“But, I beseech your grace, pardon me: I
was born to speak all mirth and no matter.”
The genius of Shakespeare’s work, we are informed by those better-read than us, is in it’s timelessness. Those lilting words resonate with universally human themes of power, life, death, love and loss. In Joss Whedon‘s 2013 adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing we have a tale of plots and counter-plots, a war of wits, honour and pride, sheer daftness, and a blossoming love at the heart of it all.
This monochromatic piece was apparently filmed over the course of twelve autumn days at Whedon’s home in Santa Monica, and the cast largely drawn from his regulars. Under the warm sun and in a breath-taking California setting Whedon and his crew tell an intimate story that revels in the very personal nature of this project. We liked the inventiveness with which each scene is animated by action and movement outside of what is a largely conversational manuscript. When Benedick takes command of a room with one of his grand monologues, we see its occupants react with hushed laughter, furtive gesturing and in many cases casually sneaking out. Even the soliloquies are physically acted out, often comically but never distractingly.
Amy Acker has finally been given a starring role and she excels as the vivacious Beatrice, colouring each scene with a beautiful performance. Alexis Denisof co-stars as her foil-turned-admirer Benedick. The mannerisms, turn of phrase and character that he brings to bear encapsulates a figure that is simultaneously ridiculous and heroic, taking us on a genuine journey of his moral transformation. Together they are believable romantic. Reed Diamond‘s character on ‘Dollhouse’ was a personal favourite and his Don Pedro is a triumph. We should also commend Clark Gregg as Leonato, accomplice to schemes in marrying off his nieces. For what is a largely supporting role, Gregg breathes life into the character.
Where the main cast delivers lively humour and wit, Nathan Fillion‘s Dogberry causes a continuous eruption of laughter. His personal charm, famous on television, is perfect for the character. Who knew that the buffoonish constable could be so nuanced? Complementing this memorable turn were his partners-in-incompetence: Tom Lenk as the silly sidekick Verges, and the BriTANicK duo in brief stints as watchmen giving us one of the most memorable lines of the film: “Never speak: we charge you let us obey you to go with us”.
It”s not all good news, though. Fran Kanz’s Claudio was, on the whole, underwhelming – particularly when set against his previous work with Whedon. The problem seems to lie in miscasting more than anything: the moments where Kanz could explore the jocular side of the character were his best. Unfortunately, Much Ado About Nothing tends to play against Kanz’s strengths more often than not and, when surrounded by such strong performances, his Claudio felt effective but flat. Similarly, Sean Maher as Don John was often thwarted by the film’s direction. By costuming the would-be Machiavellian Don head-to-foot in black and accompanying him with permanent sombre music/lighting, Whedon is guilty, not for the first time, of over-exaggeration. In the end, it actually detracts from what is a very good performance from Maher as the villain (brilliantly encapsulated by a certain cupcake incident).
Another small, but jarring, point: it has to be noted that this film fails to master the dramatic scenes of conflict that do not lend themselves well to the 21st century house party context. Modern adaptations in general struggle with Shakepeare’s agonised monologues and duologues (especially when they deal with antiquated issues) and Whedon does not provide a solution. Claudio’s denouncement of Hero, followed by Leonato’s interrogation of her – these are the eponymous, climactic confrontations of the play and yet they come across as the most dubious scenes for an otherwise charmed audience. That said, these scenes were belaboured rather than hollow, and only in review does the criticism stand out from this great film. Wheedon’s film ends with the cast casually dancing in the summer evening, unrestrained and joining in on what was probably an actual celebratory wrap party. It’s those little human touches that represent all that is good about Whedon’s style and, consequently, what makes Much Ado About Nothing work as a film.
In terms of plot, Much Ado About Nothing is essentially a part of the oft-scorned “romantic-comedy” genre. Despite this, Whedon has created a film that is intelligent, funny and, above all, sincere. With an all-round excellent cast and generally superb direction, this is a must-see summer film for – well, anyone who isn’t plotting to crash one or more weddings with sinister intent.
Much Ado About Nothing is in cinemas now in the UK (14/05/13) and the USA (07/05/13)