If you are new to Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing is a good place to start. The play is very accessible and understandable, even if you do not get some of the Elizabethan jokes and references. It is light and funny, and seems very modern, despite the emphasis on virtuous women. I am going to concentrate on the most recent movie treatment of this play, Joss Whedon’s 2012 version.
Here I have to make a confession. I love, love, love Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 version of Much Ado About Nothing. It is not perfect by any means; the most obvious flaw being that Keanu Reeves is woefully miscast as Don John. He just does not have the acting chops to keep up with the rest of the cast. It comes off as Ted (Theodore) Logan trying to Do Shakespeare. He is simply in over his head.
I also do not care for Michael Keaton’s Dogberry. The character is necessarily ridiculous, but in this case, I just find him annoying. YMMV.
Still, it is an exuberant, joyful production. The actors — with the above exceptions — fully inhabit their characters, and the romances are believable and satisfying. The scenery is gorgeous as well, and the long tracking shot at the end is a thing of beauty. I heartily recommend it.
So, you can see why I was a bit apprehensive about my ability to be objective about Joss Whedon’s version of Much Ado. It almost seems unfair to compare the two. The mechanics of the productions are so completely different. IMDB does not list a budget, but I’m sure Whedon spent far less than Branagh’s (1993) $8 million, and the shooting schedule was certainly far more compressed. Shot over twelve days at Whedon’s house during a break from The Avengers, it cannot compare to Branagh’s grander production. I have tried, therefore, to judge it on it’s own merits. and not compare it too much to the Branagh.
I generally like Joss Whedon. I suppose I cannot be considered a true Whedon fanatic — I have not seen a minute of either Buffy or Angel, and I was kind of meh about Dr. Horrible (I liked most of it, but the last five minutes were too much of a gut punch for me). I adore Firefly — I think Out of Gas is about as perfect an hour of television that exists — and I am even okay with that thing that happened that we don’t talk about in Serenity. I pretty much have The Avengers memorized, I’ve seen it so many times. So, a Whedon fan, but not a superfan. I love the way Whedon is able to infuse serious subjects with humor, and the way his characters are so true; I have no trouble believing they are exactly who we see on screen. I was very interested to see what he could do with a story and a script that were not his own.
Given my recent experience with Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus, I was afraid that I would again find the language of Shakespeare too anachronistic in a modern setting. And it did seem so, at first. But by the time Alexis Denisof’s Benedick was falling all over the garden while “overhearing” Leonato, Don Pedro, and Claudio talk about how much Beatrice was in love with him, I was won over.
I couldn’t find a picture of Benedick in the garden, so here is Beatrice eavesdropping on Hero and Ursula.
I was laughing so hard I was able to let go of expectations and just enjoy the movie. And it is very enjoyable — sophisticated, breezy, and refreshing. A nice update to the play, and a pleasant few hours’ diversion.
Whedon’s production also addresses the two problems I have with Branagh’s. Sean Maher is a more plausible Don John — underhanded and malevolent rather than petulant and childish. As I have only ever seen him in Firefly, (and I have seen a LOT of Firefly) I was a bit concerned, but there is not a bit of Simon Tam about him. I also found Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry far more amusing and less irritating than Michael Keaton’s. A buffoon, to be sure, but a more sympathetic buffoon. (And that background bit with the car keys was hilarious).
Not that it is perfect; I did have a few quibbles. The lighting was a bit flat for me, and some of the scenes a bit claustrophobic, both, I think, side effects of shooting in a house on a tight budget. A scene of Benedick leaving Beatrice’s bed in the beginning makes no sense in the context of the play. It complicates this relationship unnecessarily, and I do not think it needed to be there. And why was the character of Antonio eliminated? Not a major character perhaps, but an important one to me. But these all are minor problems, and really didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the movie.
Nice Job, Mr Whedon.
I will be spending a couple of weeks looking at Macbeth, mainly because I have had Throne of Blood sitting on my DVR since TCM did Toshiro Mifune in August. Since I have never read or seen Macbeth, I will be reading here and watching this. Netflix has a ton of Macbeths to choose from; I picked this one because I will pretty much watch anything with Judi Dench in it. Oh, and Ian McKellan, too.