Warning: Spoilers May Exist Here. It’s a review. These things happen.
Just checking in. You know there are spoilers, right? Okay, just so we’re clear. They’re not huge spoilers. And this was a play for the last 400 or so years, so I mean, the plot’s out there. But people are weird about this stuff. So you’ve been warned. Twice.
I should say right up front, I love Shakespeare. This was not always so. Back in high school, I suffered, like most of us did, through “readings” of Romeo and Juliet by my peers:
“Romeo… uh, Romeo… where… wherefo…”
“Whatever. Wherefore art thou… uh… Romeo.”
When I was eighteen, and freshly home from my first year of college for the Christmas holidays, my mother proposed that we go see a movie.
“It’s got great reviews. It’s about the king of England.”
“Is it Shakespeare?”
“No, no, Honey. It’s a… a historical drama.”
“So it’s not Shakespeare?”
We arrived at the theater, and about two seconds in, as Derek Jacobi was intoning: “Oh, for a muse of fire,that would ascend/the brightest heaven of invention…” I leaned over to my mother and hissed: “You LIED to me! This is SHAKESPEARE!”
And indeed it was, as I had never imagined it could be. I went back to the theater and saw Henry V at least four times, and have watched it many times since. It’s my favorite adaptation, probably just because it taught me that Shakespeare didn’t have to sound like the whiny girl in my ninth grade English class. I learned that in the right actor’s performance, Shakespeare could come alive and sound, if not exactly like modern English, than enough like it to allow me to follow along, to get the jokes, to be upended by the terror and the tragedy.
Not all Shakespearean plays are good (check out Henry VIII, if you dare). But the best of his works transcend their creator’s time, mysterious identity, petty local politics and ridiculously filthy in-jokes to tell us something about human behavior. The best movie adaptations of Shakespearean plays do this too, but in an even more accessible way. I have watched more Shakespearean adaptations than most people (a teacher’s gotta do what a teacher’s gotta do). I know what I like in a film version. I look for something that captures the original spirit of the work in tone, if not settings and costumes. I look for actors who know how to read the lines to make it sound natural that they are speaking in early modern English (after all, it sounded natural enough to those who were actually speaking that way). And I look for a director who can move the action along without making us feel as though we are watching a play that has been filmed. Film is film, and I want to see movies that make the most of its unique qualities.
Joss Whedon, capable director of so many epic television dramas and a few very good movies, seemed to me like a decent match with Shakespeare, and with this play in particular. Much Ado About Nothing is a play about words and their power. Whedon is a man who enjoys sharp dialog and characters with a bit of snark. The fact that the film was shot in black-and-white would, if nothing else, give it a quality unobtainable in a live play. The question that remained for me was only whether Whedon’s actors would be up to the task. Reading Shakespeare naturally is not something that your average television actor, no matter how creative and talented, has been trained to do.
The good news is that almost all of them managed to pull it off. I realize that this play is hardly Hamlet, but there are different challenges at work: Much Ado About Nothing is meant to be funny, and nothing is harder than comedy, especially when it’s written in iambic pentameter. Overall, the cast of this film was wonderful. The film is gracefully shot, with the black-and-white photography generally pleasant and occasionally luminous. The setting of the story at Joss Whedon’s own home doesn’t feel like a gimmick, rather just the use of a pretty house in an unnamed town where wealthy, attractive people gather. Nothing about the modern update feels particularly out of character with the play, though there are moments when the work’s messages about chastity are a bit jarring, when said by folks who are clearly not above a little hanky-panky themselves. The tone of the play is light, with a strain of pain and darkness running just beneath the surface and occasionally bubbling to the top. Whedon preserves this well, not drenching the proceedings in Tuscan light, like Kenneth Brannagh’s late-nineties version, nor robbing it of its comedy in order to highlight the genuine anguish the characters put one another through for love.
The basic premise of the play is that, at the end of a long military campaign, a group of loyal friends has gathered at the house of Leonato (Clark Gregg) to celebrate. Among the people recently returned from the war are Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), a local prince, and his untrustworthy brother Don John (Sean Maher). Why Don John is allowed to join the party is something Shakespeare never fully explains, except to note that he is “reconciled” to his brother. Here, he doesn’t look so much reconciled, as under some sort of house arrest, which makes it even harder to figure out why they’ve allowed him to stay. But stay he does, along with soldiers Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Claudio (Fran Kranz), and a few others who remain nameless. Also staying at the house are Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese), and her cousin Beatrice (Amy Acker).
Beatrice and Benedick have history, and it rankles with them still. In the film, an aptly wordless prologue shows the two parting badly after a night together. In the play, some shenanigans are at least implied. At any rate, feelings have been hurt, jealousies exist and the two take out their anger in a war of words. Almost from moment one in the play, Beatrice is skewering Benedick, implying he has probably failed as a soldier (he hasn’t), that he has worked his way through a slew of lowly lovers (he has), and that he will pollute, by his mere company, the good name of all his friends (he might). In all her teasing and dislike lies just a hint of pain, enough to tell us that Beatrice, at least, did not want their relationship to end. Benedick, too, is apt to dismiss her with a few verbal jabs, though it is Beatrice who owns the more rapier of the two wits.
