While the echoes of Shakespeare and his work can be felt in the backbones of modern storytelling for the past few centuries, there is really nothing like the actual stories themselves, and they make for timeless tales that can be endlessly re-performed and re-interpreted. The mostly-blank canvas of a play allows for a great deal of re-imagination, and in today’s world of film and television, who better to take up such a task than a director who is known for his marvelous creativity and his own original work? Thus was born Joss Whedon’s modern take on the Bard’s well-loved tale, Much Ado About Nothing, a play highly regarded for its delicate balance of tragedy and comedy and much lauded for its look at relationships and roles of gender. The movie itself has been given a rather arduous task — doing justice to a modern interpretation of Shakespearean play is a concept often wrought with tribulation — but it succeeds magnificently, and is spellbinding in its blend of wry and somewhat slapstick humor, deeply-moving dramatic moments, and the ever-intriguing firecracker romance of its lead characters, Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof).
Having won a battle against his brother Don John (Sean Maher), Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) and his officers Benedick and Claudio (Fran Kranz) arrive at the home of his trusted friend, Messina governor Leonato (Clark Gregg). Feelings begin to run high and spirits joyfully as Claudio reconnects with Leonato’s daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese), falling in love and professing his love for her to Don Pedro, who decides to work alongside Leonato to help arrange a marriage between the two. All the while, the charm and confidence of Benedick and his nimble wordplay are delightfully spurred and taunted by that of Leonato’s niece, Beatrice, and the two hurl unveiled insults at each other in a manner that suggests a rather extensive history. Not long after the setting-in-stone of Claudio and Hero’s future, the ensemble makes plans to trick the quarreling lovers into actually falling in love with one another, for all evidence suggests that such emotions are bubbling passionately just below their surface. Amidst the playful plots concocted by the heroes of the story, however, is the insidious Don John, whose discontent over his defeat has inspired him to sabotage both marriages — especially if it means a chance to defeat Don Pedro once and for all.
Despite being shot all in black-and-white, and almost entirely devoid of any special effects, the film is a visual treat that coaxes its viewers to behold all moments of it with a sense of wonder and a warm comfort that is often present in smaller productions. As Much Ado About Nothing was shot in barely two weeks’ time at the Santa Monica home of Whedon and his wife Kai Cole, the intimacy of the production adds richly to the feelings of togetherness and quiet joy that resonate within the characters. The home itself, at first seeming so sprawling in its collection of scenes within the film, becomes more and more evidently subdued and personal — a tiny world that is as easy to get lost in as it is to find one’s own space within, as is the focus of the film itself.
A modern interpretation of the film is no reason to abandon the wonderful prose of the text, and the blend of a 21st-century environment with the dialogue of yesteryear is both amusing and effective. The actors take the lines with gusto, most presenting the dramatic tone of their words marvelously while still maintaining the poetic poise that the dialogue calls for. As the pure-hearted but often misled Claudio, Kranz offers up the most fiercely passionate of performances, his expressions and words laid bare for all to see and feel, and the emotional tone of the film ebbs and flows with his own ups and downs. As the bumbling and raucously-funny Dogberry, Nathan Fillion, another staple of Whedon’s acting troupe, takes to the Shakespearean wordplay the most effortlessly, making his spoonerisms all the more hilarious when mixed with his own trademark mannerisms.
Of course, the true magic of the movie lies within the dialogues, monologues, and deft exchanges between Acker and Denisof in the silver-tongued sparring match that is the backbone of the entire movie. The chemistry between the two actors, so long present within Whedon’s classic show Angel, shines with an even brighter brilliance than before, and separately, they carry the story onward with their mesmerizing solo deliveries. A deft hand was present for the cinematography surrounding their soliloquies and exchanges, with the framing of each shot marvelously conveying the sense of focus around each character, both separately and together. It is also a treat that, despite the characters’ progression towards a deep and passionate love by the end of the film, the whip-smart wit and crackling fire of their exchanges never seems to dwindle, and Acker and Denisof rise to this challenge most brilliantly.
Even with all the intense emotional drama within the film, Much Ado About Nothing makes no shortage of hilarious moments and exchanges, and despite the antiquated nature of the play’s language, the humor still rings loudly and jovially. Benedick and Beatrice’s forays into the romantic plot that their compatriots spin around them are almost slapstick in presentation, and hilariously so. How often do you get to see Amy Acker trip and fall down a flight of stairs into a pile of laundry at the mention of the word “love”, or Alexis Denisof rolling around in a backyard, attempting to use a broken tree branch to hide himself? And, as mentioned before, Dogberry’s mishandling of the English language is an absolute riot, and the Columboesque antics of Fillion and Tom Lenk, who plays Dogberry’s partner, Verges, are a pleasure to behold in the midst of the dark moments near the film’s finale.
Much Ado About Nothing is a brilliant example of quiet grace and exuberant joy that is rarely seen in modern cinema, especially in such an intimate setting and production as Whedon’s latest creation. The intrigue, the drama, and the comedy present in Shakespeare’s text is not hidden behind grand sets and exuberant costumes, nor behind dazzling effects or larger-than-life soundtracks; it is all personal and heartfelt, and as a viewer, one feels like a guest within the home that plays host to the events of the film. Fans of Shakespeare and fans of Whedon alike will find beauty and humor in this film, which is truly a treat for all who behold it.
Much Ado About Nothing opens today in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City.