Much Ado About Nothing
2012: Joss Whedon
This is one of those versions of Much Ado About Nothing that is adapted to contemporary settings (which is fairly easy) and to contemporary social mores (which is harder). It’s the work of a very brief shoot that took place at the home of Joss Whedon, the director and the creative mind behind such television shows as Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse, and who has recently tackled big-budget items like The Avengers. He apparently routinely has a lot of his actor friends over to his place to read Shakespeare, and they all decided to film the play entirely in and outside Whedon’s house. It is shot, intriguingly, in an immaculate black and white — an interesting decision, and I’m not yet sure whether it’s an improvement over color, but it does raise a flag right away that this is a highly stylized treatment of the play.
And so it is. The film begins with a scene of Beatrice and Benedick in bed, implying an amorous encounter presumably prior to the other events; this casts a bizarre light on the concern with chastity that is at the heart of the play. The world in which Hero can be denounced as a “common stale” is not the same world in which people of the same social class can undertake casual sex without repercussions. It also makes Benedick’s astonished reaction to hearing that Beatrice loves him somewhat less plausible.
Almost any version of Much Ado About Nothing is going to be judged largely on its Beatrice and Benedick. In that regard, this is neither the best nor the worst of them, I think, but both of them are human, funny, and affecting, and bring forward aspects of the characters that are quite illuminating. The humanity may in both cases temper the crispness of the roles as well. I take it as more or less axiomatic that no single portrayal of any role is going to be definitive, though for my money, Cherie Lunghi comes closer than anyone to the essential Beatrice (Burge, 1983). Amy Acker is very appealing, but she does not entirely convince me that she has either Beatrice’s rapid wit or her acidity. Some of this is a function of the cutting of the script, which robs her of some of the cleverest of her lines near the beginning of the play. Alexis Denisof’s diction seems just a mite less focused than Shakespeare would require. Both of them indulge in rather extreme physical acting: when Beatrice calls Benedick in to dinner, he begins displaying himself like a peacock — doing pushups and deep knee bends to show off his physical prowess, apparently. When Beatrice first hears that Benedick is in love with her, the first thing she does is fall downstairs. This curiously seems to do her no visible damage; she manages to do three or four more pratfalls or the like before the scene is concluded. Both are somewhat amusing, but I’m not sure they really shape the narrative in the right direction. I think just the opposite is true of their more serious encounter — especially the one after the abortive wedding where they confess their love and Beatrice enjoins Benedick to kill Claudio. I found that the combination of intimacy and reserve produced a very compelling scene. Similarly the challenge between Benedick and Claudio is earnest and focused.
This is a play rich in peripheral parts, all of which can be appreciated both in context and out of context. Conrade is for no reason I can determine turned into a woman, who is engaged in an affair with Don John. The magistrate presiding over the examination of Conrade and Borachio is also a woman; she seems to have been reduced to the role of a clerk. Neither really detracts from the play, I think.
One of the roles most hotly contested here is Nathan Fillion’s representation of Dogberry. Dogberry is a clown, and can be played with almost grotesque broadness (as, for example, Michael Keaton’s rendition in the Branagh version of 1993). Fillion, now certainly best known for his successful television series Castle, chose a somewhat different direction: his Dogberry delivers his malapropisms with a kind of deadpan seriousness that I found a refreshing variation on the theme.
Leonato is played with a youthful energy and a flat middle-American delivery by Clark Gregg, whom many may know as Agent Phil Coulson from the Iron Man movies, The Avengers, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. He’s a good enough actor that he brings some interesting angles to the character, though I’m still not quite sure what I think of it.
Don John is one of the more unenviable roles to play. The role is written so as to invite accusations of woodenness. Sean Maher, whom some will remember as Simon Tam from Firefly, here is keeping up the tradition of Keanu Reeves. I’m not sure where the fault lies, if fault it is. He’s wooden — but maybe that’s just because the character is.
There is one other character who appears in the film — and I’m not entirely sure why. But she’s a photographer who has no lines, but keeps popping up to take pictures of things. I’m sure this is somehow metaphorical, or perhaps a sour reflection of the fact that the paparrazzi are everywhere in the lives of people like Whedon.
This is an edgy, modern production of the play, far from definitive. If nothing else, its cutting leaves a lot out, and some of the compromises involved in bringing it into the twenty-first century don’t work very well to my eye. But it is delightful in its way. Parents or teachers should be cautioned about some suggestive sexuality and drug and alcohol use.
Beatrice: Amy Acker
Benedick: Alexis Denisof
Dogberry: Nathan Fillion
Leonato: Clark Gregg
Don Pedro: Reed Diamond
Claudio: Fran Kranz
Hero: Jillian Morgese
Don John: Sean Maher
Borachio: Spencer Treat Clark
Conrade: Riki Lindhome
Margaret: Ashley Johnson
Ursula: Emma Bates
Verges: Tom Lenk
First Watchman: Nick Kocher
Second Watchman: Brian McElhaney
Leonato’s Aide: Joshua Zar
Friar Francis: Paul Meston
The Sexton: Romy Rosemont
The Photographer: Elsa Guillet-Chapuis