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…