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FILM REVIEW: Much Ado About Nothing
Jess Cotton , June 13th, 2013 11:46

Jess Cotton watches Joss Whedon's take on Shakespeare's comedy, and thankfully resists the urge to write her review in iambic pentameter

In Autumn 2012, as Joss Whedon’s production of The Avengers, the $220m superhero blockbuster of the year, wound down, he was given a week off. The original plan had been a holiday in Venice. Instead Whedon used the interlude in filming to make another film; this time a black-and-white adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. Shakespearean romcom might sound like an odd choice for a director who rose to fame with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the cult TV series that made vamp sexy, long before the Twilight saga colonized the teenage imagination. But Much Ado’s snappy dialogue seems particularly apt for a writer known for his dazzling one-liners.

A blockbuster Much Ado is not. Shot over the course of twelve days in the director’s own Californian backyard and co-produced with Whedon’s wife, Kai Cole, the film brings together a stellar cast of small-name actors – familiar faces to those acquainted with his TV repertoire. The effect is more like a cross between rep theatre (Whedon was raised on a diet of Masterpiece and Monty Pynthon) and HBO drama than it is Baz Lurhmann's cinematic extravaganzas. There’s nothing state-of-the art, or indeed subversive, about Whedon’s micro-budget adaptation; it’s strength lies in its simple direction, navigating knotty plot twists to a smooth finish.

The set up is some all-night revelry at an LA mansion, owned by Leonato (Clark Gregg), a business magnate, who hosts an entourage of soldiers, decked out in slick business attire; one of whom, Claudio (Fran Kranz), becomes enamoured with his daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese). Like an overindulgent drinks party (and the glasses are frequently overflowing) much of the film’s charm derives from the improvisational spirit and camaraderie of its closed space, closed time framework (Much Ado is the only of Shakespeare play’s to take place in one location). Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Claudio jest about eternal bachelordom amid cuddly toys in a girl’s bedroom; whilst the villainous Don John (Sean Maher) gets up to no good in the next room with his sidekick Comrade, now a seductive blonde played by Riki Lindhome. Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick’s volley of verbal missiles is expertly played out; as is their transition from enmity to starry-eyed lovers. The flashbacks of a one-night stand make their mutual disdain and caustic jibes more convincing.

In comparison with Kenneth Branagh’s pageant-like Much Ado, Whedon’s adaptation feels strikingly modern. There’s the spot-on jazzy soundtrack and the black-and-white cinematography, which makes the film seem effortlessly stylised. The play is shortened to just under two hours, a tautness which adds to the sizzling energy of the gleeful skirmishes and the double entendres in which the actors wallow. The laughs come hard and fast, with verbal faux pas from Dogberry (Nathan Fillion), the spectacularly incompetent cop; and by elements of slapstick that recall the delightful mayhem of screwball comedies. And, like the screwballs, Whedon’s production doesn’t shy away from the darker undertones of the play. Hero’s disputed virginity, and the misplaced shame cast upon her, is problematically anachronistic, especially given the insinuations of Bendick and Beatrice’s amorous encounter. The rampant misogyny does though provide ammunition for Beatrice’s virtuoso “O God that I were a man!” speech. Whedon, who has lamented the paucity of female superheroes on screen, delivers a sassy, sharp-tongued heroine, who steals the show.

Much Ado is often sidelined as second-rank amongst Shakespeare’s works; Whedon’s effervescent production surely makes a fine case for a play written when the bard was at the top of his comic game.