Shakespeare on DVD: At last, a go-to ‘Much Ado’
Joss Whedon’s film adaptation of ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ was well worth waiting for
Has it really been 20 years since the 1993 release of Kenneth Branagh’s fulsome, overpraised film adaptation of Much Ado about Nothing — Shakespeare’s 1599 play about things misread and misheard?
With its dangerous sexual corners, a villain that anticipates Edmund in Shakespeare’s 1606 King Lear, a pair of lovers in denial that delight in verbally abusing one another as a substitute for sex, and a virgin on her wedding day accused by her fiancé of being a “rotten orange,” Much Ado about Nothing came near the end of a prolific period in the Bard’s career, on the brink of his fervent middle period that includes such dark and sexual plays (all masterworks) as Twelfth Night, or What You Will, Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure and Othello.
Much Ado about Nothing was a delicious taste of things to come.
You don’t get any of this with Branagh’s disappointing 1993 adaptation, undermined by marquee-name miscasting that did more for the film’s box office than it did for the film itself, as well as Branagh’s own cloying misreading of the play as a “light” comedy (despite a scene in which Borachio and Conrade are clearly shown to have been tortured for information at the hands of Dogberry’s men). The film began on an extraordinary high note, with the poignant use of the song Sigh No More, Ladies, nicely grounding the Beatrice-Benedick relationship by suggesting an earlier failed romance, but aside from Emma Thompson’s wonderful Beatrice, what followed never really matched that engaging beginning.
Beatrice and Benedick, one of Shakespeare’s most loved couples, are far more sophisticated than their damaged predecessors, lovers Kate and Petruchio from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Branagh was not necessarily miscast as Benedick, but his too-large-for-film performance, in contrast to Thompson’s more subtle portrayal, made it seem so. The arbor scene in which Don Pedro, Claudio and Leonato trick the concealed Benedick into believing Beatrice loves him madly (they don’t know how close to the truth they really are!) was simply unfunny. Michael Keaton’s strange Dogberry (he rides an imaginary horse) was not Shakespeare’s “fellow that hath had losses.” And one of the play’s best lines, the treacherous Don John’s “Would the cook were a’ my mind” (i.e., he would poison the food to be served at that evening’s banquet) was cut.
Many of the characters constantly laughed throughout the film’s first 30 minutes or so — at least making it understandable why Don John despises them so. Who wouldn’t under these circumstances? The film was also over-scored, and some critics who reviewed the movie favorably made much of its Tuscany setting. Too bad the Tuscan sun wasn’t a blistering one, or that the Messina nights weren’t steamier.
With opportunities for a great film adaptation of Much Ado about Nothing squandered in 1993, we were left to wait another 20 years for a film adaptation of the play — which is not that unusual, as this is the world of Shakespeare on film. You get used to disappointment. Many continue to rave about rare exceptions like Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, but that was produced 45 years ago. There’s been little to rave about since when it comes to film versions of Shakespeare, although Baz Luhrmann in 1996 directed the very popular modern Romeo + Juliet, starring Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio, a year which saw another disappointing Shakespeare film adaptation released, Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night.
As we entered the second decade of the 21st century it was only a question of who would make the next attempt to successfully adapt a Shakespeare comedy for film. On the strength of his stage and film work, Sam Mendes seemed to be the best candidate, having directed for stage noteworthy productions of Othello, Troilus and Cressida, and in 2012, Richard III (starring Kevin Spacey as Richard) as part of the Bridge Project — a transatlantic collaboration between Spacey’s Old Vic, Mendes’s Neal Street Productions and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Also in 2012, Mendes directed the atmospheric James Bond film Skyfall, with a cast that had solid Shakespeare credentials, including Ralph Fiennes, Judi Dench, Helen McCrory and Rory Kinnear (who was an excellent Angelo to Anna Maxwell Martin’s Isabella in the 2010 Measure for Measure at the Almeida in London). The prior year, Mendes had staged for the Bridge Project a much darker than usual As You Like It.
So it must have come as a shock in insular Shakespearean circles that when a long-awaited film adaptation finally arrived, it came not from one steeped in Shakespeare (or for that matter Sondheim) like Mendes, but an American film director much better known as a comic book author and for his television work such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the 2012 summer blockbuster film The Avengers.
Shot at his Santa Monica home in just 12 days, Joss Whedon’s film adaptation of Much Ado about Nothing grew out of the series of Sunday afternoon Shakespeare readings he held at his home.
