ways, Much Ado About Nothing feels like an experiment for Whedon. Whedon is known for his tropes and his dialogue – his very distinctly “Whedon-esque” affectations. You can spot Whedon’s fingerprints on a script easily enough. There’s the smart dialogue, the irony, the witticism and the brutal emotional manipulation. He also, you know, likes to kill characters. Working with a Shakespeare play takes the director out of his comfort zone, even if he did change two words.

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Instead of fashioning his own dialogue, he’s fine-tuning and directing some of the best dialogue ever written – but not in his style. The story itself isn’t something you’d associate with Whedon. The script even avoids the conveniently brutal mid-movie killing of a loved character, teasing the possibility before denying Whedon even that. There’s a sense that Whedon is very much out on a limb here. More than that, though, there’s a sense that he is loving every minute of it.

There’s an incredible energy to Much Ado About Nothing, and it is one of the best Shakespearean adaptations I have seen in quite some time. Indeed, appropriate given the comparison above, it might be the finest Shakespearean adaptation since Kenneth Brannagh’s Hamlet. So it is much ado about something indeed.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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2 Responses

  1. And following on from my comment on your Whedon talk….I think this is a film I really, really need to see. Love Shakespeare, love Whedon, but Much Ado is one I don’t have a lot of familiarity with. Will have to keep an eye out for it.

    • Much Ado is light. It’s very light, but I think that’s the appeal. I could see my family watching this, and my mom hates Shakespeare.

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