I love the works of Joss Whedon (mostly) and I love the works of William Shakespeare (mostly). Now the two have collided in the form of the nerd kings adaptation of the Bard’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing. This is one of those rare movies that I’ve been looking forward to seeing a great deal since it was first announced, and I had high hopes heading in.
Leonato (Clark Gregg) welcomes three happy bachelors, Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof), into his home after their victory over the Don’s villainous brother John (Sean Maher). Claudio is immediately smitten with Leonato’s daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese) while Benedick quickly resumes a “merry war” of words between himself and Leonato’s niece Beatrice (Amy Acker). Claudio pursues Hero, while he and others try to get Benedick and Beatrice to admit their secret love for each other, though they have to deal with the machinations of John and his allies, whose attempts to ruin everything bring on the attentions of the comically inept Watch, led by Constable Dogberry (Nathan Fillion).
There might not be anything more analyzed and studied than the plays of William Shakespeare, so I apologise if much of what follows is little more than what others have said before. I’ll try to focus as much as I can on the production. When it comes to the story though, what I’m criticising is what the Bard came up with.
This is a Shakespeare comedy, one of the very first “romcom’s” as we would understand them, an attempt to mix humour with a plot about love, misunderstanding, betrayal etc. It has plenty of deeper moments too, and much of what you get out of it will come down to what the director of the production has actually done himself, to freshen things up, to adapt.
Much Ado About Nothing is certainly a funny tale, occasional sad, frequently moving, and altogether enrapturing. An excellent mix is found between the nominal “main” plot of Benedick and Beatrice’s interactions with each other, the other plot of Claudio’s courtship of Hero, and the activities of the town watch. One of the Bard’s shorter plays, Much Ado About Nothing never gets bogged down in one scene or another, and thanks to the direction, even the longer ones don’t drag that much, a common problem in film version of Shakespeare. The standard course of Shakespeare can be seen – “rising climax, falling climax” – but this a fun journey through the realm of love and courtship between various interesting character, ending at a satisfying place.
This is the kind of play that employs a wide variety of techniques to tell a story, including misunderstanding, betrayal, comedy, love (unrequited and otherwise), misery, arrogance and showmanship. None of these things ever dominates over another, which may be part of Much Ado About Nothing’s charm. In the end, there is a great deal of emotion to everything onscreen, with the story excellently complimented by the Bard’s dialogue, the casts performance and the simplicity of the setting.
Whedon has chosen to add a good bit of sexuality to the story, turning it into a slightly raunchier affair than you might expect. It opens on the aftermath of a one night stand between the two lead characters, flashbacks to which occur in the middle of the story, and there is also a rather eye-raising scene between the antagonist John and his, now female, attendant Conrade early on as well, where he elaborates on his nature while preparing to “bed” her. This helps with the modernisation of the material that Whedon is attempting, and adds a certain edge to the whole proceedings. That opening shot is an elaboration of Beatrice’s early line “Indeed, my lord, he lent it (his heart) me awhile; and I gave him use for it, a double heart for a single one: marry, once before he won it of me with false dice, therefore your Grace may well say I have lost it.”, and I thought it worked really well at establishing the relationship between the two characters and why they are, apparently, so antagonised toward the other.
If there are criticisms of the story, they are mostly of a minor nature. The villain, John, only has two scenes of any really note in which to outline himself, his motivations and his schemes, and so falls flat as an antagonist, a genuine threat to the lovers of the other plots. His disappearance from the play after the wedding scene is the zenith of this, and just as bad is probably the lack of resolution for him, his final fate given barely a line to cover it in the last moments of the play. Shakespeare is famous for his villains, but John certainly isn’t one of the better ones, and I think Much Ado About Nothing suffers a little for that.
There is also a general sense at times that some characters are generally acting stupider than they really should. Maybe that’s just the times the play was written in failing to mesh with the modern eras, but I didn’t quite buy that Claudio and Don Pedro, otherwise capable young men, fall hook, line and sinker for John’s plot when the idiotic Watch blunder into the truth of the matter.
