It’s been two years since Joss Whedon finished filming his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. It has thus been two years since I began looking forward to seeing it.
The play itself is a bit of a mess — more a play of subplots than a single actual story. A prince, Don Pedro, has lead a successful battle and has returned to stay with Leonato, the Governor of Messina. Don Pedro arrives with his entourage, which includes Claudio, Benedick, and his bastard half-brother, Don John. Leonato has a daughter, Hero, and a niece, Beatrice.
The famous bit from the play is the prank everybody plays on Benedick and Beatrice. Benedick is an arsehat philanderer who is very witty, very clever, but is scornful of marriage. Beatrice, on the other hand, is clever, intelligent, witty, and insightful — thus her friends and family are determined to find her a suitable husband. Thus — teehee! — these friends allow Benedick to overhear them (falsely) claim that Beatrice is madly in love with him but will never admit it. Meanwhile — oh ho! — these friends also allow Beatrice to overhear them (falsely) claim that Benedick is madly in love with her but will never admit it. Teehee and oh ho!
The less famous, but more substantive part of the story, regards Claudio falling in love with Leonarto’s daughter, Hero, even though he hasn’t said two words to her. The Prince decides to host a masquerade party in order to chat up Hero on Claudio’s behalf, and then square everything up with Leonarto. Don John catches wind of the scheme and — being an A-grade jerkhole — conspires to turn Claudio against the Prince. He tells Claudio that the Prince intends to keep Hero for himself. Oh, that wacky Don John! What a bastard! So Claudio sulks in his adolescent way before the Prince lets him know that Hero loves him in return and that Leonarto has agreed to let them marry.
Don John lost the battle but doesn’t intend to lose the war. He tells Claudio and the Prince that Hero is actually a strumpet and invites them to spy upon her that night. Don John gets one of his friends to seduce some maid dressed as Hero for Claudio and the Prince to observe. With that irrefutable evidence given to Claudio, he resolves to inform everybody that Hero is a harlot during their wedding ceremony.
Of course, Hero is innocent and is shocked at the allegations. So her family pretends that she died from shock until the truth of the matter is revealed. Claudio begs Leonarto’s forgiveness, who gives it on the condition that Claudio marry Hero’s cousin who totally looks just like Hero. Claudio agrees, finds out that she does indeed look just like Hero so is quite happy to continue with the marriage. All’s well that ends well.
And while all that’s going on, Beatrice has asked Benedick to prove his love for her by killing Claudio. It’s all so dramatic.
The source material is difficult and problematic. This shouldn’t shock us; Shakespeare was writing prior to modern concepts about equality, &c., &c., But it’s hard to reconcile the strong character of Beatrice (‘I’m intelligent and am happy to keep shallow men at bay’) with the attitude that everybody displays towards Hero (‘Of course I’m happy to marry off my daughter to a guy who has never spoken to her!’). There are also some rather interesting pieces of dialogue. Here’s Benedick upon overhearing that Beatrice loves her:
If I do not take pity of her, I am a villain.
If I do not love her, I am a Jew. I will go get her picture.
‘Jew’ here means ‘cold’ or ‘stingy’. It’s not a solitary figure. Here’s Claudio agreeing to marry Hero’s cousin:
I’ll hold my mind, were she an Ethiope.
So what do you do? Twenty years ago, Kenneth Branagh directed and starred (as Benedick) a version which created a stage Renaissance Italy for the events. You could forgive the backwards approach to gender because these were clearly people from an older age. Sort of the same way we tend to forgive grandparents when they say something broadly racist. Oh, look at these quaint people from an earlier age. They’re so backwards.
What was interesting about Branagh’s take was that he had Denzel Washington play the Prince (and he did an excellent job of it). In creating his theatrical faux-Renaissance Italy, he created a world where an African American could become a Prince, but women were still second class.
Joss Whedon’s film does something very different: he uses the same script but uses a modern setting. Thus we get very strange sequences where Leonarto happily agrees to an arranged marriage of his daughter shortly before listening to some music on his iPod. Seconds after we see a man become ecstatic at the thought of marrying a woman who looks just like a version of his dead fiancee, a messenger brings footage on his smart phone of Don John being arrested.
It’s all very weird. We have pre-modern sensibilities set in a modern context, and the two never gel completely well. With Beatrice being so eloquent, so intelligent, and so modern, it feels out of character that she’d sit by when Claudio openly slut shames her cousin in front of an assembled crowd. Leonarto — owner of an iPod — declares that ‘death is the fairest cover for her shame that may be wish’d for.’
