“Come, lady, come. You have lost the heart of Signior Benedick.”
“Indeed, my lord. He lent it me a while and I gave him use for it…a double heart for his single one. Merry, once before he won it of me with false dice. Therefore your grace may well say I have lost it.”
When presenting any adaptation of Shakespeare to a modern audience, the filmmaker has some tricky choices to make up front, and faces any number of potential hurdles, not the least of which is the Bard himself. Though many of his themes and much of the behavior he relates are universal and relatable across time, there comes along also the nagging sense that Shakespeare’s works now have an instantly anachronistic quality about them, as if in over their years of being so intensely studied and performed and regularly adapted anew, they have passed some weird sort of expiration date in the larger consciousness of the consumer class, that time has, in some cruel way, begun to decisively pass them by. These are among the most thoughtfully constructed, delightfully executed, justly celebrated works in the history of the English language, or Western art, or thought. Yet to so many, they are utterly impenetrable, or, worse yet, embarrassing, or worse still, irrelevant.
Such failings, in my occasionally humble opinion, are not at all his to answer, but ours. Whenever “FML” and “SMH” and “LOL” definitively replace “To be or not to be…” as our cultural shorthand for existential thought, it will be well past time for the human race to pack up all its foibles and pettiness and progress and check out of Grand Hotel for all time. I know a thing or two, obviously, however inelegantly, about using fifteen words where five will arguably better do. I’ve also read my share of Shakespeare over the years without ever being a diligent student, more than content to periodically partake of his wit and drink deep of and luxuriate in his language. It’s not a steady diet, because it honestly can’t be. In spite of my protestations, I’m too far along the path of devolution myself, and worry my brain might explode. But I do love spending an occasional two hours or more basking in the light his words radiate, and lounging in the shadow they concurrently throw. I try to make it back a couple times a year at least. Sometimes I even succeed. Happily, luckily, it seems I am not alone.
The first exposure to Shakespeare’s work in my memory came during junior high school, when my English class endured a screening of Franco Zeffirelli’s reverent 1968 retelling of Romeo and Juliet, with its lush Italian locations and authentic teenagers Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting as the star-crossed lovers. It bored us to tears, frankly, but also became the baseline comparison point for all other Shakespeare adaptations I’ve seen since. The Bard himself never changes, after all, so success or failure is inextricably bound to his interpreter. Several years later, I took a date to see Baz Luhrmann’s hysterically overheated “modern retelling” Romeo + Juliet, this time starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes and an aggressively 1990s soundtrack, with pistols substituted for swords, grungy Verona Beach standing in for “fair Verona, where we lay our scene”, and serial over-emoting and rapid fire MTV-style editing replacing stage directions, or pauses in the dialogue, or, on occasion, coherent thought. We both dearly loved it at the time, though subsequent viewings have recalibrated my opinion into a somewhat more qualified admiration.
Seeing a Shakespeare adaptation carries with it an implicit understanding, a pact of sorts signed by the filmmaker and the viewer. The audience self-selects by simply paying the price of admission, and between the extremes of Zeffirelli and Luhrmann, it’s safe to say pretty much any world or approach or mode of thinking can exist comfortably. For his brisk, clever adaptation of Much Ado about Nothing, director Joss Whedon mixes and matches the traditional and the contemporary, making certain small but nevertheless noteworthy (some would call them distracting) concessions to the modern mindset. Characters drive cars, talk on cell phones, and watch videos on tablets (though the important final act love notes are, improbably, actually written down instead of being posted online by mistake or discovered in someone’s inbox), all the while milling about a spacious 21st Century California home. Whedon, to his credit, makes no effort whatsoever to dilute Shakespeare’s language, and, indeed, even seems to speed it up a little during all the first act’s info dumping and scene setting.* Having come to prominence as the author of his own brand of sly, revealing, and character-centric rapid fire patter on small screen touchstones Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, Whedon seems particularly at home capturing smart people in the act of ecstatic conversation.
*Subtitles are, of course, optional, but, in this case, highly recommended. You’ll thank me.
