(directed by Joss Whedon, 2012)
From the minute I saw the poster, with its moody Casablanca vibe, I couldn’t wait to watch Joss Whedon’s modern-day take on Much Ado About Nothing. Even the story behind the making of the film is marvellous. Apparently Whedon had a bit of spare time between commercial projects and, as you do when you’re an A-list director, he decided to fill it with a bit of Shakespeare.
So Whedon called up a bunch of friends from his cast of regulars, invited them round for a weekend and, using his own house as the set, made this little gem of a film. I feel privileged to live in a world where that kind of wonderful thing can happen. And this low-budget, intimate take on the play is a triumph. In fact, notwithstanding my affection for the Branagh version, I’m going to stick my neck out and say that this is, on the whole, the best production of Much Ado that I’ve ever seen. Yes folks, this is one of those rare five-star jobs.
Since I only saw the version at the Old Vic a couple of weeks ago, I won’t bother running through the plot summary again. In any case, Whedon makes the storyline so beautifully clear that you could follow it without any knowledge of the plot. He opens the film with a masterstroke, showing us a brief, silent scene in which we see the end of Beatrice and Benedick’s earlier relationship. Immediately we understand what lies behind their needling of one another: their sparring is less of a ‘merry war’ than a way to conceal the wounds they’ve inflicted on one another. And then we are whisked straight into the familiar opening with the arrival of Don Pedro (here a high-level government official, accompanied by a fleet of cars and bodyguards) at Leonato’s sprawling villa. The house’s labyrinthine stairs, corridors and garden provide the perfect settings for the spying, eavesdropping and plotting that follows, both villainous and benign.
And yet the success of the film doesn’t just rest on the set or the cast (whom I’ll come to in a moment) but on Whedon’s decision to trim back the text to its essentials. In some cases this means the loss of characters, such as Leonato’s brother Antonio, but the film works perfectly without him. Whedon’s pruning also manages to smooth over two problematic aspects of the play, which I’ve never yet seen done well. First, he tones down Leonato’s virulence to Hero when she is repudiated by Claudio. I always find this awkward, because we are asked to believe that a loving father would believe two relative strangers rather than his own daughter. And, since Leonato is a gentle character for the rest of the play, it feels disturbing to see him raging so relentlessly at his daughter – especially since neither she nor anyone else steps forward to stand up for her. In Whedon’s treatment, Leonato loses it for a moment or two: he has been humiliated in front of his guests and he worries that he has lost the goodwill of the prince. But his anger rapidly fades into bewildered grief, and Whedon ends the scene with him cradling a weeping Hero in his arms. For me, that’s a much more powerful way of playing the scene.
And the second remarkable success is in the Dogberry scenes, which I usually find tedious and, in the case of the Branagh film, positively dreadful. Whedon makes Dogberry a bumbling police chief with an excessively high opinion of himself (‘as pretty a piece of flesh as any in Messina‘). He gives him just enough screen time to provide a bit of comic relief, but not so much that he outstays his welcome. Nathan Fillion carries off the part beautifully: absurd but unaware of it. I found myself actually looking forward to his scenes.
There we go: I’ve begun talking about the cast, so I’d better carry on. Although there’s no doubt that Beatrice and Benedick are the key roles, this film is the first time that I genuinely had the sense of Much Ado as an ensemble piece. In the other versions I’ve watched, both Hero and Claudio have often been bland: they’re there to be pretty and romantic and tragic, but they both usually seem a bit vapid. Here Jillian Morghese’s Hero is simply a bit shy and, to my delight, she showed off a bit of spirit in the repudiation scene (too often Hero just stands there and weeps without giving the slightest sign that she would defend herself, given the chance). Claudio too comes across as a bit more interesting than usual, because Fran Kranz makes him a young man who moves plausibly between boyish horseplay with Benedick and awed awkwardness around Hero. Even in his repudiation of her he manages to convey wounded adoration rather than repulsed scorn.
Another great success was Sean Maher’s Don John. I don’t know whether it’s just a devil of a part to play, but Maher is the first Don John I’ve seen who hasn’t come across as a wooden, two-dimensional villain. I was much amused to see that in this version Conrade becomes a woman (Don John’s girlfriend), which actually turned out remarkably well; and Borachio is a surprisingly young lad with the kind of pretty face you can well imagine Margaret falling for. I was interested in Borachio’s motives, actually: Whedon hints that perhaps Borachio’s willingness to blacken Hero’s name comes from a frustrated desire for her. There were a couple of times when glances across crowded rooms suggested that he might have been thwarted in his own affections for her. It’s not a major aspect of the plot but it’s an interesting additional dynamic.
As for the two leads? Delightful. Amy Acker’s Beatrice is smart, sharp and unwilling to suffer fools; but she also gives Beatrice an underlying vulnerability which glimmers through the cracks now and again. Her first meeting with Benedick – rather than taking place in a crowd, as it usually does – is turned into a private encounter in the garden, which actually makes their barbed interchange even more poignant. These two aren’t showing off their wit to their friends and family: they’re trying to get the better of each other in close quarters; trying to show each other how little they care. And of course everything they do actually augurs the opposite. Alexis Denisof is a charming but understated Benedick, the kind of man who insists he’s over his ex but in fact can’t talk about anything else; and everyone else knows this only too well. Both he and Acker showed off a delicious gift for physical comedy in the eavesdropping scenes as they fall hook, line and sinker into their friends’ well-meaning traps. And the final scenes were glorious, only emphasising that the real love story of the play isn’t the swooning adolescent romance between Hero and Claudio, but the much more gradual and sophisticated affection of two people having a second go at love.
There is nothing about this film that I didn’t like. It’s not quite as exuberant as the Branagh version and it’s certainly not as colourful – it’s all shot in crisp black-and-white – but it’s a piece of utter class. Even the music is superbly done: I didn’t think that anyone could rival Patrick Doyle in setting ‘Sigh no more’ to music, but this film turns it into a fresh, modern ballad that sounds completely right. All in all, this is probably as close to perfection as you’re going to get with Much Ado on film and Shakespeare fans should do all they can to get their hands on it. I hope you find it as enjoyable as I did. Feel free to come here and burble with delight when you’ve seen it (or to disagree, if you wish!).