September 2013

Joss Whedon's "Much Ado About Nothing" reviewed by Miles David Moore Scene4 Magazine September 2013

Miles David Moore

It didn't sound like a natural fit: Joss Whedon, auteur of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Avengers, and other sci-fi/fantasy hits, directing a new version of Much Ado About Nothing, one of Shakespeare's most famous dispatches from The War Between Men and Women.  Not only that, but Whedon filmed it in black and white, in twelve days, in his own house, in modern dress, using actors from what might be reasonably called his stock company.

If you think that sounds like a vanity project, think again. Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing is one of the best films of the year, and deserves a place of honor among the various cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare. I loved Kenneth Branagh's 1993 version of Much Ado when it first came out, and I still love many things about it, but Whedon's film is the better of the two.

Although Much Ado About Nothing doesn't require the kid-gloves handling of The Merchant of Venice or The Taming of the Shrew, it contains a great deal that 21st Century audiences find indigestible on its face.  It remains one of the most incisive extended considerations of the double standard in the history of drama, even if, at the end, we don't quite know what Shakespeare himself thought of that standard.  (He wouldn't have been a man of his time if he didn't endorse it to some extent.)  Shakespeare admonishes the women of Much Ado that "men were deceivers ever," but to be "blithe and bonny" despite that. Conversely, one of the most glaring injustices in all literature is Claudio's false accusation of infidelity against Hero; yet so ingrained is men's fear of female sexuality that even Leonato, Hero's father, believes the accusation at first.  Male dominance is simply taken for granted, even by the prickly, independent-minded Beatrice. "Oh, but that I were a man!" she exclaims after Claudio spurns Hero.  "I would eat his heart in the marketplace!"

Needless to say, there are some things in Much Ado that can't be translated exactly to 2013.  The Claudio-Hero situation can't, and neither can the opening war that briefly, unsuccessfully reconciles Don Pedro with his treacherous brother, Don John.  (Whedon presents the war as the successful end of a political campaign or business takeover; what are we, then, to make of the loss of "few of any sort, and none of name?")  For the most part, Whedon doesn't try to reconcile the Shakepearian story with modern times, though he does add a silent prologue that establishes Beatrice and Benedick's romantic history in a decidedly contemporary way.  He also tinkers with the text a little; he makes a few cuts, excises the character of Leonato's brother Antonio, and transforms Don John's co-conspirator Conrade into a woman, played by Riki Lindhome. But generally he trusts the audience to understand his thesis: the more things change, the more they stay the same.  There may have been shifts in the power structure between 1598 and 2013, but men and women are still at odds, and men, deceivers ever, still try to dominate.

It is tempting to compare Whedon's Much Ado with Branagh's, and it is a temptation to which I will yield.  Comparing the two is rather like comparing the Commedia dell'Arte with Mad Men.  (The computers and i-Phones in Whedon's film set it firmly in our time, but it gives off an early-1960s vibe with its black-and-white photography, its cocktail-party-style dress and music, and its incessant oceans of alcohol.) 

Branagh also updates the action, but doesn't make it contemporary; he sets it the courtyard and gardens of a sumptuous Tuscan villa (considerably north of Shakespeare's original setting of Messina, in Sicily) at the end of the Napoleonic Wars.  Branagh's film is festive, almost carnival-like, filmed in glowing, sunlit colors by his usual photographer, Roger Lanser.  He presents a communal, ceremonial society, not least in the way men and women approach each other.  The opening shows the men, just returned from war, and the women performing their separate ablutions to prepare to meet each other; the men show just as much skin as the women, if not more.


In the jolly atmosphere of Branagh's film, the "merry war" of Beatrice (Emma Thompson) and Benedick (Branagh) seems almost aberrant. Happiness is the rule in Branagh's Messina, so it's only natural that Don Pedro (Denzel Washington) and their other friends would scheme to unite a man and a woman who obviously belong together but are both too proud to admit it.  Don John (Keanu Reeves) is a true aberrant, a bad seed who loves estranging Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) and Hero (Kate Beckinsale, making her film debut) just for the hell of it.  Everybody is Don John's dupe, for his mindset is inconceivable to them.


