By Laurie Coker
Updating Shakespeare – a challenge, a risk? Impressively, Avengers director Joss Whedon rises to both, with his black and white, modernized version of Much Ado About Nothing, one of my favorite of the Bard’s plays. In the first few minutes of the pre-SWSX screening, I had my doubts. I typically prefer pure Shakespeare – true to the time periods, settings, language and costumes, but Whedon, who adapted the play for screen, converted me within a few minutes, at least for this modernization.
As one of Shakespeare’s best love comedies, I am guessing more people know Much Ado About Nothing than other of his plays (Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet not included), especially in light of Kenneth Branagh’s all star, 1993 version, which I often use in my classroom. Now I have a new one to share with my students, and one I am sure will draw them closer to the man from Stratford and into the lives of its characters – especially Bernice and Benedict and Claudio and Hero, two couples who make their way through the obstacles of love – love that thrives and falters at the hands of others, for good and bad.
Whedon, who filmed the entire movie in his own home in just a few days, takes some real risks with his version. While he sets the play in modern dress with current costuming, he stays true to the language of Shakespeare and does it in black and white. In a SXSW interview, I asked him about this and he told me, it just seemed right and I have to admit, even though it felt weird to me at first, soon I fell, like the story itself, into the rhythm of it all. Certainly, Whedon must have loved this opportunity to do something on this seemingly smaller scale, a question I failed to ask him and wish I had.
A great deal, beyond Whedon’s natural talent, is owed to his cast, leads Alexis Denisof (Benedict) and Amy Aker (Beatrice), who I also had opportunity to speak to at the festival, along with Clark Gregg (Leonato, Hero’s father) and Nathan Fillion (one of my favorite actors ever!) Fillion plays Dogberry, one of Shakespeare’s better known fools, and even though his part was small at best, I sat moony-eyed across the table from him. Fillion often deferred to Gregg, who is a Whedon alum, as are Denisof and Aker. He did tell me the language gave him quite a challenge (of note – his character speaks mainly nonsense Shakespeare), while Gregg performed the Bard’s work while in college. It is obvious on screen and in interviews, that this cast has an excellent rapport, with each other and with their director and this does work to Whedon’s advantage. He often use the same actors in all of his films. They joked openly about him asking them to memorize countless line in an extremely short time.
With natural charm and whimsical, playful wit, Denisof and Aker play their parts wonderfully, making them the glue, but the others, as Shakespeare wrote them, bring dimension and the necessary seriousness to the affair (except that is for Fillion (Dogberry) and his comic counterparts. Furthermore, Whedon captures the satire apparent in Shakespeare’s play, a commentary on relationships. Claudio (played by Cabin in the Woods’ Fran Kranz) is a gullible sap of sorts, and Beatrice is a tough as nails feminist before her time. Leonato is every father and Benedict is all the men who both pull away from and secretly want love, and he is adorable. The whole thing pleases and I am tickled with the idea of sharing this fresh take on an old, old favorite.
I’d love to go on more and more, but it would serve no purpose. I loved it! I hope to write up more about my SXSW interview, but for now, I’ll place an A+ in my grade book and declare Much Ado About Nothing a clear SXSW Film Festival favorite! Meeting Nathan Fillion allowed me to check something off my “who I want to meet” bucket list. Bravo to Whedon, who gives us a showing I’d stand in the penny spots at the Globe for!