Perhaps there are also a few too many characters, the attention on which can be seen as a bit of a detraction. There is Leonato’s bodyguard who seduces Hero’s maid but is then never seen again for example, or Dogberry’s right hand man Verges who doesn’t really offer much in the form of plot advancement or humour. Just a few roles that could have been cut out of the production without losing anything, and in the process making the whole experience just a bit more streamlined.
This is a comedy and the humour works well. The more obvious parts are supposed to be introduced by Dogberry and his Watch, but there are plenty of laughs to be had before then, in the bitter insults traded back and forth between Benedick and Beatrice, in the machinations of their friends, or in the standard wordplay and dialogue that makes Shakespeare the titan of story-telling that he was/is. Much Ado About Nothing has a particularly fine balance between seriousness and humour, with a nice range of the more subtle kind and the more outward kind. Dogberry and his odd way of speaking is a precursor to the stereotype of the thick, uninformed cop, and his inclusion is required here, as a more obvious source of comedy, especially in the latter half of the play where Dogberry first appears, right around the time that deaths start being faked.
That inclusion of tragedy is a little bit of a swerve from the more light-hearted stuff beforehand, but it adds the right proportion of drama to proceedings. Shakespeare fans will obviously see comparisons with Romeo and Juliet, but thankfully things don’t end the same way. The tension is ramped up significantly in those final scenes, though in the end it is a bit of an anti-climax in certain ways: no duel between Claudio and Benedick takes place, and John’s comeuppance is of less than tertiary importance in the final scene. Still, the ending of Much Ado About Nothing is sweeter for the peril that characters relationships have been put through beforehand, and I acknowledge that some form of violent finale would only detract from much of the mirth that had occurred beforehand.
I’m at a loss to really say anything bad about the performances, all of which are of a top rate, the only negative being the limited time that many of them have. Alexis Denisof as Benedick gives us a living portrayal of charm and wit, with the perfect measure of sarcasm, boisterousness, good natured-schemery and, later, deadly seriousness. The way he moves from the fun-loving joker of the early party scenes to the man determined to win Beatrice’s affections through violence is very well done, a decisive shift in the play occurring when the character stays behind with Leonato, Hero and Beatrice at the wedding, a moment so poised with regret and anger that the change in him is easy to believe. His Benedick is simply impossible to dislike, the kind of everyman that appeals to every man and woman in some way. Denisof makes him so, with every exaggerated movement, every bit of repartee and every moment of genuine affection.
Benedick would be nothing without a good Beatrice of course, so it’s a good thing that Amy Acker is so perfect for the role. Acker is sometimes extraordinary, portraying with a single glance or forlorn look what mountains of dialogue cannot do on their own. She simply owns the room of whatever scene she is, and makes everything with her in it, better. She’s the kind of actress who should be at an Oscar-level in her career by now, and I can only hope that she gets to bring to future roles the same connection, grace and empathy as she does here.
These two have a fictional romantic history with their work with the same director on Angel as Wesley and Fred respectively, so the sexual tension and romantic aura is achieved here with a degree of experience in the best way to play off the other. Wesley and Fred were more playful and fun, but here the intensity has been racked up. The back and forth between the two is simply scintillating at times, edgy and insulting with just a little bit of an affectionate edge. Acker is a really great actress, bringing a certain serenity to Beatrice amid all of her barb flinging, and the scene where the two admit their feelings for each is excellently done by her, as she moves from accepting of the love she suffers to feel, to anger and vengeance towards Claudio, with Denisof forcing himself to bend to her will, after getting so close to his goal.
Denisof and Acker are the main drivers of the plot, some of the humour and form the emotional core of the story, and both thespians totally nail the performances required. This is their love story after all, and while it might not be quite along the lines that so many stories of this type go by these days, it is still an engrossing tale, one that hooks you in and leaves you rooting for a happy ending. The performance of the two leads is a big part of that, from that opening back and forth, to the more gentler jibes that came after they are betrothed. That end comes with the last transformation of Benedick, brilliantly portrayed with a soft spoken “Get thee a wife” from Denisof.