In the meantime, young Claudio has fallen in love with Leonato’s daughter, Hero. This rankles Don John, who wants not just to be back in his brother’s graces but to be the only recipient of them, and so he begins to plot a way to destroy Hero and Claudio and therefore, elevate himself. This is secondary to the main caper, which involves a concerted effort by all the men and women in the house to convince Benedick and Beatrice to turn their hatred back to love through words overheard at windows and in kitchens, provoking elaborate pratfalls and much silliness. That they are so quickly successful is proof of the underlying passion beneath the snappy repartee.
All seems to be going swimmingly, until Don John’s plot to disgrace poor Hero takes effect. Using words, as well as a visual trick, he convinces Claudio that Hero is sleeping with one of the servants the night before her wedding. Rather than storm off in angry protest, the devastated Claudio decides his best revenge will be to utterly humiliate Hero at the alter, revealing her duplicity to the world through what should have been his wedding speech. His success is so complete that Hero faints, and after the men leave and her innocence is at least somewhat protested, a wily friar (there’s always one of those) suggests that she play dead for a few days until the whole thing can be sorted out (sound familiar?).
Sorted it will be, of course, with villains caught and wrongs righted. In the meantime, Beatrice will ask Benedick to prove his love through murder, which, fortunately, he never gets the chance to commit. The play ends, unlike it’s more tragic cousin, Romeo and Juliet, with a double wedding and much happiness all around, as expected.
As I’ve said before, Much Ado About Nothing is a play about the power of language. Language holds Beatrice and Benedick apart from one another, and then with very little effort, binds them to one another just as effectively. Words “kill” Hero, and also resurrect her. How the actors say those words, then, matters. There is no dramatic backdrop of war to stir the audience, no kingly concerns about succession, and no actual murder to lament. No one is cross-dressing, no identities are being swapped, and there are no Jews to pillory (only one unfortunate black guest). Words rule the day, swaying characters’ minds and the audience’s emotions. Amy Acker, as Beatrice, absolutely gets this. Her jibes at Benedick aren’t just funny: they’re tragically funny. She edges every line with the ache of a willing, but spurned lover. Benedick’s eventual admission of his affection causes her to say that she has no room in her heart for words, now that he has filled it with love. When, after Hero’s disgrace, she laments her inability to take action like a man, she notes that men have lost their valor and are only willing to fight with words. For Beatrice, a woman’s power comes from her speech and when speech fails her, she laments her femininity. Acker’s nuanced, funny and moving performance of Shakespeare’s language completely wiped any thought of previous adaptations from my head: she inhabits Beatrice, and brings her fully to life through her lively understanding of the lines.
Alexis Denisof, who plays Benedick, is not quite as effective, and more’s the pity. A feisty, thoughtful, sexy Beatrice needs a Benedick who matches her, moment for moment. Denisof does a fine job reading the lines, but mostly that’s the issue: he’s just reading them. The inflection is there, but when he does make Benedick funny it’s not because he said something amusing, rather because he does something amusing. His physical comedy is great, but that’s not what the story calls for. Benedick and Beatrice must match wits, not pratfalls. I never believed for a moment that Benedick was a lady-killer, nor did I believe his sudden, narcissistic reversal to a man of intense devotion. His readings did not vary, even as his character’s desires did. Lines that I know were funny when Kenneth Brannagh said them (and despite my love of Henry V, I’m no huge fan of Brannagh, who has not spent much time studying the art of being subtle), fell flat to the entire audience when Denisof read them. I realize that every actor’s interpretation will vary, and it should. I didn’t go in to this film venerating, or even wanting Brannagh’s earlier version, but when a line is meant to be funny as written, it should be funny as said.
Denisof’s bland readings kept the film from reaching the heights it could have attained. He’s no Keanu Reeves, but the difference between Acker’s absolutely spot-on understanding of the text and his near-misses heightened my sense that while I was enjoying myself, I wasn’t fully transported. The other actors were mostly excellent in their roles, though I felt that Clark Gregg’s Leonato was not quite as emotional as needed, never giving us the full anger and grief of a father whose beloved daughter seems to have fallen so very far from grace.
Then, of course, there’s Nathan Fillion. I should note that I am a Firefly fanatic, so I was disposed to like Fillion no matter what. That said, I’m not a huge fan of Castle (it’s okay), so it wasn’t as though I knew I would love the performance. But love it, I did. In a play about words, Fillion’s character, the bumbling police constable Dogberry, is a man for whom words are a special challenge. What Dogberry says doesn’t quite reach the level of comprehensible, despite the fact that every word is in English. This exchange, widely shown in previews, is a particularly good example:
When he says “suspect” instead of “respect,” the whole meaning of the line changes. Of course she “suspects” his place: he’s an ass. The juxtaposition of Dogberry’s inability to say a single line in a way that actually means what he thinks it means, set up against Beatrice and Benedick’s easy war of words, makes the character that much funnier and more likable. Fillion’s line readings are absolutely perfect. He gives Dogberry a nobility of spirit that makes his righteous indignation over the “ass” remark all the more charming and earned. Dogberry is funny, yes, but he is also exactly what he thinks he is: a straight-dealing man in a world where everyone else is talking about “nothing” far too much.
Much Ado About Nothing is now in wide release, and you should be able to see it as long as you live somewhere near a major city. If not, Netflix abides.