[This is a re-post of my review from the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. Much Ado about Nothing opens today in limited release.]
With a few exceptions, William Shakespeare‘s trips to the big screen have been sumptuous affairs. The plays favor an expansive vision by the director, so we get films like Julie Taymor‘s Titus and Kenneth Branagh‘s Hamlet. But one of the many beautiful things about Shakespeare is how flexible it is in terms of setting. You can set it on a modern battlefield (Ralph Fiennes‘ Coriolanus), in a high school (Tim Blake Nelson‘s Othello adaptation, O), or in the case of Joss Whedon‘s Much Ado about Nothing, in an upper-class home. Whedon’s Much Ado is a bold challenge for the director not because his adaptation lacks fancy costumes or production design, but because he removes two of his greatest assets: his dialogue and a budget. Of course, nothing Whedon (or anyone else) could write would surpass the Bard, but it’s an entertaining exercise seeing the director speak only in a visual language, and then having his budget limit what visuals he has available. With no money and another author’s work, Whedon finds his film’s strength in the superb cast, clever staging, and an expert understanding of dialogue.
Much Ado about Nothing is a romantic-comedy based on deceptions both playful and malevolent. Shot in black-and-white and set in the present day, the story concerns Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), his officers Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Benedict (Alexis Denisof), and Pedro’s devious brother Don John (Sean Maher), coming to visit the home of the governor of Messina, Lenato (Clark Gregg). There they find Lenato’s sweet but plain daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese) and his sharp-tongued niece Beatrice (Amy Acker). Claudio becomes smitten with Hero, and Don Pedro wishes to play the matchmaker, so the bitter Don John attempts to embarrass his brother by sabotaging Claudio and Hero’s budding romance. Meanwhile, Beatrice and Benedict continue to snipe at each other through a witty war of words until the supporting players trick the pair into believing they have feelings for each other.
Among Shakespeare’s work, I enjoy Much Ado but it’s not one of my favorites. It’s a schizophrenic piece linked by common actions of different intents. Love is no match for deception, but you get two stories: one is a bit of a melodramatic tale of two romantics Don John is trying to turn cynical, and two cynics that their friends are trying to turn into romantics. There’s a mirror, and a connecting theme, but I get annoyed by the Claudio/Hero tale. It’s so overwrought, the characters are so dumb, and there’s nothing interesting about their relationship. But the Benedict/Beatrice story absolutely crackles. They have some of Shakespeare’s sharpest barbs, and in the hands of the right actors, they characters are electric.
In the hands of Denisof and Acker, the characters are electric. Everyone in the cast knows their Shakespeare, and while Morgese and Kranz are able to make Hero and Claudio tolerable, we always want to get back to Benedict and Beatrice. In the modern age, Shakespeare relies heavily on its cast to translate his words, and so there’s a greater emphasis on delivery and body language. Whedon has always had the confidence to give the screen over to his actors, and here that confidence is essential to why Much Ado works.
Even though the cast are speaking with Shakespeare’s words, Whedon remains a master of dialogue. He knows its timing and flow, and how it can spark and explode. It’s why the Benedict and Beatrice scenes are so much fun, and why Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk almost steal the movie as Lenato’s buffoonish constables (re-imagined as security guards) Dogberry and Verges, respectively. They make us want Zombie Shakespeare to rise from the grave, and give the bumbling duo a series of spinoff plays.
Whedon’s knack for comedy is why the farcical stuff works the best. He dotes upon his actors’ pratfalls, and it’s an absolute joy to watch Benedict try to overhear Claudio, Leanto, and Don Pedro’s leading conversation. Without his own words, Whedon weaves around Shakespeare, and my only complaint is that the director lacks a budget and stronger material. The limitations still allow Whedon to have fun (like having Benedict daydream about Beatrice in a little girl’s bedroom), but I can only imagine what he could accomplish with a little more money and a play like A Midsummer’s Night Dream. He may not have the Bard’s words, but Whedon’s totally worthy of bringing them to the big screen even if it’s on a micro-budget.