Much Ado About Nothing review
"I was not born under a rhyming planet"
What do you get to do once you’ve made one of the top 3 grossing films of all time? Pretty much whatever you want. It’s always a fascinating period for a film-maker once they’ve reached phenomenal success, what do they do next? Studios will pretty much pay for anything, once you’ve made a film like Avengers Assemble, so then it is up to the director to make the most of this new found freedom. Many end up with spectacular failures or underrated gems that go under the radar for years. Thank goodness for Joss Whedon then.
Where so many lesser directors would take this opportunity to either a) get lazy and/or frustrated or b) go completely overblown. Whedon much publicised how difficult making Avengers was but it evidently paid off to great success, being a commercial and critical hit. So it seems only natural then, that Whedon would want to take a step back from the process.
The result? Much Ado About Nothing. In reality, it is the perfect choice for Whedon to adapt a stage-classic and shoot it in what appears to be the most comfortable surrounds a film has ever been made in (i.e his own home). Much Ado is still a few months away from it’s release, but there is already a hype surrounding it that has been bubbling away ever since it was first announced last year. This is purely because of the combination of a Shakespeare adaptation from one of Hollywood’s most popular yet sincere directors.
Part of the fun of this adaptation is how easy-going it is; this seems so anti-Hollywood despite being shot entirely in nearby Santa Monica. Filmed entirely in black and white, at Whedon’s own house, in the space of 11 days, with an entirely little-known cast (there are some recognisable faces, Clark Gregg and Fran Kranz for some but nothing page-stopping) who have all appeared in Whedon’s previous projects, TV or film. At times, this barely even feels like a film. Because of the relatively, self-imposed, low budget, this actually feels like a high-gloss TV adaptation in parts, something Whedon knows all too much about.
What stops this from becoming distracting is that, aside from being filmed in glorious film noir black-and-white and the picturesque surroundings of Santa Monica, the powerful performances these relative unknowns pack into such a rich and oft-quoted text is stunning. Though they say they’re in Shakespeare’s Messina this group of actors suit the text so well for a modern adaptation. One can still imagine these conversations from rich, beautiful, smug Hollywood-ites who all the cast will have experienced personally; these surely are our modern equivalents of the lords and ladies of Shakespeare’s day.
The effect this has is that, while it often makes for comfortable viewing, the film manages to create it’s own layer of self-awareness. Suddenly it stops feeling like we are really watching fiction; that these people really are in these romantic-comedic situations, because that’s what the apparent timelessness of Shakespeare’s work has. Because the film was filmed over such a short period of time and is only set over the course of a couple of days, there’s this overwhelming feeling of privacy (the entire production was kept a secret by the self-funding Whedon until it was completed) which feels almost documentarian than fiction. There’s a real intimacy and energy found between everyone on screen because it is seemingly shared by the actors who play them, and their director. As a result, this makes it an excellent adaptation of a really great play; because it feels like Whedon’s LA home is the stage of something we’re actually witnessing, almost erasing the filter of the camera all together.
But as I hinted at earlier, what really makes this version of Much Ado come alive is its cast. It seems somewhat strange at first hearing Shakespeare read effectively in a Californian accent; at first it also easy to miss character names given that they’re retained their original Italian monikers, but after everyone is introduced and the play really get’s moving from about 20 minutes in that one becomes swept up in the fast-moving narrative. It fairly amazing that the jokes, and there are a plentiful amount of them, can still hit despite being told in an archaic verse. This has a lot to do with the delivery, which coupled with the contemporary Californian backdrop, managed to make the jokes still sound fresh and relevant. If there is any criticism to be made here, it is perhaps that Whedon relies a little too much on physical, slapstick comedy in terms of some of the visual gags, but they are appropriate in tone and not overbearing; plus Shakespeare could be very broad in his humour when it pleased him.
The stand out here is the incredible Amy Acker as Beatrice. Acker is a long time collaborator with Whedon but otherwise seems to be a largely undervalued actress but that is more than likely to change here. It of course helps that the fiery Beatrice is such a well written character; a proto-feminist of sorts who is much smarter and more entertaining than her cousin Hero (a classic Shakespearian trope). Her delivery of some of Beatrice’s best lines and nuanced reactions to those around her completes this production. No one here is miscast or unable to deal with the sheer weight of the text (Whedon himself points to the fact that the majority have been performing and training in Shakespeare for years) though it can be a little odd at times hearing Shakespeare read from the Californian drawl.
I personally cannot comment of how good of an adaptation this is from the original; Much Ado is one of the bard’s works that has always completely passed me by, but the only thing that keeps the whole project in check is Shakespeare’s effective and still hilarious writing, and Whedon’s editing and direction. It’s a far more subtle and often much more enjoyable than say, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, but equally is a fitting adaptation for that moment in time. But its success is mostly from its simplicity. The spectre of Shakespeare’s play embraces this film by being as un-film-like as possible. Beautifully shot and acted, this is going to be one of the summer’s biggest hits.