I‘m a Shakespeare nerd and proud of it. I first read Hamlet in fourth grade and made a model of The Globe in sixth. I was lucky enough to be cast as Beatrice in a local production of Much Ado About Nothing a couple summers ago. It turned out to be a cursed production and was cancelled when we couldn’t replace actors who had to drop, but being able to be Beatrice for the read through and few rehearsals we held was pure joy.
I’m a tough critic when it comes to Much Ado. It might be blasphemy to this crowd, but, as much as I love Catherine Tate (DONNA NOBLE 5-EVA), I wasn’t enamored of her Beatrice, as excited as I was about the casting. While I know that you lose some of the effect of a live performance when it’s taped, I felt that it was just too broadly comic. Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation is the benchmark for film versions and Emma Thompson’s Beatrice is the perfect classical style, but Branagh’s Benedick is too corny. When I heard that Joss Whedon had filmed a modern-day adaptation with members of what IMDb calls the Whedonverse Repertory Company, I was ecstatic. But then I wondered, am I just setting myself up for disappointment? Fortunately, the answer to that turns out to be an enthusiastic, “Hell, no!”
For those who aren’t familiar with Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare’s play is the original romantic comedy. A group of soldiers led by a Don Pedro visit the home of a noble gentleman, Leonato, who lives with his daughter and niece, Hero and Beatrice. Among the company of soldiers is a young soldier, Claudio, who catches the affection of Hero, and Benedick, who has a history of the opposite of affection with Beatrice. “There exists a merry war between them,” Leonato explains. Tagging along is Pedro’s disgraced brother Don John, who’s referred to as a bastard almost as much as Jon Snow is. Claudio and Hero agree to marry and John the Bastard just has to try and ruin it. Also, there’s a bumbling constable, Dogberry, who’s full of delightful malaprops.
Whedon has apparently long been wanting to make an adaptation using the original text with a modern day setting. After filming for The Avengers was completed, his wife suggested that, instead of going to Italy as they’d planned, he should use the opportunity to make it happen. Whedon called upon his cadre of actors, building them around the team of Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof as Beatrice and Benedick. For the young lovers Hero and Claudio, he picked a newcomer, an extra who stood out during The Avengers‘ shoot, Jillian Morgese, and Whedonverse vet Fran Kranz. Rounding out the main cast are other Whedon favorites Clark Gregg (Leonato), Reed Diamond (Don Pedro), Sean Maher (Don John), and Nathan Fillion (Dogberry).
The first thing that has to be reviewed is the uncredited cast member: the set. With no pre-production period, Whedon choose to film at his own house and once you see the movie, you understand why. An expansive kitchen, large patio around the pool, infinity hot tub… it’s a gorgeous location. And that’s before you even see the gorgeous wall-set staircase surrounded by ivy and the beautiful little amphitheater overlooking a valley. I mean, seriously… an amphitheater? You couldn’t build a more perfect set for this movie. The choice to film in black and white gives it a classic, almost noir-feeling during certain parts, but the decision to forgo color was really to prevent problems with color styling location to wardrobe. The script is… well, it’s Shakespeare. Whedon makes pretty minimal cuts, the largest being the omission of the character Antonio, which is an easy edit. Whedon translates the setting well and the only real unanswered questions are the ones Shakespeare leaves unanswered as well. While he adds a quick, wordless scene at the beginning (to give a hint of Beatrice and Benedick’s history), he chooses not to add a whole scene showing Hero’s alleged wantonness; we get some flashback glances while it’s related in the text. I’m so happy with this choice; Shakespeare purposely omitted this scene because this is the titular “nothing” that all the fuss is about. To add this entire scene in would just be putting sex in for sex’s sake.
The performances are no disappointment to the top notch setting and script. Every player has their part. Riki Lindhome as the gender swapped Conrade and gangster moll to John the Bastard, is delightfully non-plussed and Spencer Treat Clark is deceivingly baby-faced for scheming brute Borachio. Tom Lenk, as straightman Verges to Fillion’s bumbling Dogberry, brings the most to an under-appreciated part, as do the junior Watchmen of Nick Kocher and Brian McElhaney. Sean Maher brings more character to Don John than is given to him in the script (Shakespeare’s fault, not Whedon’s). Reed Diamond is a delightfully loyal and assertive Don Pedro and Jillian Morgese makes the most of the sparsely written Hero (again, Shakespeare’s fault… poor guy put all his effort into B&B). She only really shines when she’s allowed to be a bit more playful.
The four standouts, for me, are Clark Gregg as Leonato, Fran Kranz as Claudio, and Acker and Denisof as the lead couple. Gregg is truly regal in his role, subtly comedic when needed and perfectly ferocious when wronged. The same can be said of Kranz as Claudio. Such a hard role, Claudio goes from giddy schoolboy in love to jealous friend back to love bird before getting thrown into furious lover scorned and grief-stricken fool. Kranz makes all of these changes believable. Denisof stays away from too broad a portrayal of Benedick, saving it for when slapstick is needed, and plays Benedick as the perfect egotistic playboy who needs a push to realize when he’s met his match. I feel like Sandy Rivers was good practice for this. Acker is the star that truly shines in this movie, towing the perfect line for Beatrice between hard-hearted feminist, merry spirit, loyal cousin, and forgiving lover. She never plays over the top and the dialogue flows out of her mouth like that’s just how she speaks every day. Beatrice’s legendary “That I were a woman” speech has never had a better vessel to deliver it than Amy Acker. It’s pure perfection.
Much Ado About Nothing is now playing in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. It opens in limited release in the UK and Canada on June 14th and US Nationwide release on June 21st. Check this unofficially maintained list to see if it’s coming to a city near you. If not, call up your local art-house cinema and request it.