Obviously, most of the other roles are much smaller scale in terms of time on-screen, but everyone still gets to offer something. Fran Kranz is delightfully bashful, jealous and occasionally out of his depth as Claudio, the young soldier struggling to get along in high society, suspicious of his new found friends and their activities, easily fooled into believing that Hero isn’t the upright young woman she appears to be. I really liked his turn in the wedding scene, an anger based primarily in grief, and his desperation to seek redemption afterward. Reed Diamond is Don Pedro, and gets to be everything Claudio isn’t – openly charming, swarthy and friendly – while still retaining a similar level of naivety. The decision is taken to leave aside one of the more usual depictions of Pedro as a somewhat unhappy, lonely individual, as Whedon clearly just wants to focus on the more light-hearted stuff with that character.
Sean Maher, who I’ve barely seen in anything at all since Serenity, is able to inject the role of Don John with an excellent degree of genuine villainy, deceit and maliciousness in the few scenes that he has to actually show off. His up close and personal stuff with “Conrade” adds a sexual energy to his antagonism, making the character that bit more interesting to the audience, necessary as it is one of only two scenes where he actually gets dialogue equal to the role in the play he is supposed to be performing. It’s so odd to see Simon Tam playing the bad guy outright, but Maher has an intensity to his performance that banishes any thought of his more positive past roles.
Clark Gregg is Leonato. I’ve never actually been as endeared to Agent Coulsen as much as everyone else seems to be, and Gregg might be the closest to a weak link as this cast gets to. Leonato isn’t a vitally important role, and his part in the play consists of little more than basic exposition, some brief driving forward of the plot during the scheme to get Benedick and Beatrice together, and then to simply play along with Hero’s fake death. Gregg is mostly stoic and straight-faced throughout all of this, lacking the really critical moment, aside from after the wedding, to display anything else, when his wild grief comes like a thunderbolt, albeit one that perhaps could have been portrayed just a little better. Anthony Head was apparently supposed to play this role, and I think I would have preferred to see him play it.
Nathan Fillion provides most of the comic relief as inept Watch commander Dogberry. Fillion is consistently great in just about everything that he does, and that continues here, as he really plays up the role of the detective who doesn’t understand the idiocy of the things that he says sometimes. Dogberry isn’t especially important to the overall plot, but the deadpan delivery of some of his more famous lines – most especially the repeated insistence that everyone remember that he “is an ass”, or his opening advice to his fellow Watchmen – works really well in the production, providing a much welcome break from some of the more serious stuff towards the conclusion.
Most of the others are pretty one-note. Jillian Morgese barely has any lines as the quiet, unassuming Hero, but manages to portray an aura of vulnerability and innocence. Spencer Treat Clarke and Riki Lindhome are Don John’s villainous associates, though neither is especially note-worthy on their own merits. Ashley Johnson does acceptable work as the easily misled maid Margaret. Tom Lenk is a nice foil for Nathan Fillion to play off of, while BriTANicK duo Nick Kocher and Brian McElhaney are also pretty funny as the lower rankled Watchmen.
Much Ado About Nothing is a very simple, yet elegant visual experience. The monochrome obviously gives everything a faintly noirish, nostalgia filled feeling ,and compliments the story and performances nicely. Some Shakespeare plays need colour and lots of it – Branagh’s Henry V has his multi-coloured coat of arms as a frequent centrepiece to draw the eye for example – but Much Ado About Nothing, a play based primarily on wordplay to drive forward everything, looks a lot more interesting in black and white.
This was all filmed in two weeks in the home of Joss Whedon, and the set, too small to be a mansion, too big to be a house, is rather good for the story being told. It has some great areas in which to frame scenes, such as the pool/garden, the steps down to a sort of grassy balcony, the children’s rooms upstairs and a large living room area. The camera is up close and personal for the most part, focusing in on actors rather than surrounds and never letting in too much of the environment, but it is still a very pretty film to look at, with a certain charm evident in everything onscreen, from the homey kitchen, to the exotic dancers at the party, to the final wedding scene.
