Much Ado About Nothing Whedon

There this moment in Much Ado About Nothing where the happy romantic comedy turns on its head, becoming something incredibly dark. Claudio throws Hero to the ground and accuses her of lies and harlotry and nothing can be the same. Sides are taken. Words are unleashed that cannot be retained. It’s awful and everything after it is colored by it. It gives the play these massive stakes, but at a cost to Shakespeare’s resplendent farce.

More than one director has tasked himself with handling that shift in tone gracefully, but most tend to sort of gloss over it, mining the moment for its darkness and then swiftly moving back to the happy fun times and blissfully ignoring the tragedy that gives the play its stakes.

Joss Whedon approaches from a different route–sowing the seeds that will blossom into misogyny and recrimination. He prepares his audience for that tonal shift in the opening moments of his adaptation, showing us a melancholic Benedick leaving an equally melancholic Beatrice alone in her bed. They’re lovers and that poisoned affair colors their every interaction, giving them that edge uncommon to the romantic comedy. It makes them adults and modernizes the play, instantly turning the later accusations of promiscuity and infidelity into something radically hypocritical.

It’s a difficult thing to modernize a play. Many interpretations of Shakespeare playfully relocate the setting away from 16th century England, but they maintain the text and perhaps do not mine it often enough for the depths Shakespeare’s work provides. In his first public adaptation Whedon is not timorous. He digs into the words and finds something new and haunting and disparate where most see only whimsy and romance.

Which makes sense. Whedon has always been adept at mining humor in pathos and vice versa. There are few filmmakers working that navigate that path as cleanly as him. It is his wheelhouse, so to speak, and the actors he employs are all as familiar with it as the tone he encourages. Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof as the lovers Beatrice and Benedick play things almost shockingly modern. Rather than farce they bring a sitcom flare to the comedy and plumb the depths of the drama for every ounce of pathos. In their hands Shakespeare’s play isn’t tonally challenged, it’s well-rounded. These feel like genuine characters with histories and desires beyond the page. Particularly when Acker finally reaches Beatrice’s “If I Were A Man” speech.

I’ve seen this speech performed a number of times. I’ve watched Catherine Tate and Emma Thompson and a couple of stage actresses cry and wail through it and I’ve watched Sarah Parish rage through a modern version that was hitherto my favorite take on it, but then Amy Acker pounds her fists against Denisof’s chest and unearths the fury of an entire sex. Never have I seen the monologue performed with such a naked feminist slant. It’s actually breathtaking to watch her subvert the text. There is an agony in her performance that many performers and directors would shy away from. She takes the teasing talk of gender that lies below the surface of the play, grabs it by the roots, and rips it out so everyone can see it too, and Whedon’s camera catches every moment–following her at a distance so as to not hide any of the physicality she brings to the monologue.

She isn’t the only one offering unusual interpretations. Spencer Treat Clark’s Borachio is more tortured rogue than a simple brute caught up Don John’s plan, Clark Gregg gives Leonato a cunning where often he is a frivolous fool of a father, and Fran Kranz…Whedon asked that Kranz play Claudio as an angry jock and Kranz does exactly that. The guy who has before only played stoners and nerds plays a blisteringly aggressive figure who is heroic and gorgeous and governed less by his thoughts than by his temper. If you understandably have a narrow view of the actor you will be astonished, and if you’ve never even seen him before then you’ll be delighted when you later check him out in the phenomenal Cabin in the Woods or the problematic Dollhouse.

Whedon’s whole cast, really, is a study in subverting expectations and honing the edge of Shakespeare’s work. From Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk’s 80s brotastic constables to Ashley Johnson’s tragic Margaret they drag the play to the ground, but never let go of the fun party atmosphere. This is a movie drenched in dark jazz and shadows and booze.

The only question you’ll have at the end is “when are Whedon, Acker, Kranz and the rest teaming up for a budget interpretation of Twelfth Night?

  • I’m extremely excited to see this since I’m a huge Shakespeare fan and a fan of most everyone involved in this film. Just an incredible play too.

    What production did you see Alex that had Sarah Parish in a modern setting? I’d love to check it out.

    • Shakespeare-Told! They did four modern adaptations. Much Ado About Nothing, Midsummer’s Nights Dream, Macbeth and Taming of the Shrew. Much Ado stars Parish, Damien Lewis and Billie Piper and is set in a news studio. Fun fun stuff.

      • Ah, I’ve seen trailers for that! I’ll definitely check it out! Thank you! (^_^)

  • Mis

    Thank you for this great review :) I can’t wait to see Joss’ take on it. Also, it’s sowing the seeds, not sewing the seeds. Sorry for the nitpick, but it’s true.

    • It is true! Which is why I changed it. Thanks for letting me know. :D

  • Cathleen

    I was lucky enough to be at the Glasgow premiere of Much Ado and this review pretty much perfectly sums up how I felt about it. It is really astoundingly good. The only thing I would add to this is would be a special mention of praise Alexis Denisof’s utterly charming performance.

  • Raivn Swaim

    I think you’ve put it quite aptly. The only other adaptation I have seen of this was the one with Emma Thompson. And I did enjoy that one, but being a huge Whedon fan, and adoring all of the actors that he uses on a regular basis, I loved this one so much more. And you are right, the opening scene, and the choice to include a past love affair between Beatrice and Benedick was brilliant, and made the animosity that they have towards one another make so much more sense. I thought that was a brilliant angle to throw in there. And I adore Fran Kranz, he was my favorite thing about both Dollhouse and Cabin In The Woods. The movie was beautiful, the setting, the acting, and the direction that Whedon chose to take it. I would love to see him do an adaptation of The Tempest, even though the one with Helen Mirren was pretty awesome.