A Romantic comedy
- Adapted and directed by Joss Whedon
- From the play by William Shakespeare
It seems like a stupid question: Who could better adapt one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies to the big screen: Kenneth Branagh or Joss Whedon? The first is our generation’s Olivier. The second is known for movies and TV shows about spaceships, vampires, and superheroes. Yet Whedon’s new version of Much Ado About Nothing easily outdoes Branagh’s 1993 movie. And that was made when Branagh was in his prime.
Whedon strips his visuals down to the bare essentials. He’s updated the setting, with everyone in modern clothes, while keeping the original language and attitudes. He shot the film in black and white, in his own LA-area mansion, which easily passes for a modern Italian villa (the story is set in Italy and the main characters all high-born). The lack of spectacle encourages us to concentrate on the language, the actors, the story, and the verbal and visual comedy.
With it’s swift mood changes, the play can challenge any director. The first half, where Beatrice and Benedick (Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof in this version) trade witty insults while trying to pretend they don’t love each other, is a comic gold mine. But things get dark in the second half, as false charges of infidelity threaten the marriage of Claudio and Hero (Fran Kranz and Jillian Morgese), and the story veers towards Othello-like tragedy. But it’s also in the second half where Shakespeare introduces one of his funniest characters, Dogberry, a constable with supreme confidence in his own intelligence–of which he has none. While things get deadly serious for the main characters, Dogberry and his almost equality inept underlings help keep this play a comedy.
Twenty years ago, Branagh pulled off the funny first half brilliantly. But he blew it in the second by casting Michael Keaton as Dogberry and letting him go. His performance was so far overboard that he ruined every joke. He was about as funny as fingernails in your eye.
Whedon does much better here. Nathan Fillion (the star of Whedon’s short-lived Firefly TV series) catches the character perfectly. With his calm assurance and visible shoulder holster, he comes off as someone who has seen to many CSI shows and thinks he’s the smart guy in control.
Acker and Denisof also deserve kudos as two people insisting that they’re not in love. Their physical comedy (Acker takes a pratfall down a staircase) adds additional laughs to the Bard’s verbal warfare. Each insists that they will never marry, while their friends look on and know better.
The entire cast is spot on, but I’d like to point out one particular interesting casting choice. The evil Don John (Sean Maher) has two henchmen in the original play. Whedon turned one of them into a henchwoman, and made her Don John’s lover, as well. Riki Lindhome plays the part to the hilt.
The film has flaws, but they’re minor. Some of the men look very much alike, especially since they’re all wearing similar, conservative suits. And in one important area, Shakespeare’s story grinds uncomfortably against modern sensibilities. In 21st century Italy (or California), I doubt many put a too much value on a bride’s virginity.
I saw this film at the 2013 San Francisco International Film Festival.