Context can change everything and in Joss Whedon’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” it does just that.
Shakespeare in its original text, which this is, can be daunting for some. For those unversed in the tale and/or Shakespearean verse, don’t worry. There’s nothing pretentious about this film. The pace, acting, inflection, and a modern setting make this story incredibly accessible.
Nevertheless, I’ll set the stage (fear not, 2WC’s no spoilers policy extends to classic Shakespearean tales):
Our tale is set at the home of Leonato (Clark Gregg) who is preparing to welcome Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) and his brothers in arms—Claudio (Fran Kranz), Benedick (Alexis Denisof), and his evil bastard brother Don John (Sean Maher).
For Claudio it’s love at first sight of Leonato’s daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese), and they are engaged shortly after meeting, and married not long after.
For Benedick and Beatrice (Amy Acker) things are a bit more complicated. Their sharp tongues and aversion to marriage make for a far more reluctant courtship.
Of course a simple merry gathering of friends turns into a mess of romance, mischief, deception, and (against all odds) a happy ending.
This is after all a Shakespearean comedy so you know it ends with at least one wedding and high spirits…and spirits…seriously, they drink almost constantly in this movie. No complaints here, but I’d like to go on record as saying there is a drinking game in this movie’s future…now back to the review.
One of many things this adaptation does beautifully is found in how it deals with the modern-day setting. No one would argue the timelessness of Shakespeare’s themes. The ease with which this tale, traditionally set in Italy c. 1600, translates into the modern age is a testament to the original work. However, bringing them into the modern era can present some challenges.
Whedon softens the lines by shooting in black and white giving the film a film noir feel at times. Modern day devices—automobiles, text messages, and televised arrests included—are used sparingly and balance the old with the new. Text messages are received, but pen and paper are still the chosen instruments for professions of love. The rest of the transition is done through levity (without making fun), glances, and expressions, and it works wonderfully.
Then, there’s the cast. Lovers of Whedon’s work will dork out over this cast (rightfully so) and lovers of Shakespeare will fall in love with these characters all over again.
The two leads, Amy Acker as Beatrice and Alexis Denisof as Benedick, are absolutely brilliant. Their transformation from verbal dueling partners to lovers is remarkable and touching, and they are as entrancing independently as they are together. The choice to show an implied but unspoken bit of backstory between these two characters is brilliant and aids in the translation to modern sensibilities.
Of course, other great performances abound. Clark Gregg is perfect as the patriarch Leonato. Fran Kranz and Jillian Morgese are adorable (and temporarily heartbreaking) as Claudio and Hero. Also, I’m fairly certain Dogberry is the role Nathan Fillion was born to play and he rocks it out.
It really is just a wonderfully fun time all around, but then again when the man who brought you “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “The Avengers,” “Firefly,” and “Dollhouse” does Shakespeare you kind of know it’s going to be awesome, and indeed it is.
And I haven’t even mentioned that the movie was shot in 12 days at Whedon’s home with a bunch of his friends, while he was in the editing process for “The Avengers.” Yet another charming aspect of this film. And charming is exactly what Joss Whedon’s adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing” is. It’s a wonderfully simple, but sophisticated comedy that will leave you smiling…and feeling super smart (Shakespeare can have that effect).