Much Ado is very much about innuendo, especially sexual, and Whedon’s choice to shoot the film in black and white (for economic reasons) gave the film a racy pre-Code Hollywood feel such as that found in the 1932 Ernst Lubitsch film Trouble in Paradise, also filled with sexual innuendo.
Whedon’s film boasts several fine performances, but the success of any Much Ado lies with its Beatrice and Benedick, and the director has cast exceptionally well here with Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof, respectively. Acker is the Beatrice whose heart “keeps on the windy side of care,” and her physical comedy makes the character utterly endearing. The entry into their private world was especially good, with their initial exchange revealing how they really feel about each other almost immediately:
Beatrice: I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick. Nobody marks you.
Benedick: What, my dear Lady Disdain! Are you yet living?
Fran Kranz’s Claudio and Jillian Morgese’s Hero made a sweet match — not the usual awkward couple upstaged by Beatrice and Benedick. We see Hero’s bedroom filled with stuffed animals, and that makes it a little more heart-breaking when she’s accused at the altar of being a slut.
Sean Maher’s Don John captured an innate sense of isolation and bitterness, perhaps from having a brother who always wins and gets the best of everything, but Reed Diamond as Don Pedro really didn’t give him much to work with — which is to say Diamond’s Prince of Arragon was the standard Don Pedro often seen in productions of Much Ado.
A rare departure from the way the character is usually played was seen in Peter Hall’s Theatre Royal Bath 2005 production, with Charles Edwards’s Don Pedro having an unacknowledged attraction to Claudio. In his July 8, 2005 review, London Guardian critic Michael Billington calls attention to the pleasure Don Pedro takes in helping to wreck Claudio and Hero’s wedding. At the play’s end Don Pedro is left a
lone, as his now married friends go off to new lives.
Nathan Fillion delivered the perfect Dogberry, chief of the politician Leonato’s security team, for the celebrity culture. He exudes an authoritative bearing — that is, until he opens his mouth, mangling word meanings and hilariously misusing legal terms, calling defendants “plaintiffs” (one gets the feeling he received his college degree in criminal justice from a diploma mill). When Dogberry rages over Conrade’s calling him an ass, it’s both sad and hysterical watching him struggle to put on his suit jacket, not realizing he’s putting on Verges’s jacket, which is much too small.
Whedon composed the music for Sigh No More, Ladies, but here it’s more a tongue-in-cheek riff on love than it is a commentary on Beatrice and Benedick’s relationship. To ground that, Whedon begins the film with a scene that’s not in Shakespeare’s play — the last minutes of an earlier sexual encounter between the pair. It’s a coupling that neither is really ready for, and we see Beatrice already raise her defenses. She may be in love with Benedick even then, but she’s determined to show him he’s just another lay.
The arbor scene with Benedick, Leonato, Hero’s father, Claudio and Don Pedro still lacks subtlety. Don John’s line “Would the cook were a’ my mind!” was again cut, but not the fun line he delivers as he chastises Hero at her wedding, “Thus, pretty lady, I am sorry for thy much misgovernment,” suggesting bad parenting.
The wedding sequence was “Philadelphia Story gone awry.” You could envision the fiasco quickly becoming a TMZ breaking story, and the anguish of Leonato and his daughter splashed on the pages of the New York Post and the Internet for the whole wide world to see.
There seemed to be little reason other than the opportunity for some boy-girl sex in making Conrade (Riki Lindhome, as one of Don John’s cohorts), a woman, and I would have liked to have felt more of an undercurrent of potential violence, but these are small sacrifices considering the many other good things Whedon’s film contains.
This is the go-to Much Ado about Nothing film adaptation. Three and a half stars out of four.
What: DVD: Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, film adaptation
Who: Directed by, and original score by, Joss Whedon
Released by: Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, $19.95
Cast: Amy Acker (Beatrice), Alexis Denisof (Benedick), Reed Diamond (Don Pedro), Nathan Fillion (Dogberry), Clark Gregg (Leonato), Fran Kranz (Claudio), Sean Maher (Don John), and Jillian Morgese (Hero)
Running time: 107 minutes
Rated: PG-13 Some sexuality and brief drug use
DVD special features: Much Ado about Making Nothing and Bus Ado about Nothing featurettes, and Sigh No More music video.