Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing May Be Most Modern Interpretation Ever
By Alex Cranz
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?