Joss Whedon, best known for “The Avengers” and TV’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” has made a modern-dress adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” that is strictly bare bones, shot in black-and-white and on a single location. It is the furthest thing in look and feel from an action blockbuster. And it is utterly and completely lovely.
5 (out of five stars)
Director: Joss Whedon
Cast: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Jillian Morgese, Fran Kranz, Clark Gregg
Rated: PG-13 for some sexuality and brief drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Shakespeare does much of the heavy lifting, of course. “Much Ado About Nothing,” when done right, is almost magical in its effect. The simplest of situations and conversations provide moments of profound poignancy, and yet to look at the page is almost to wonder why, and how. Even at its most comic, there’s a fullness of life here, a pain in the midst of joy, a wholeness that cannot be explained and will not yield to the critical scalpel.
Yet failure is more common than success in the performance of this play, and so Whedon and his cast must take enormous credit, too. They bring “Much Ado” to life and into balance, with its magical mix of comedy and wistfulness, humor and anxiety in ideal proportion. Liberties are taken with the time period and the location, but human nature and emotion remain eternal.
The dialogue is Shakespearean, though the film is set in modern-day Southern California. This clash between sound and setting jars, but for no more than two minutes. The black-and-white photography, in itself something artificial and heightening, helps bridge the gap, but so does the ease of the actors, who perform the text with no affect and with their American accents intact.
The victorious nobles, under the command of Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), return from the wars to stay at the home of a wealthy landowner. Benedick (Alexis Denisof), one of Don Pedro’s soldiers, and Beatrice (Amy Acker) the landowner’s niece, have a relationship that consists entirely of verbal sparring, some of it quite brutal, and this gives Don Pedro an idea: He will trick Benedick and Beatrice into falling in love.
In a classic double scene, Benedick’s friends, knowing he is within earshot, allow themselves to be overheard describing Beatrice as being sick in love with him. In their turn, Beatrice overhears her friends describing Benedick as pining away for her. This immediately softens the feelings on both sides.
What makes the comic contrivance more than merely funny, but also rich and touching, is that the two were quite clearly in love to begin with, indeed they were practically made for each other. Whedon emphasizes this. He takes a small reference to an abortive flirtation in their past, and he illustrates it with a brief, effective flashback.
Somehow Whedon finds a tone that balances 21st-century sexual practices with Shakespearean era morality, creating a world that’s modern, yet isn’t, that is something apart.
The personalities transcend time: the wit and integrity of Beatrice, as played by Acker, and the warmth and playfulness of Benedick, as played by Denisof. We know these people. We know exactly who they are. It’s the revelation of great literature is that these two have always been in the world, amusing and taking delight in each other, in all their many and recurring incarnations, across the centuries.
Every director must decide on points of emphasis. Kenneth Branagh, in his gorgeous and still definitive 1993 version, accented the barely spoken love that Don Pedro feels for Beatrice. That’s here in Whedon’s version, but less so. At the same time, Whedon has a triumph in the one area that eluded Branagh, in his presentation of the comic constable Dogberry. For once, as nicely downplayed by Nathan Fillion, Dogberry is actually funny.
Anyway, as you’ve made it this far in the review, I might as well go ahead and mention that I had tears in my eyes at least four times while watching this film, and I’m not even sure why. I suppose there’s just something in the spectacle of people letting down their guard and opening up to love that’s moving. In any case, it’s a beautiful thing, and the feeling lingers.