Windows are a recurring visual motif, with a lot of scenes framed in such a way as to be looking through a window, characters looking through one or for characters to be seen on either side of one. This helps to create a layer of comedy on brief occasions – like Benedick “overhearing” others discussing Beatrice’s love for him while he tries, pathetically, to hide outside – and also, perhaps, adds a little something to the mischievousness of other characters, like John prowling around the house, glaring out at his social betters.
There are a number of scenes that are particularly well visualised and directed. Among them I would count Benedick’s reaction to finding out that Beatrice “loves” him, as he cavorts in the garden and then later does push-ups in an attempt to impress her, the opening one night stand scene, done silently but well enough to instil a sense of regret and unrequited emotions, any scene featuring Benedick in the children’s room, adjusting to the comically undersized bed, Beatrice falling down the stairs (easily the biggest laugh-out loud moment in the whole production) and the “funeral” for Hero.
There are a handful of scenes that I felt were framed in ways that did a disservice to the rest of the experience though. For example, Don John telling Claudio that Don Pedro was seeking to make Hero his own wife is a scene that, for some reason, takes place in a swimming pool, with John and his cronies emerging from the depths ala Apocalypse Now. This was overly-comical and ruined any sense of tension in the scene (and using it for the posters was another mistake, since it made the play look more “artsy” and pretentious than it actually was). There is also the eye-raising fact that in nearly all scenes, someone has a glass or some other alcoholic beverage in their hand, which was just sort of distracting at times.
Script wise, well this is as Whedon-like as Shakespeare gets, so it’s a good fit for the guy whose key strength is dialogue of a whipsmart nature. The back and forth between the two leads could be in a Buffy episode for example, if it was just modernised enough.
It’s hard to evaluate the script of a Shakespeare adaptation. Much attention in that regard after goes to “accessibility” for a modern audience. This comes from a view that the Bard’s words cannot be enjoyed by everyone, and can be confusing and almost irritating to the layman.
I’ve never really bought that. I’m a big fan of Shakespeare, and I love the script of Much Ado About Nothing. I saw this film with someone who could be described as the opposite, and she enjoyed it. Shakespearean dialogue is obviously flowery, complex and occasionally hard to understand, but it is not inaccessible. There are times, say, when audiences might not actually understand some of the comicalness surrounding Dogberry, since it requires a keener ear than you might expect to spot the mistakes in his speech, but that is only a small example.
There is good stuff, and you don’t have to be a literary scholar to get most of it. The relationship between Benedick and Beatrice is one brilliantly told, from the opening antagonism, to the misunderstanding to the declarations of love. Shakespeare’s greatness comes from taking something that we could almost describe as mundane – boy/girl outwardly dislike each other, secretly love each other – and through his words turn it into something truly exceptional. Whedon, with just a few chops and changes in order to add a degree of brevity and fit things into the running time, simply lets those words do all the work themselves, taking inspiration from key lines (like Beatrice’s throwaway references to Benedick courting her at one point becoming the prologue) to make the scenes work visually.
There are so many excellent pieces of dialogue and lines that stand out in this production that I could not possibly recount them all, but a few favourites will suffice. There is Leonato’s bitterly sarcastic addressing of Claudio and Pedro when his daughter is “dead”:
“I thank you, princes, for my daughter’s death. Record it with your high and worthy deeds. ‘Twas bravely done, if you bethink you of it”.
There is Benedick’s solilquoy on marriage:
“ One woman is fair, yet I am well; another is wise, yet I am well; another virtuous, yet I am well; but till all graces be in one woman, one woman shall not come in my grace. ”
There is Don John’s elaboration on his nature:
“I cannot hide what I am: I must be sad when I have cause, and smile at no man’s jests; eat when I have stomach, and wait for no man’s leisure; sleep when I am drowsy, and tend on no man’s business; laugh when I am merry, and claw no man in his humour… though I cannot be said to be a flattering honest man, it must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain.”
