Finding exactly the right balance in the material and delivering it with the sure hand of a master, Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing is, to my mind, perfect.
When Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) and his two officers Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Benedick (Alexis Densiof) visit his friend Governor Leonato (Clark Gregg) following a successful battle against his now captive brother Don John (Sean Maher), romance blooms between Claudio and Leonato’s daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese). The two are quickly to be married and the impending union sets the backdrop for a plot to make the quick witted and perennial bachelor Benedick and Hero’s independent and equally quick witted cousin Beatrice (Amy Acker) also fall in love. As these events are set in motion Don John and his henchmen Conrade (Rikki Lindhome) and Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark) plot to destroy and disgrace Hero and Claudio.
Filmed in 12 days at director Joss Whedon’s own home while on hiatus after principle photography on the Avengers, this version of Shakspeare’s Much Ado About Nothing sets the play in modern times but retains the original dialogue. It is abriged but with the exception of the change of a slur to a more palatable word, all the rest of the words belong to Shakespeare. This sort of thing has been done before with varying success but I don’t think it has ever fit this well. This is a play that many consider to be the template for the modern romantic comedy and as such the language and situations read fairly current. Whedon does very little to make the setting fit because it doesn’t need terribly much.
The choice to film in black and white also goes a long way toward making the material more easily palatable in a modern setting because it offsets normal just enough that the language isn’t jarring. Audiences used to color may pause at this but honestly once it got going I never really noticed. The lack of color enriches rather than detracts because it allows the audience to focus more intently on the words being said and how they are being delivered and that is, after all, the meat of this particular dish.
Going into this film, there were those who questioned Whedon’s ability to excel with someone else’s words when one his greatest gifts is his ability to turn a phrase but his sense of scene setting, blocking, timing and delivery are honed to perfection and he proves definitively that his own words are not a crutch. His sure hand for finding the tone coupled with his skills at casting are front and center as well as he gives us just the right emotional beats at just the right momentum with actors who make the tricky language sound natural. Nathan Fillion( as Dogberry) and Sean Maher seem especially at ease here and I imagine that their dealing with the unique language in Firefly and Serenity had something to do with that.
The ability to manage tone is very important for this story as it swings wildly at times from hilarious and silly moments to deadly serious and somber moments. Likewise it goes from cynical and sarcastic to tender and earnest. In incompetent hands the sotry beats and emotional moodswings would be jarring and chaotic but Whedon keeps it tight and fast paced with reflective pause only when needed. The proper sensibility is very important to the material and it would be a mistake to assume that Shakespeare did all the heavy lifting with the story and dialogue.
Now, I have to admit that I am very biased here because I love Shakespeare and this is my second favorite of his plays. I also love Joss Whedon and have never disliked anything he has done. Likewise, the cast is largely made up of players from Whedon’s shows and movies and I love all of them as well. So going in we have one of my favorite plays by my favorite playwright directed by one of my favorite directors with a troupe of actors I love. So unless everything had just fallen apart there was not much chance of me not liking it. What I was surprised by, though, was just how much.
I wouldn’t necessarily call this the definitive version of Much Ado About Nothing. It is abridged and timejumped to a modern setting but it is currently my favorite version of Much Ado About Nothing. I was a fan of the Kenneth Branagh adaptation in 1993 and I have been a fan of stage productions I have seen but this version really hits the core of the material that, in a way, manages to elevate it even more.
The performances here are incredible as well. Alexis Densiof and Amy Acker are great together with the tremendous chemistry they first displayed on Angel. The two both have full command of the language and physicality of the roles and their timing and execution is spot on. Fran Kranz and newcomer Jillian Morgese are also electric together both in the up moments and the down moments and they are equally excellent apart from one another. Reed Diamond and Clark Gregg have similar parts in that they are both called upon to be funny, silly, strong and angry at turns and they are both excellent. Apparently Anthony Stewart Head had been set to play Leonato before a scheduling conflict put Gregg in the role and as much as I love Anthony Steward Head I am glad it happened. Most people are only familiar with Gregg in the Agent Coulson role and he gets a chance to really step outside of that and show what he can do. He, like Diamond, is a joy to watch.
Sean Maher as Don John is deliciously wicked and manages to drip with contempt and wickedness without falling into caractature or parody. He has a hard edge to him and plays the role of manipulator with confidence and authority. Nathan Fillion provides a perfect Dogberry who, along with his assistant Verges (Tom Lenk), investigates strange goings on at the property. Fillion and Lenk are perfect as the bumbling security men and manage to be ridiculous and petty without any winking about it to the audience.
Conclusion [10 out of 10]
Again, I am biased here by my love for the play and the director as well as the actors but I have a hard time imagining much dissatisfaction from fans of the play or Shakespeare outside of a general rejection of the setting. The movie is well paced, funny, touching and uplifting. 1000 words is not enough to describe how much I loved this experience and my words cannot do the material justice. I cannot recommend it enough to those looking for an antidote for big summer special effects extravaganzas. I love those too but this is a film that edifies and nourishes and it is beautiful.