October Issue 2013

By | Here and Now | Published 11 years ago

Film adaptations of Shakespeare tend to be either self-important and humourless or alternately, in trying to appeal to a modern audience, far too slight and lacking in gravitas. Joss Whedon, a formerly cult auteur who achieved mainstream fame by helming The Avengers, manages to traverse the rare middle ground in his loose, improvisational adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. Whedon is best known for his quippy, rapid-fire dialogue on TV shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel and somehow manages to bring that same levity to one of Shakespeare’s greatest comedies.

Part of the reason the film feels so organic is the circumstances in which it was filmed. One fine day, Whedon invited some of his friends to his Los Angeles home and filmed them in black and white as they acted out the play.

The cast won’t be well-known to anyone but Whedon fanatics, since he brought together regulars like Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion and Amy Acker, all of whom have appeared on multiple Whedon TV shows. Unlike Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 version of the play, Whedon is more interested in bringing out the screwball aspects of Much Ado About Nothing. All the action is centred around one house, which turns out to be a brilliant way of filming a play that uses eavesdropping as a major plot device.

The director is also unafraid of delving into the weightier themes of the play without ever sacrificing his gentle touch. Misogyny — in particular, the valuing of virginity over humanity — is tackled seriously and without ever being trivialised. The plot will be familiar to fans of the play: Don Pedro and Claudio return home to a life of leisure and plot various romantic conquests. The centre piece is a masked ball as Claudio pursues the charming Hero. The standout here is Amy Acker as Hero’s cousin, who declares that marriage is not her cup of tea and love a mere illusion. She reserves most of her wrath for Benedict, another recent return to the land after fighting the Italian War. Benedict and Hero are constantly at each other’s throats, which only inspires the conspiring household staff and various other guests to bring them together. Without spoiling the conclusion, let it be known that the conclusion is not quite what fans of romantic comedies would predict.

The real marvel of Much Ado About Nothing is the acting. None of the actors are trained in the way of Shakespeare and theatre, but that turns out to be an advantage rather than a flaw. The dialogue flows smoothly and, even if it all seems a bit amateurish at times, the effect is one of love and spontaneity rather than incompetence. If only others treated Shakespeare in the same way — as popular entertainment rather than a part of the literary canon.

Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.