Editor’s Notes: Much Ado About Nothing opens in limited release in North America on Friday June 7th. Also, enter here for a chance to win passes to an advanced screening in Toronto on June 12th.
Adapting Shakespeare to the big screen can be tricky. You can either go full Kenneth Branagh and stick with the time, place and words that Billy intended, or you try to reach a wider audience and simply do a modern retelling; moving the action to today’s world and replacing iambic pentameter with modern wording that seems vulgar by comparison. Then there are the truly daring adaptations, those that honor the timeless words of the Bard and move only the setting to a familiar place. Much Ado About Nothing accepts this challenge and joyfully delivers.
Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker) are too smart for their own good. Confessing a mutual disdain at the concept of love, the two would rather revel in their wit than bother with romance. Upon hearing of Claudio’s (Fran Kranz) admiration of Hero (Jillian Morgese) and his intention of marriage, the two express little joy. As Claudio and Hero grow more involved, a plot is hatched to bring the bullheaded Benedick and Beatrice together. Meanwhile, Don John (Sean Maher) intends to ensure that no one finds happiness.
Relying heavily on his strong troupe of actors, Whedon does not chain himself to the words alone, employing a healthy mix of physical comedy and perfectly timed reaction shots; the result will convert even the most ardent Shakespeare haters.
The biggest obstacle with translating Shakespeare to the big screen is exactly that: translating. Our constantly changing vernacular has rendered the words of Shakespeare nearly unrecognizable. We no longer possess such formality and the artistic turns of phrase fly by us like so many drops of rain. The performances of the assembled actors must make up for what the audience lacks. Understanding the Bard’s words is not impossible and an ably delivered performance is able to fill in the spaces that we have left blank. This film lives through the direction of Joss Whedon.
We often forget that William Shakespeare wrote comedies. The most famous of his works are easily Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, both tragedies that end with high body counts (we don’t have to worry about spoiling Shakespeare, do we?). Dramatic work has it easy in the adaptation game. Sadness knows no time and love is fairly universal. Comedy is another thing altogether. Our taste is constantly changing and what society finds funny depends on a strange mixture of class, morals and intelligence. Getting a 21st century audience to buy into 16th century comedy is a ridiculous notion. Whedon mines the depths of Shakespeare’s words to produce a result that is instantly laugh-out-loud funny and smart. Relying heavily on his strong troupe of actors, Whedon does not chain himself to the words alone, employing a healthy mix of physical comedy and perfectly timed reaction shots; the result will convert even the most ardent Shakespeare haters.
The performances by all involved are deliciously effortless. Acker and Denisof, in what will assuredly send Angel fans into fits of glee, are perfectly cast as Benedick and Beatrice. Acker has just the right amount of sass to allow herself to be formidable while not forfeiting any of her charm. The character could easily cross into annoying shrew but Acker avoids this. Likewise, Denisof ably navigates the douchetastic (yes, douchetastic) pitfalls of Benedick, injecting him with enough insecurity to make him a near delight. Fran Kranz and Jillian Morgese, as lovers Claudio and Hero, are so cute and sweet that it’ll make your teeth hurt. Don John is the villain and Sean Maher plays his villainy to cartoonish extremes much to our enjoyment. The highlight of the film is Nathan Fillion. No time in recent memory has someone delivered a Shakespearean performance of such hilarity. His Dogberry handily steals every scene he inhabits, from entrance to exit.
The film does slow down to a near crawl in the middle, but to gripe over this is to split hairs. While Whedon shot the film over twelve days at his Santa Monica home, the film’s low budget is not evident. The black-and-white cinematography helps to bridge the gap between Shakespearean and modern times. The party sequence in particular could be viewed as a separate short. Full of small touches, it is greater than the sum of its parts. With this film, Whedon effectively silences any remaining dissidents (although I have yet to find a one). He proved he could handle the big blockbuster and now the small independent by delivering the most entertaining and attainable Shakespeare adaptation since Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.
Joss Whedon has turned in a supremely enjoyable, gorgeously filmed, timeless and genuinely funny film that will rank among the best of Shakespeare adaptations.
We do not find ourselves with a lack of Shakespearean adaptations. From the faithful to the less so, filmmakers have used the Bard’s stories to entertain audiences for centuries. Joss Whedon continues the legacy with Much Ado About Nothing. Relying on the original text, Whedon milks every ounce of comedy out of the play. Utilizing a black-and-white palette, it is a glory to watch. The film hangs on the performances of its many actors. A weak link is difficult to identify, with natural, charming and successfully comedic performances across the board. With Much Ado About Nothing, Joss Whedon has turned in a supremely enjoyable, gorgeously filmed, timeless and genuinely funny film that will rank among the best of Shakespeare adaptations.
[notification type=”star”]95/100 ~ AMAZING. Full of small touches, it is greater than the sum of its parts. With this film, Whedon effectively silences any remaining dissidents…He proved he could handle the big blockbuster and now the small independent by delivering the most entertaining and attainable Shakespeare adaptation since Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.[/notification]