[Review] - Much Ado About Nothing

Courtesy of Bellwether Pictures

To my mind, the best adaptations of Shakespeare are those that interpret the text, and find new ways of presenting the story. After 400 years, you pretty much have to, otherwise you aren't saying something that hasn't been said many many times already. So, while I respect Kenneth Branagh, his string of Shakespeare films from the nineties sit pretty low on my list, because they not only were one hundred percent loyal to the text, but also tried to maintain a historical context for them. And that, to me, is the dullest way to look at Shakespeare. I'm much more in line with films like Baz Lurhman's Romeo+Juliet, Ralph Finnes' Coriolanus, and now Joss Whedon's Much Ado.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that would never marry a man with a beard.

Success or failure with Shakespeare, in my mind, tends to fall into two categories: the actor's ability to work with the dialogue, which not all actors are equipped to handle, and a deftness of touch on the part of the director. Despite the grandeur of the stories, the films tend to work best when preserving a portion of the intimacy that would have been present on the stage. That doesn't mean they can't be loud and actiony, but it should never stray too far from the mind that any scene is predicated on a couple actors standing on a stage, and nothing more.

Thus, the greatest success in Whedon's version of what is arguably the most accessible of Shakespeare's plays, is the intimacy. By filming it in his own home, by limiting the movements to the bedrooms, corridors and backyard of his own property, it anchors the film, and the performances. The turn of a stair case would force an odd angle, that would frame the characters a certain way. And that Whedon would have have to work with the establishment of the house, in much the same way that he had to work with the establishment of the text, compared to the freedom on a large film of being able to build a set to spec, is in microcosm a comment of the character of the film. That, and it is a very nice looking house, and a very nice backyard, complete with mini amphitheatre to boot. The only place where the setting falls over itself was the unconvincing Night Watch offices.

Whedon eliminated most of the worry by working with actors he had worked with before, was fully aware of their talents and abilities, and selected roles specifically for them. Thus, there was no worry that someone would be ill suited for their role, as Whedon knows what he is doing. Nathan Fillion is probably the weakest performer of the bunch, clearly the least comfortable with the text, but Whedon also obviously recognised that and placed him in the role where he could accomplish the most with few words. The clownishness of Dogberry, accentuated by Fillion's physicality, and partnered with Tom Lenk and the internet comedy duo of BriTANick, salvage any doubts about the casting. And, Whedon throughout the film, added many silent scenes to further the characterisation, and allow the cast to show off their particular skills, without interfering with the Bard's intended lines.

What is said about the text has been said about the text for centuries, though Whedon did make certain alterations and add certain subtexts to make it his own. The addition of a prologue, establishing the film as one built around bitter resentment rather then hostile stubbornness was probably the wisest move, if only because, in a film whose final act is built around an outdated notion of "maidenhood," any adjustment to make the film seem more current and modern was smart to do. Some lines were shifted, and some scenes arranged, as any good adaptions especially for film, I feel must do to create a greater sense of narrative continuity that sometimes was ignored for the sake of an easier set change on stage. And, the character of Conrade has been made into a woman, adding a layer of sexual intrigue to what otherwise is a plot hinged entirely on a sense of loyalty that simply doesn't exist in the modern world between men. Of course, Whedon could have made them gay lovers, but it works just as well in this configuration.

The real test of a version of Shakespeare comes down to the cast, and what the actors choose to do with the text. And this cast is stellar. Whedon knows how to work with actors, and he knows which actors to work with. In my mind, any casting agents should always keep an eye on whom Whedon chooses to work with, as they are worth hiring elsewhere, and I'm always confused when his actors don't go on to greater successes. Amy Acker is the stand out performance here. I've spoken many times of my affection for her talent, and how she hasn't carried her own series since Angel's ending a decade ago, or found herself in more films. If nothing else come of this film, let us hope it be that people finally, and belatedly, understand what they've got in Acker. She holds her own in the emotional material, she sells the physical comedy without going too far (which Alexis Denisof does not), and seems completely at ease with the language. I've often found that, in each Shakespeare production, early on, there tends to be one performance that eases the audience into the rhythm of the words better then the others, and for Much Ado it is certainly Acker. She speaks in the manic, hurried way that Acker does, but it works for Beatrice, who seems to have so much to say, she might just burst.

Outside of Acker, the performance that most impressed me was Reed Diamond as Don Pedro. His performance was honest and at times terse, but spoke the lines without the glaze of awe or over infatuation that I found Denisof' performance dripping in. Diamond seemed no more out of his element then anyone else, but in a way I thought he seemed the most comfortable in his role. And his performance made better, and was made better, by Clark Gregg and Fran Kranz. Both of whom were fantastic, but occasionally ventured a little too far towards the border of extremism in the performance. Gregg's role of Leonato was originally intended for Anthony Head, who would have been much better suited for the role, but also probably would have overplayed it more then Gregg choice to do, especially in the scene immediately following the wedding, when the temptation was clearly too great not to shoot for the moon. As it is, Gregg brought a resigned, comfortable and diligent sense to the role, while still being playful.

Whedon has said, if he were to attempt another of Shakespeare's plays, he would want to try Hamlet, which of course, it's the greatest work in English literature. And the mind can't help but flip through the Whedon regulars to speculate on who would be best suited for the roles (the here missing Head as Claudius, almost certainly). But as it stands, Whedon's work with Shakespeare, two people for whom comparison's could be made; over their creative use of language, their popularity with their contemporary audience, and masterful use of metaphor to tell universal stories, is a fine addition to the never ending assortment of interpretations of the great English texts.

Or, as my mother illuminated after watching the film, "the neighbours must have had a fit."
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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