Part of that comes, no doubt, from his actually being at home. In practically no time at all, Much Ado about Nothing and its adaptor are revealed as a natural fit. The film, long an unconsummated passion project, was famously made, guerilla-style, during a 12-day production break in The Avengers, shot in black and white at Whedon’s own Santa Monica, California home, and stuffed to the gills with players familiar from the veritable repertory company he’d developed over his years doing serial drama. What I found most impressive was that, after an opening half hour that is both light and bouncy and borderline overwhelming – given the combination of nonstop florid language and nonstop salient information being dropped – Whedon is able to utilize not just Shakespeare’s talents but his own to make the characters (well, some of them anyway) resonate as more than just an aggregate of pretty words. I well remember reading Romeo and Juliet aloud in that same junior high class. I alternated passages with my classmates, and objectively did better with the material than did many others. It had a flat, rote quality about it regardless of the speaker, and a fairly stultifying effect on us overall. Now whose fault is that? The words are by themselves utterly remarkable, but they’re still only words. Without Whedon’s thoughtful direction, and particularly sparkling performances by the principals, absolutely none of this would fly. That’s what English classes get wrong about teaching Shakespeare, in my opinion, though I can’t really fault them. Shakespeare is too complex and multi-faceted to be taught as traditional literature, even though as words on a page, it more than holds its own. Its companion performance component is just too vital.
Predictably, Much Ado about Nothing really sings in its performances. Eight of the dozen principals are recognizable faces from the Whedonverse, and their facility with the language is tremendous, particularly in tight quarters on short notice. Ado is the story of parallel courtships, one stuffy, high profile and official, between Prince Claudio (Fran Kranz, of Dollhouse and Cabin in the Woods) and his betrothed, Hero (fetching newcomer Jillian Morgese), and the other between Hero’s cousin Beatrice (Angel’s luminous Amy Acker) and her longtime romantic sparring partner Benedick (Alexis Denisof, from Angel, Buffy and Dollhouse, with his inherent British gallantry turned up to 10). A plot to destroy the prince’s wedding via the appearance of infidelity casts Beatrice and Benedick on a turbulent emotional sea of their own, as Beatrice tries to enlist the reluctant but beholden Benedick to avenge her disgraced though blameless cousin’s honor. Acker and Denisof are the headliners here, and twin revelations. Their chemistry is so evident that it spills into their every interaction, whether a passionate first (or subsequent) kiss, their latest multi-tiered argument over principles or romantic logistics, or something as seemingly inconsequential as sharing opposite ends of a room (and a stolen glance) while others speak. Even as antagonists, Whedon frames and clearly regards them as lovers, which is a note of distinction that does not readily jump off the page. Other notables abound, including Clark Gregg (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Avengers) as Hero’s amiable but situationally fearsome father, Sean Maher (Firefly) as the frankly cardboard villain Don John, Riki Lindhome of Garfunkel & Oates as one of his willing patsies, and, as welcome comic relief, the Keystone Cops semi-competence of Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog) and Tom Lenk (Jonathan on Buffy), who solve the case in record time, albeit with a notable lack of policework, then lock their keys in the car in the process of making a triumphant exit.
The pairing of unfettered Shakespearean dialogue and dramatic motivation with modern settings and accoutrements makes for more than a few incongruous moments, but the film survives on the strength of its cast and direction, which are both impressive. As I said, Shakespeare himself is just a fact of life. Whedon’s black and white photography is lovely, and helps set a proper, dreamy mood. Fillion’s third act investigation as the well-meaning but over-officious and bumbling inspector is one of the highlights of the movie. I must try “Thou naughty varlet!” as a conversation piece on my next romantic evening out, apropos of nothing, just to see what her response might be. The story beats are not complicated any more than they need to be, although modern audiences will possibly be mortified at the extent to which the apparent loss of Hero’s chastity on the eve of her wedding, though a cruelly staged deception, completely unhinges her previously sweet fiancé Claudio. I know I was. Sexual politics were hell in the sixteen century, and chauvinism, with a heaping helping of paternalism, was the default attitude. Much Ado about Nothing was made like a project at summer camp, and though its quality is far superior, that refreshing vibe reaches the screen intact. And I can’t emphasize enough how good Acker and Denisof are here. Their romance, however abbreviated onscreen, never feels less than vital. Whether caressing or sniping at one another, their interactions have the ring of underlying authenticity that only smart, committed actors can bring. Though Shakespeare’s dialogue requirements tend to leave Whedon with a deficit of available air, he nonetheless smartly affords it wherever appropriate, showing a drunken Claudio seething, a wounded, desperate Beatrice ruminating, or Benedick, lovestruck, pondering both what might be and how he might seize the most important moment of his life.
“Much Ado About Nothing” (2012) 3/4 stars