Old William Shakespeare is never far from Hollywood’s to do list as this new adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing demonstrates. What is more surprising is it was made during a two-week hiatus director Joss Whedon had after wrapping production on The Avengers before heading into the editing suite. So the man who created Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Firefly and Dollhouse tackles The Bard with a budget small enough to not even register as pocket change for Tony Stark and with a group of familiar Whedonian faces to set fans’ hearts a flutter.
Sticking closely to Shakespeare’s text, in both plot and language, Much Ado sees Leonato (Clark Gregg) playing host to returning war heroes and one fallen villain Don John (Sean Maher). Two of the soldiers in the party are Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Claudio (Fran Kranz) both of who are looking for love. Before long Claudio is engaged to Leanato’s daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese) whilst Benedick spars with the Leanato’s niece, the feisty Beatrice (Amy Acker). As romance blossoms so Don John aims to plant seeds of doubt in Claudio’s mind while bumbling Officer Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) keeps a close eye on proceedings.
On paper jumping from one of the biggest films ever made to such a small project might seem jarring for a filmmaker but Much Ado About Nothing is typically, and wonderfully, a Joss Whedon creation. Like Shakespeare, Whedon is at his strongest when dealing with fascinating and entertaining characters. The sort of people you wish you met on a more regular basis but know only really exist in fiction. Retaining Shakespeare’s original language allows Whedon to inject a sense of frivolity into the film, a naughty glint captured in the casts’ eye.
Shooting in sumptuous black and white lends the film an indie feel, a sense that this is up there with the sub-genre that is Mumblecore. Indeed such is the execution of the film that it feels like it could easily be related to a film such as In Search Of A Midnight Kiss. For, as Shakespeare’s title implies, Much Ado About Nothing is essentially a group of characters gathered in their director’s home – where the film was almost entirely shot – discussing all things love, life and everything in between.
Those wanting massive action set pieces, New York being torn apart by aliens and superheroes will be sorely disappointed. As Don John comments at one point; “This may prove food to my displeasure” – if you are someone who detests all things superhero and big box office nonsense, then Whedon’s Much Ado is an antidote to the tight wearing characters who dominate the mainstream.
One stroke of genius is to slightly tweak Beatrice and Benedick’s relationship. The film opens with the two in a passionate embrace, something Shakespeare never hinted at. In doing so their relationship takes on a new, modern and arguably more interesting dynamic. All their back-and-forth from then-on-in comes from the place of former lovers, the flame not quite extinguished enough to prevent bickering, flirting and then love again. While all the performances are great – what else would you expect from a cast made up of former Whedon favourites – it is Denisof and Acker as Benedick and Beatrice who shine brightest. Denisof plays Benedick with a foppish charm, a warm hubris which is hard not to grin at throughout. Acker meanwhile injects Beatrice with a wicked sense of conspiracy, a sultry plotter always looking to get the better of her potential suitor adding a wonderful slapstick allure that would not be out of place in a screwball comedy of the ‘40s.
To Shakespeare and Whedon fans Much Ado About Nothing is pure delight, to the uninitiated it will almost certainly act as a gateway drug to both artists.