If you were compiling a list of American directors suitable for overseeing a film production of Shakespeare, your first choice might not be the man responsible for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, The Avengers and other horror/sci-fi/comic book vehicles. The reflex judgment would likely be that, while Joss Whedon is doubtless very good at what he does, what he does is not intrinsically or appropriately or sufficiently Shakespearean.
It’s a pleasant surprise, therefore, to see what Whedon has done with the Bard’s timeless comedy Much Ado About Nothing.
Working with an ensemble of actors drawn from his previous films and TV shows, Whedon shot the film in what could only have been a madcap 12 days, using his own sprawling family home and its lush environs in southern California as the sole set. The project apparently grew out of informal Shakespearean play readings that Whedon likes to host, and the film retains that “isn’t-this-a-lark?” sense of communal frolic.
You might think that Shakespeare’s work is so rich in language, so clever in plot, so deep in character and so laden with meaning as to be cinematically foolproof. Au contraire.
It’s easy to botch things up – witness, if you dare, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 Hamlet, with Mel Gibson as the melancholic Dane. It’s even easier if you are transplanting the action from 16th-century Messina to 21st-century Santa Monica.
Moreover, Whedon’s Ado is a parlour version of the play, shot in black and white, with documentary intimacy. That approach robs the actors of what many Shakespearean thespians rely on – grand theatrical readings of the text. You can’t fake it when the camera lens is half a meter away. Either you can render the meaning of the lines as though you were speaking modern conversational English, or you can’t. For the most part, Whedon’s cast members are up to the challenge. None of the actors exactly knock you over with their facility – Nathan Fillion in the comic role of Dogberry comes close – nor do any of them stumble egregiously.
The familiar Ado story line is built on the foundation of love and its impediments. To cement their union, two sets of lovers – Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof), and Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Hero (Jillian Morgese) – must overcome significant hurdles.
The first couple, in Whedon’s account, already have a sexual history – the film opens (as the play does not) with shots of bedroom disarray, the morning after a night’s lovemaking. Benedick steals away silently, while Beatrice pretends to sleep. Now, in the aftermath, the couple is more apt to hurl insults at each other than utter expressions of love.
Thus do their well-intentioned friends conspire while gathered for a weekend of partying at the home of Leonato (Clark Gregg), using deceit to persuade them that their love for each other is genuine.
Claudio and Hero must surmount a darker intrigue, also based on a lie – the report of Hero’s prenuptial infidelity, concocted by the scheming Don John (Sean Maher), which Claudio is tricked into believing.
Washed down with copious goblets of wine, the proceedings are enlivened by some predictable slapstick and everywhere enhanced by the Bard’s sharp repartee, which is loaded with double entendres. In addition to Edmonton native Fillion, Acker fares the best in her delivery of Elizabethan English. But Whedon is smart enough to recognize that the real star here is Shakespeare, and the optimum way to direct his work is to get out of the way and let the language do the heavy lifting.