Because a dead daughter is better than a slut for a daughter.
More than that, if the allegations are true, he’ll kill her himself: ‘If they speak but truth of her, these hands shall tear her’.
All of these bits remain in the play and they are confusing. How could a man who owns that much kitchenware really think that a promiscuous daughter is better than a dead daughter? And we’ve already seen that Beatrice has had a steamy prior love with Benedick… yet a lack of chastity makes Hero dead to him.
The incongruity of the action and the setting means the film is never entirely satisfying. This is a shame because some of the performances are excellent. The fact that Amy Acker won’t even be nominated for her performance in this film is an indictment on the awards industry. One of the difficulties of Shakespeare is making the dialogue intelligible to a modern audience. Every piece of her dialogue, from the invective to the intimate, is perfectly delivered and leaves the audience with no doubt of the meaning. Alex Denisof as Benedick is slightly less excellent. Every so often, he slides into some kind of caricature and it makes it difficult to believe that Amy Acker’s Beatrice would be interested in him.
Reed Diamond’s take on the Prince is endearing. At first, he seemed a bit wooden but he develops the character well throughout the film, making him feel like an old friend rather than an authority figure. Clark Gregg’s Leonarto, on the other hand, does the opposite. Where he begins the film with unintelligible mumbling, he descends quickly into being a rather unlikable character. When Leonarto strikes up the deal with Claudio to marry his niece (who’s actually Hero), you can’t help but feel this is precisely the sort of scumbag that Leonarto is.
In the Branagh version, Keanu Reeves played Don John. Sean Maher has continued with the tradition of portraying the character an emotionless plank of wood.
Fran Kranz is similarly terrible as Claudio. Kranz’ Claudio is an imbecile and you’d have no qualms believing that his legs grow together. It is increasingly difficult for the audience to believe that Don John isn’t morally perfect for pulling his prank on this emotionally disturbed nitwit. He mopes like an adolescent and goes into rages. He’s clearly spoiled and has a face that you just want to punch. If there were any justice in this play, he would throw his tantrum at the wedding, Beatrice would spit some witty pejoratives, and then Leonarto would ask him to leave and not return. Because Gregg’s Leonarto is too busy remembering not to choke on his own tongue, we end up with the second half of the film where it all turns up roses for Claudio.
The comedic relief from the guards was a serious disappointment. The watch was played by Nick Kocher and Brian McElhaney of the BriTANick YouTube channel. Their more famous sketches involve Shakespeare and, when they appeared in the film, my expectations rose. Here’s one of the sketches:
It’s kind of fun, yeah? None of that fun appears in this film. Where Sean Maher was actively bad, Kocher and McElhaney were just blandly mediocre.
But perhaps blandly mediocre is excusable given that they were acting opposite Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk as Dogberry and Verges. Both were dreadful. Dogberry is one of the best characters in the play — an overzealously incompetent constable. Here’s Michael Keaton’s take:
It’s wonderfully nuts. Fillion, on the other hand, wants to give Dogberry a certain pomposity but makes him bumblingly stupid. The result is an idiot Dogberry who has the affectations of not being an idiot. It’s rather confusing.
Although individual parts of the film don’t work, the overall film is enjoyable and highly recommended. Although it might seem like faint praise, it is much more enjoyable than Branagh’s version — and that version had Richard Briers, Emma Thompson, and Brian Blessed in it.
Ultimately, the biggest problem with the film is that Whedon felt comfortable changing the setting but didn’t feel comfortable grappling with the issues of the play. Whedon was all but given licence by his horde of rabid fans to go completely nuts with the play. He feels comfortable gender bending Conrade, but doesn’t feel comfortable tinkering with other characters. Hell, I’d have loved to see this play with Acker playing the role of Benedick and Denisof playing the role of Beatrice. If you’d exchanged Leonarto’s wedding lines with the Friar’s, you’d end up with a father who’s both loyal to his daughter and admirably Machiavellian. And so on and so forth.
There are ways to make Shakespeare feel modern without riding the Baz Luhrmann insanity train. Sir Ian McKellen’s Richard III is a masterpiece because McKellen loves the source material and feels comfortable discovering it for the audience. Thus, we have one of Shakespeare’s histories set in an alternate universe Britain where fascism prevailed.
It feels weird accusing Whedon of being timid, and yet here we are. Although the film is good, it could easily have been great.