Year of Release: 2013 Directed by Joss Whedon. Starring Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Fran Kranz, Jillian Morgese, Clark Gregg, Sean Maher, Reed Diamond, Riki Lindhome, Spencer Treat Clark, and Nathan Fillion.
The greatest risk in reviewing a film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is comparing it to the 1993 film adaptation by Kenneth Branagh. There are enough characters and distinctive scenes that I could easily take a full review comparing and contrasting each one. However, that would tell you little about either movie, but only that I love Shakespeare’s play.
In the ways of comparison, I will say this: the main thing that stops me from preferring Whedon’s adaptation over Branagh’s is Beatrice and Benedick. Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh own the roles of the sparring lovers. Amy Acker is nearly on par with Thompson, but Alexis Denisof, while good, is not even remotely in the same league as Branagh. In other points of comparison sometimes Whedon’s film is superior, sometimes Branagh’s. Overall, it averages to about a tie.
Whedon shot Much Ado About Nothing in twelve days at his home during a break from filming The Avengers, which alone is an impressive feat. The cast is comprised of his friends and people who have worked with him on his past television shows. Whedon wrote the music himself and had the songs performed by his brother, Jed. This level of intimacy adds a very effective touch to the entire production. All the actors are very comfortable with their roles and with Shakespeare’s dialogue, and they are a pleasure to watch. The songs from the play are set to a syncopated, pop vibe which reflects the modernized setting, but it is still relaxed, suggesting the frivolous nature of the play.
Amy Acker leads the cast as Beatrice, the feisty niece of Leonato (Clark Gregg) and cousin of Hero (Jillian Morgese). Acker masters all of her lines, capturing the wit, sarcasm, and bantering nature of Beatrice. She is insecure when she needs to be, and brazen when she challenges other characters. Acker plays very well off all the other actors, adding both to the comedy and the pathos in the story.
As Benedick, Alexis Denisof is good. He delivers his lines naturally and clearly enjoys himself. However, he does not have the feistiness that Acker has as Beatrice, and their sparring is somewhat one sided. Whedon also added a goofiness to the portrayal of Benedick that seems out of place. Since Benedick needs to be an equal sharp-witted arguer with Beatrice, making him the clown of the story is misdirecting the source of his humor. Admittedly, he does have a couple scenes in which he should behave comically, but they are overdone.
Jillian Morgese and Fran Kranz are excellent as the naive lovers Hero and Claudio. (Yes, they are both a step up from Beckinsale and Leonard in Branagh’s film.) Kranz in particular captures the impetuousness and gullibility of the foolish Claudio, perfectly capturing the character that Shakespeare wrote. Morgese is appropriately doting as Hero, but she also shows tremendous range in her acting. She is convincingly playful as she baits Beatrice with her maid. Hero’s heartbreak, too often glossed over, is very poignant and tragic due to Morgese’s skilled performance.
Sean Maher is phenomenal as the brooding, manipulative, and sinister Don John the Bastard. (A million times better than Keanu-emotionless-monotone Reeves, and I promise I won’t make any more comparisons to the 1993 film.) When he says his brother’s joy makes him sick, his disdain for others as a tortured, hate filled individual comes across clearly.
The decision to change Conrade’s character, one of Don John’s two assistants, to woman played by Riki Lindhome works well. It gives Don John an extramarital love story, which removes his character even further from the marital joy that the others wish to celebrate.
Nathan Fillion commands every scene he is in as the bumbling constable Dogberry. He plays the character in a droll deadpan, suggesting a character completely oblivious to his own foolishness and ignorance. His Dogberry clearly has no clue what is funny about a line such as “Thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption!” Fillion’s interpretation is very different from Michael Keaton’s aggressive slapstick. (Okay, that really is the last comparison to Branagh’s film.) Even if Keaton is slightly over the top, both interpretations work well. However, when Conrade insults Dogberry with the line, “You are an ass,” there is much less provocation here for that insult, which makes Don John’s companion seem more villainous. The interpretation that one prefers is really a matter of personal comic taste.
The only thing that slightly misfires is the movie’s attempt to give Beatrice and Benedick a back story. From the play, it is clear that they had past disagreements, but the opening scene, along with a later flashback, suggests that past one night stands have left them bitter with one another, and Beatrice views Benedick as a callous womanizer. If that had been the source of their quarrel, the attempted setup for them would almost certainly have failed.
The two scenes in which Benedick and Beatrice are tricked into believing the other loves them are hilarious. Whedon nails the comedy both physically and in highlighting the humor in Shakespeare’s dialogue. Both Acker and Denisof respond with absurd shock and slapstick, clearly showing why they are a perfect match for one another, which had previously failed to come through in their bantering.
The last thing that warrants mention is that the film is shot in black and white, which helps create the lighthearted, romantic atmosphere necessary to the story. This camera work, along with Whedon’s skilled directing and the talented performances from the entire cast, easily overcomes the few minor misinterpretations that very slightly mar an otherwise excellent adaptation of my favorite comedy by the Bard.
Content Advisory: A few implied sexual encounters, some suggestive dialogue. MPAA rating: PG-13
Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment.
Personal Recommendation: A-