There is Benedick’s angry dressing down of Claudio:
“You are a villain, I jest not: I will make it good how you dare, with what you dare, and when you dare. Do me right, or I will protest your cowardice. You have killed a sweet lady, and her death shall fall heavy on you.”
There is Dogberry’s opening speech :
“ If you meet a thief, you may suspect him, by virtue of your office, to be no true man; and, for such kind of men, the less you meddle or make with them, why, the more is for your honesty.”
Or, of course, his repeated refrain:
“ O that he were here to write me down an ass! but, masters, remember that I am an ass; though it be not written down, yet forget not that I am an ass.”
There is Beatrice’s anger when speaking with Benedick:
“O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place”.
And perhaps my favourite, Leonato on the possibility of Benedick and Beatrice marrying –
“O Lord! my lord, if they were but a week married, they would talk themselves mad.”
The score is low key for the most part, low tones that don’t really impact too much on the story. The exception is two songs sung by Whedon’s brother and sister-in-law, both frequent collaborators, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen. Essentially modern re-workings of two songs that the original author had in the text, “Sign No More” and “Heavily” are two excellently performed ballads, especially the last one, which overshadows a funeral march for the deceased “Hero” and does a great job at creating the sense of depression and regret that Claudio is feeling.
So, themes. Obviously, in a romantic comedy, love is going to the biggest one. One of the big questions I had coming out of this play is whether or not Benedick and Beatrice were actually in love with each from the start, and just needed to be pushed towards each other by their friends, or whether they have actually been tricked into the emotions by their own pride thanks to some skilful manipulation.
The answer probably lies in what we think true love is and what Shakespeare thought when he wrote Much Ado About Nothing. Remember, in the Bard’s world “star-crossed” love like we see in Romeo & Juliet is supposed to be seen as a bad thing and not the ideal. Benedick and Beatrice probably, from the source material anyway, love each other like a modern audience understands, but they are a good match, in mood, position and aspirations. Whedon has altered that a little to suit modern sensibilities – the inclusion of the past sexual relationship does that effectively – and that’s fine. The love the two share is much more romantic and fairy-tale like by the end of this movie, than perhaps it is in the play.
As is also common with Shakespeare, love is seen as a bewildering thing, the kind of disaster-prone emotion that clouds judgement, alters behaviour and makes people lose all of their sense. Benedick and Beatrice engage in their “merry war” and seem to despise the other, but all it takes is one whiff of the word “love” and suddenly Benedick is doing everything that he can to woo the lady. Beatrice is similarly affected, greeting the “revelation” with shock and then sending Benedick on a blood vengeance quest to win her hand.
On the other side of the coin is Claudio and Hero. Love at first sight, though with plenty of difficulties along the way. The madness of love comes from Claudio predilection for jealously and suspicion, something that requires a great amount of pageantry and drama to knock out of him by the end.
In the end, love is a positive thing for Much Ado About Nothing. It brings the two bickering hens together, it sees Claudio and Hero wed. While it is good to remind ourselves just what Shakespeare thought of love compared to Joss Whedon, the overall impact of the love theme is somewhat heart-warming by the conclusion.
Deception, common to a lot of Shakespearian comedies, is another key theme and recurring motif. It is more than just John and his schemes, it is the more good natured plot to get Benedick and Beatrice together, the Hero death fake-out, Benedick and Beatrice’s rejection of the attraction to each other. Shakespeare, and now Whedon, craft a story where deception is used both positively and negatively with a healthy dose of misunderstanding, eavesdropping and jumping to conclusions. The very title of the play after all, suggests that much of the plot comes from non-existent problems that have been cooked up by someone. This is the only way to drive forward the plot in a tale where death is generally off limits, for tone reasons as much as anything else, and the deception is plain to see all around, to the extent that, at the end of the play, you’re still not sure whether Benedick and Beatrice really do love each other.
