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My 12 for ’13: Much Ado About Nothing & The Joy of a Shakespearean Sex Comedy…

This is my annual countdown of the 12 movies that really stuck with me this year. It only counts the movies released in Ireland in 2013, so quite a few of this year’s Oscar contenders aren’t eligible, though some of last year’s are.

This is number 10…

I feel a little sorry for Shakespeare. The guy wrote some of the most influential and iconic plays ever composed; invented countless turns of phrase and even words; became inexorable associated with theatre and stage work… and yet he’s still hated by just about every student forced to sift through Romeo & Juliet or Hamlet or Macbeth as part of their education. While Shakespeare is easy enough to read once you get a grip of it, or once you have enough experience, forcing kids to read those plays at school is one of the most effective ways to kill enthusiasm for the Bard.

The beauty of Shakespeare is that he isn’t just an “important” writer, that he isn’t just a key part of the evolution of world literature, a formative figure in the history of narrative. Not that any of those are minor accomplishments, mind you. The real beauty of Shakespeare is that he’s actually very good. Not with qualifications like “… for his time” or “… in context.” Shakespeare remains a great writer in the most fundamental “this is actually a pretty good story well told” sort of way.

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The best directors to adapt Shakespeare’s work to film realise this, and accept that Shakespeare is still a great storyteller; you just need to figure out how to translate his works properly to the screen, in the same way you’d translate a modern best-seller or a beloved cult comic book. Kenneth Branagh figured out how to do this, with his adaptations almost popping off the screen.

Much Ado About Nothing demonstrates that Joss Whedon has it pretty figured out as well.

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Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is delightfully low-key. It was shot in black-and-white at Whedon’s house while he was working on The Avengers. It features a cast of Whedon regulars including Alexis Denisof, Amy Acker, Fran Kranz and Nathan Fillon. It developed from a weekly get-together where Whedon and friends would read Shakespeare together on weekend afternoons, and the fact that it is a labour of love is obvious from just about every frame.

It’s quite apparent that Whedon is enthused and engaged with the play. There’s an endearing energy to the production that makes it hard to resist. Shakespeare’s plays still have enough appeal in them that all it really takes is some energy to inject life into the words. The beauty of Shakespeare’s dialogue is that it was designed to be spoken, but it’s actually quite tough to read and parse on its own without context. So having a bunch of enthusiastic actors and an invested director trying to bring those words life does a lot to capture the joy of Much Ado About Nothing.

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Whedon has been described as the world’s first third-generation television writer, and it’s no surprise that media is in his blood. As much as critics might recognise familiar patterns and recurring narrative tricks in his work, there’s no denying that Whedon understands his medium. For example, Whedon tends to kill off beloved characters suddenly, because it’s a way of catching most of the audience off-guard. Sure, recurring viewers might become a bit jaded and cynical, but my family jumped at the sudden deaths in both The Avengers and Serenity. (I also jumped at the death in Serenity; I was maybe too cynical for The Avengers.)

So, given his familiarity with television and film, Whedon’s choices here are quite astute. He films Much Ado About Nothing as a classic thirties or forties sex farce. It’s amazingly how easily the trappings fit with the aesthetic of Shakespeare’s play. There’s a host of physical comedy, lots of men wandering around in nice sharp suits, and Dogberry is reimagined as a bumbling detective more than a chief of citizen police. Although production realities mean that Much Ado About Nothing was very clearly filmed around Whedon’s home in modern Los Angeles, there’s a very classical air to the whole film.

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It’s not too hard to imagine Cary Grant delivering some of the one-liners, which is undoubtedly what Whedon was aiming for. It’s a rather clever way of arguing for the perpetual relevance of Shakespeare’s writing, and it’s the kind of approach that does its source material some service. It proves – if proof is needed, to even the most sceptical and cynical of viewers – that these words remain vital and vibrant.

Connecting Shakespeare to the rich tradition of the thirties sex comedies makes it easier to connect them to the tradition of modern comedy as well. After all, what is Identity Thief but a misguided attempt to update the classic “mistaken identity” comedy of errors for the modern age? The Heat is really just a traditional odd couple comedy with a modern twist or two thrown into the classic formula.

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It’s hard to argue that Shakespeare really any defending or vindication. Everybody knows the name, and most people have a measure of his accomplishments. At the same time, it’s important to remember that his plays are more than just grand and important works in the history and development of narrative and storytelling. There are very few of his contemporaries that can be read and enjoyed by a casual audience today.

At the same time, given the profile and mythological status that has been built up are Shakespeare, it’s nice to be reminded that he was also a guy who wrote some pretty wonderful plays about fascinating topics. He was even pretty good at the romantic comedy. Much Ado About Nothing is a nice reminder that Shakespeare’s work has the wonderful ability to be both timeless and timely.

Our top twelve films of the year:

Honourable Mentions

12.) Blue Jasmine

11.) Lincoln

10.) Much Ado About Nothing

09.) Iron Man 3

08.) Philomena

07.) Only God Forgives

06.) Star Trek Into Darkness

05.) Stoker

04.) Gravity

03.) Rush

02.) Django Unchained

01.) Cloud Atlas

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2 Responses

  1. Good commentary.

    Though it is the first in your list that surprises me. I only have it as slightly above average (C+). Glad you liked it more than me though.

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