I finally saw Joss Whedon’s rather charming and whimsical Much Ado About Nothing last night, which he filmed in secret entirely at his house and sprang on an unsuspecting world a little more than a year ago. The secrecy and the casual, house-party way in which it was filmed—over a scant two-week period, and casting a group of Whedon regulars—mesh well with the general feel of Shakespeare’s play. Much Ado is an idle play set in a moment of respite and recuperation, with Prince Don Pedro of Aragon taking up temporary residence in the home of Duke Leonato, in the aftermath of a war just ended. And of course, hijinks ensue: young Count Claudio is in love with Hero, Leonato’s daughter; the Prince’s disgraced bastard brother Don John seeks only to revenge himself on everyone; and the Duke’s niece Beatrice engages in a “merry war” with the Prince’s adjutant, the witty but misogynistic Benedick. In these idle days of relaxation, as everyone awaits the upcoming wedding of Hero and Claudio, two plots unfold: Don John’s scheme to disgrace Hero and ruin the nuptials, and the Prince’s to make Beatrice and Bennedick fall in love.
The 1993 film version by Kenneth Branagh, starring himself and his then-wife Emma Thompson as Beatrice, remains one of my favourite pieces of comfort-food cinema. Filmed in Tuscany, the scenery alone is worth the price of admission; but even more spectacular is Shakespeare’s dialogue realized by two of the greatest Shakespearean actors of this or any generation:
The film isn’t universally brilliant: Robert Sean Leonard’s performance as Claudio is so wooden they might as well have given the role to a table, and the less said about Keanu Reeves’ Don John the better. But one of my favourite performances is Denzel Washington as Don Pedro:
All this is by way of saying that Joss Whedon had his work cut out for him, at least as far as this viewer was concerned—not because I expect him or his actors to live up to the RSC standard, but because it is difficult for me to listen to the language of Much Ado without hearing the 1993 version in my head.
Which is why Whedon’s intimate, understated film is so good. There is a distressing tendency to overplay Shakespeare, to shout lines from the rooftops that are best treated with subtlety (I’m looking at you, Stratford Festival) … Kenneth Branagh has at times been guilty of this himself, but he mostly knows when to rein things in (or perhaps that was Emma’s influence—anyone else notice how his filmmaking did a nosedive after they split?).
Joss Whedon, however—as just about any fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Firefly or, really, any of his work can attest—has an exceptionally good ear for dialogue, for its rhythms and nuances. That he would do well with Shakespeare’s, especially a play loaded with so many double entendres and ironic quips, should be no surprise. His Much Ado feels pretty much exactly like what it is: a weekend house party of old friends, which is ideal for the tone of the play. Given that the entire film takes place in a single house, it has the feel of a bottle episode of a TV show (albeit with a much larger ensemble), and this creates a sort of intimacy, wanted and unwanted: characters constantly have tete-a-tetes in the various rooms of the labyrinthine house, but are also frequently observed by other characters; again, at times by design (such as when Beatrice and Bennedick “overhear” the others talking about them), or when Don John and his lackies spy on the proceedings. As Shakespearean scholars will tell you, there is a pun in the play’s title: “nothing” in Elizabethan England was pronounced “noting,” and this is indeed very much a play about people noting things about other people. Nothing much happens that is not observed.
I confess I was worried that some of the actors would have difficulty with the language; overall, the performances were uneven, which I have to assume was due at least in part to the short filming time and not much opportunity to really rehearse. No one was abysmal, however, and the cast was a smorgasbord for devoted fans of Whedon, as all of the lead characters are actors who have appeared in his television shows and films. Alexis Denisof (Buffy, Angel) was perhaps the most disappointing: he never quite fell into the rhythm of the dialogue, and his timing was less than perfect. It is perhaps telling that his best moments were broad comedy, such as when he is showing off for Beatrice, doing pushups and crunches. In contrast, Amy Acker (Angel, Dollhouse, The Cabin in the Woods) is a lovely surprise as Beatrice, more at home with the Shakespearean language than anyone else in the cast. She grasps both Beatrice’s acerbic wit and her tamped-down loneliness, and communicates with wonderful subtlety the deep and smoldering attraction she harbours for Bennedick (something not, alas, mirrored in Denisof’s stilted performance). Whedon chooses to start the film with a wordless prologue, in which Bennedick sneaks out of Beatrice’s bedroom, hesitating a moment at the door while she pretends to sleep. Establishing that the two of them have this prior relationship provides a welcome subtext for the action that follows: the assumption being that Bennedick steals away to go off to war, not, perhaps, expecting to return—which gives more depth to his later line “When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married,” and a double meaning to Beatrice’s comment “I know you of old.”
The other vague disappointment (though only vague) was newcomer Jillian Morgese as Hero. She wasn’t bad, precisely–just more of a nonentity, which I suppose we have to partially blame Shakespeare for, as Hero is more ornamental a character than anything else (when even Kate Beckinsale suffers this problem in the 1993 version, one has to look less at the performance and more at the text). Sean Maher (Firefly) is good in the somewhat thankless role of Don John, suitably villainous without resorting to overt mustache-twirling; Reed Diamond (Dollhouse) is stolid and noble as Don Pedro; Fran Kanz (Dollhouse, The Cabin in the Woods) is vaguely adorable as the gormless Claudio, especially considering how incongruous it feels to have the stoner Marty from Cabin well-groomed and –dressed.
I was particularly happy to see Agent Coulson himself, Clark Gregg (The Avengers, Agents of SHIELD) in the role of Leonato—I’ve been fond of him as an actor for a long while, mostly for his Aaron Sorkin roles as the eleventh-hour savior in Sports Night and the recurring spot on The West Wing as FBI special agent Casper. Gregg is an actor with a talent for conveying quiet authority and mischievousness simultaneously, and Whedon uses him to great effect this way in Much Ado.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, one of the highlights was Captain Tightpants (Nathan Fillion, for those of you unfamiliar with Firefly) in role of the constable Dogberry. Perennial Whedon geek Tom Lenk (Buffy, Angel, The Cabin in the Woods) is his deputy Verges. In this modern setting, Dogberry and Verges and their hapless underlings are hired security, ensconced in a basement room with closed-circuit monitors. What I said above about how wonderfully understated Whedon has made this film is particularly striking with the rude mechanicals: Fillion resists the urge that has claimed so many other actors in this role, namely to play it with slapstick bombast. His Dogberry is measured, serious, and precise—all of which makes his self-important malapropisms that much funnier. He and Lenk play their “watchmen” as rent-a-cops who desperately want to be cops, right down to some CSI Miami-worthy sunglass acting in the final scenes.
On the whole? Don’t expect RSC-level performances, and you’ll be fine. Joss Whedon always impresses me with his shrewd intellect and his subtlety (even when blowing up New York), and Much Ado is no exception.