Stubbornness is another theme, the very heart of the Benedick and Beatrice relationship. The perception from a modern adaptation would be that the keen stubbornness of both characters is preventing them from declaring their love or one another, but even if we go for the original Shakespearian view of love, it’s still there – Benedick and Beatrice are simply too proud to admit for one moment that they love the other, all the way up to the last moments of the play, when Claudio and Hero have to do the declaring for them. That stubbornness never leads to any kind of serious drama, and is played up for laughs. But still, I think that it marks the two out as very unique characters from the Folios, that sheer refusal to bend one inch to accommodate the other.
Stubbornness also forms a part of another key theme: honour. The highest drama of Much Ado About Nothing comes from issues regarding honour, especially when it comes to women: the finale is driven by the insult felt by Claudio and Hero. One feels that he has been besmirched by being paired with a sordid women, the other feels slandered by an unfeeling man. John knows just what thread to pull when it comes to ruining his brothers world.
Leonato shows himself obsessed with honour when he suggests that Hero kills herself after the aborted wedding: Benedick, as part of his passage from being “one of the guys” to a devotee of Beatrice, calms him down. Extreme measures must be taken to restore and protect honour: a threatened duel and a faked death. Beatrice, despite having feelings for Benedick she cannot deny, refuses to accept his love until he rights the wrong that her kinswomen has suffered. Honour and the problems associated with it are what brings the sadness and the melancholy of the story, though it all forgotten by the conclusion.
Which brings me to the last and probably most interesting of themes/ideas: gender roles. It has been remarked that Beatrice is a very odd female character in Shakespeare: all manner of forthright, scathing towards men and her social superiors, arrogant, stubborn and completely unwilling to play second fiddle to any character with a penis. She and Benedick are as close to equals as any romantic relationship Shakespeare has written, and she in fact exerts a great deal of control over him. Whedon keeps such an idea going strong in his production, showing Beatrice as an independent, strong and admired woman of Leonato’s household.
Hero is a much more traditional female character from Shakespeare: quiet, subordinate, an object to be fought over and used as a plot prop. Even when things move around her, it’s her father and the Sexton actually doing all of the work. Beatrice and Hero are polar opposites when it comes to female roles, and I actually felt somewhat disturbed at points towards the latter part of the movie, as Hero meekly reaccepts Claudio as her husband even after his previous despicable behaviour.
If this was a an all-out Whedon adaptation, the ending of that sub-plot would not have been a wedding, but a slap in the face for both Claudio and Pedro, with Hero going off to find someone else worth having, someone who will not instantly believe the first bad word said against her. Claudio fills a traditional male role as a moronic suitor, and while the conclusion of the play seems to be a case of “let by-gones be by-gones”, it’s not something I actually liked. Benedick and Beatrice at least end as equals, as they started.
Benedick does change though. At the start, in a typically enshrined gender role, he is, simply put, “one of the lads”, a third of a bachelor trio quick with the jokes, the alcohol and the lewd suggestions. But it doesn’t take much for him to turn into the obsessed suitor, another male gender role for Shakespeare, willing to do anything it takes to get the woman he wants. While it happens quickly, I rather liked this transformation: it shows Benedick maturing as a man, rejecting the carefree lifestyle of the more negatively portrayed Claudio and Pedro in favour of something more positive and productive.
In conclusion, I think it is very easy for filmed adaptations of Shakespeare to miss more than hit. For every Romeo + Juliet, there is a King of Texas, for every Coriolanus, there is a Titus. But Much Ado About Nothing hits, and hits home near dead centre. It is an excellent adaptation of Shakespeare, mixing in modern sensibilities with well-worn Elizabethan dialogues. Shot in an utterly charming manner, with nearly all great performances and a lot of heart, Much Ado About Nothing is one of my favourite films of the year, and one of my favourite Shakespearian movies. Another triumph for Joss Whedon then, and I hope this will not be his last turn at directing the Bard’s material.
(All images are copyright of Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions).