Film: Joss Whedon’s Much Ado

It would be difficult to watch a movie adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing without, on some level, comparing it to Kenneth Branagh’s sweeping masterpiece of twenty years ago. But Joss Whedon’s interpetation of the play is too different, both in intent and execution, from the 1993 film to make such a comparison meaningful. Both films do a fine job of telling the story and entertaining the crowd. Indeed, the fact that they do so in such strikingly different ways stands as a testament to how versatile Shakespeare is, and why we continue to find new ways to perform him after so many years.

Shot in twelve days at Whedon’s home during a filming break from The Avengers, the 2013 Much Ado about Nothing demonstrates how much of Shakespeare works on its own, though it’s not without some very nice touches and insights into the play. The ensemble cast speaks the original text in a very casual, natural-sounding manner, as though everyone went around speaking poetry all the time. “My soul burns with passion and, oh, could you pass the salt, please?” That’s not easy to pull off, but the cast does so masterfully across the board. That’s not too bad for a group of friends pulled together on a lark.

The pace of the film is slower than we’ve come to expect from movie adaptations of Shakespearean comedy. The soldiers have returned from war, and have earned some relaxation. We can therefore enjoy the lazy feel of a summer vacation, where there is no work to be done, and nothing better to pass the time than to lounge by the pool or hang out in the kitchen with friends. In these moments, the respite from the busy day-to-day world, we have time to indulge in mulling over the minute details of each social interaction. If it’s all much ado about nothing, then perhaps it’s because nothing is all that’s here. We might as well fill out the time by playing pranks, throwing parties, and writing poetry. If we get really desperate for entertainment, we might even fall in love.

Even the comic scenes are somewhat laid back, which makes the transition less abrupt when we shift to serious moments. That’s always a problem with this play: Benedick and Beatrice discover their love in a sitcom, but have to declare it in a soap opera. It can be really hard for an audience to catch up emotionally. But this film keeps such an even keel that it doesn’t seem to hit so hard when it happens. The prior relationship between Beatrice and Benedick is established in the opening scene of the film, so these are real people to us, with a real history, and not just a couple of comic characters out of their element.

The funniest moments of the play find their laughs in their own understatement. Nathan Fillion deadpanning Dogberry’s malapropisms, Joe Friday-style, while drinking stale coffee from a paper cup steals the show.

Ultimately, Whedon seems to be testing what happens when you throw out all of the elaborate sets and period costumes, the vibrant colors and emotional score, the histrionics and the dramatic pauses, and just put Shakespeare’s brilliant words in the hands of talented actors. And as it turns out, the text holds up. The period seems to be the present, as iPhones with streaming video abound. Men wear suits and ties instead of military uniforms. And did I mention that the whole film is presented in black and white?

With a bare mimimum of chewing the scenery, slapstick gags, or even background scoring, this film wants to put nothing between you and the play. So, if you already love Shakespeare, you’ll probably really like this film. If you don’t, you should check out the Branagh movie; it has all of that other stuff. This is not the movie to use to introduce yourself to Shakespeare, even if you’re already a Whedon fan.

And it occurs to me that the relaxed atmosphere is no accident. It’s Joss Whedon who is the soldier back from war looking for some relaxation. I’m not very familiar with the man’s other work, but if this is how he unwinds, he’s earned my admiration. He didn’t pander to a general audience; he created a movie of Shakespeare the way he likes it. That’s why it’s so good.

Given how little expense and time apparently went into creating this, and how wonderful the outcome, I wonder if we can expect the same team to come back together to do another play. I understand a second Avengers movie is in the works…

4 Responses to “Film: Joss Whedon’s Much Ado

  1. Chuck Says:

    I’ve been awaiting your review of this film :) I saw it over the weekend myself, and I must say I was entertained by it. I’m actually quite familiar with the other works of Joss Whedon. I’d already seen most of the Much Ado cast in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Serenity, and Dollhouse. The part of Leonato would have originally been played by Anthony Stewart Head (Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) but Tony wasn’t available, so it went to Clark Gregg (Agent Coulson from Avengers) instead. As you may have guessed, I went in as a full-on Whedon fan. The Shakespearean text did take a bit getting used to, as I hadn’t read any Shakespeare since high school. Still, I was able to get into the swing of things, and enjoy everyone’s performances. I would recommend it for any Whedon fans. You’re spot on in your observation that he did Shakespeare just the way he likes it, as this is pretty the philosophy he subscribes to for all his projects. In the Buffy DVD extras, he’s said he doesn’t give the audience what they want, but what they need.

  2. Bill Says:

    Hey, Chuck! Thanks for the comment.

    I hadn’t considered that Whedon fans would find the cast familiar, and I do think that would make a big difference. I have since come to understand that the actors playing Beatrice and Benedick have an on-screen history in Angel, which of course adds a whole new layer that would have been lost on me.

    I’m familiar with Clark Gregg from State and Main and The West Wing and I know Reed Diamond from 24 and Homicide: Life on the Streets. I thought they were both magnificent in this.

    Maybe Aaron Sorkin should get his crew together to do a Shakespeare play. The Battle of the Bards!

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  4. Ellen Evans Says:

    Lovely review! One cavil, though – while I was literally raised on Shakespeare since before birth (my father read to me in utero), I showed this film to a friend whose prior experience with Shakespeare was reading Romeo & Juliet in high school, plus a couple of local youth-theatre productions. She got it, she loved it, we’ve watched it twice, plus the film capture of the David Tenant-Catherine Tate stage production.

    Another friend, with more exposure but little comfort, and a Whedon fan, also loved it. She found, especially, that the cast, the clarity of Whedon’s character-interactions and narrative arc, enabled her to “get past” the “difficulty” of the language.

    So, I really think this film has accomplished a wonderful thing – it’s like a very fine, but very friendly wine – delightful to connoisseurs and novices alike.

    Personally, I consider it the finest Shakespeare adaptation I have seen. Doesn’t hurt that “Much Ado” is my favorite comedy of all time, of course.

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