By Caitlin Orr | Contributor Published: 06/25/2013 8:18 am EST
Release date: June 21, 2013 Director: Joss Whedon
Joss Whedon first proved he could create fan favorites and a cult following with shows life Buffy, Firefly, and Angel. He then went on to craft last summer’s biggest blockbuster, The Avengers, pulling off a stunt very few thought was possible – making a fun, character-driven film that brought these various heroes together and make the audience actually care about them. After proving he could make a mainstream hit, Whedon surprised everyone by announcing that his next release would be a Shakespeare adaptation – one that was shot in black and white and in less than two weeks at Whedon’s own home.
However, Much Ado About Nothing may be one of the best modern adaptations of Shakespeare. Whedon leaves the Bard’s text mostly intact but adds his own teasingly clever spin to the story, putting in visual elements to show the story rather than merely relying on the words alone. The background is never empty, instead filled with wordless conversations, couples escaping to dark corners, and telling character reactions. The visual play works both with the laughter-inducing and the darker moments of the film. Whedon allows his actors to cut loose with the broad physical comedy, particularly in the gem of a scene when Benedick attempts to hide while eavesdropping on a conversation about his own love life. Whedon also uses the opportunity that film provides to make the past of Benedick and Beatrice’s relationship very clear to the audience with the use of flashbacks. These inclusions provide backstory and understanding to both of these complex characters, making them more fully realized than in many stage productions. Whedon also changes a traditionally male character to female, a smart choice that makes the scenes of villainous plotting as intriguing as the main action of the play between Benedick and Beatrice.
Whedon’s actors – most of whom will be familiar to any fan of the director – are clearly not traditional stage actors, and this is a choice that helps the film. Amy Acker plays a shrewd, biting Beatrice, while hinting at the character’s closely guarded vulnerable side. Alexis Denisof gives a great performance as the equally sharp-tongued cynic Benedick – who is secretly in love with Beatrice. Fran Kanz distinguishes himself as Claudio by making the often-sidelined lead of the play interesting again, and Jillian Morgese raises Hero above her usual background level. Other notable performances include Clark Gregg as the equally loving and meddlesome father Leonato and Nathan Fillion as the bumbling Dogberry, chief of security. As an ensemble, the cast is clearly having fun, which adds another layer of enjoyment to the film.
Much Ado is refreshingly funny, never bogged down by the feeling that this is Shakespeare. Whedon and Co. play the story for all the broad strokes of humor, whether this is through side glances and barely contained laughter or the physical comedy that Whedon inserts. Shakespeare’s original text has minimal stage directions, and film adaptations frequently fail to push the boundaries of what to add in. However, Whedon provides something to entertain in every frame, pulling out all the tricks to keep the audience laughing.
The choice to shoot in black and white is jarring to the audience at first. For moviegoers who are used to nothing but high definition color, the gauzy greyscale will require an adjustment. However, after five or ten minutes this is no longer an issue, and one can begin to see the benefits of producing this without color. The lack of a palette brings a sense of being out of time to the film, as do the simple suits and dresses in which the cast is dressed. As the familiar film context is lost, it becomes easier for the viewer to accept this elsewhere world of princes, dukes, lovers, and villains that comes to life in a very modern setting. Additionally, the stylistic choice to have a minimal soundtrack helps viewers to escape into this decontextualized setting as well.
Whedon has made a Shakespeare adaption that is aimed squarely at his own fans – rife with his specific brand of quirky humor, physical site gags, and emotional gut punches. However, it’s also perhaps one of his most accessible films. No interest in science fiction, fantasy, or superheroes is required to enjoy Much Ado. Rather, a viewer just needs a healthy interest in the foibles of complex people stumbling around love to make this literary classic a must-see film.