Conversely, Whedon's characters live at the center of power in a post-Watergate society.   We can bet most of the characters have participated in one covert operation or another, though only Don John's conspiracies are invariably nefarious. Whedon also emphasizes more than Branagh that Don John (Sean Maher) plots against Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Hero (Jillian Morgese) as revenge against Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) for defeating him. Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof) are players in this disingenuous world, which conversely makes them all the more vulnerable to the benign scheme of their friends: the players have been played, and paradoxically discover their true feelings for each other.


So how do the two versions compare in quality?  While Beatrice and Benedick don't have noticeably larger parts than the other characters, traditionally they have been the stars of any production of Much Ado About Nothing, and that is certainly true of Branagh's version.  The members of Branagh's stock company—including Brian Blessed as Antonio, Imelda Staunton as Margaret, and the late Richard Briers as Leonato—acquit themselves well, but the film is predominantly a showcase for Branagh and Thompson, two talents who eminently deserve to be showcased. 

Whedon's version, by comparison, is much more of an ensemble piece. Acker and Denisof are standouts as Beatrice and Benedick, but there is less of a feeling that they are The Stars. It's interesting to compare Branagh and Thompson with Acker and Denisof.  To watch—and, especially, hear—Branagh and Thompson is to feel the full glory of British Rep, with two magnificent voices trained carefully in the proper projection and enunciation of the Bard's verse.  Their badinage is so brilliant that I have always regretted they never filmed Private Lives.


Acker and Denisof, by comparison, gulp or fuzz some of the verse; but they are just as adept as Branagh and Thompson in projecting the characters' emotions, as the story veers from comedy to near-tragedy and back to comedy, and they are the superior physical comedians.  You only have to see the way Denisof leaps and rolls across the lawn, or the pratfall Acker takes down a flight of stairs, to know that.


On the whole, the acting in Whedon's film is more consistent than in Branagh's.  Keanu Reeves looks wonderful as Don John, but acts like an eighth-grader who was just smacked in the head with a volleyball.  Sean Maher is just as handsome as Reeves, and his elegantly creepy performance is demonstrably superior.  But even when you consider the other characters, Whedon's film is better for acting. The other American performers in Branagh's film do respectably, but there's a gap between them and the English actors, who spent their lives playing Shakespeare in England.  The Americans seem out of their element—baseball players at a cricket match.

On the other hand, the American actors in Whedon's film (OK, some of them are Canadian) are very much a winning team, giving performances that are consonant in both style and quality.  Diamond as Don Pedro and Clark Gregg as Leonato are particularly commanding, but the real standout—besides Acker and Denisof—is Nathan Fillion, making the most of every malaprop as Dogberry.  I had thought Michael Keaton hilarious when I first saw Branagh's Much Ado, but his heavily Beetlejuiced Dogberry suffers in comparison with Fillion's masterful underplaying. Fillion's tearful reaction when Conrade calls him an ass is priceless; you want to hug him and give him a cookie.

Branagh's film looks more beautiful than Whedon's.  With all those glowing views of Tuscan hills and gardens, how could it not?  Yet Jay Hunter's photography in Whedon's film has its own insinuating, understated beauty, especially in the masquerade scene in which two woman trapeze artists perform languorous arabesques above the swimming pool.  In fact, the understatement of Whedon's film goes down better in the end than the jollity of Branagh's, which at times is too stagey and forced.

Both versions end in general rejoicing and in Benedick's joyous admonition to Don Pedro: "Get thee a wife!"  Yet, given their contentious personalities, just how smooth will the path of marriage be for Beatrice and Benedick?  And, even more, just how much joy can Claudio and Hero have, after his viciousness toward her?  In his one-man show, Acting Shakespeare, Ian McKellen noted that Shakespeare portrays many happy courtships, but not once in thirty-seven plays a happy marriage.  I may be a cad for mentioning this, but the marriage of Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson survived their film of Much Ado About Nothing by exactly two years.  (Their subsequent marriages, however, appear to be perfectly happy.)

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Scene4 Magazine — Miles David Moore
Miles David Moore is a Washington, D.C. reporter for Crain Communications Inc., the author of three books of poetry and the Film Critic for Scene4.
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