A diary of cultural experiences and reviews, including plays, books, films and more
Saturday, 13 July 2013
Week Twelve, Much Ado About Nothing
13th July 2013 - Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing at E Street Cinema, DC
I was quite prepared to be a little sneery about Joss Whedon’s new film adaptation of this Shakespeare comedy. The early 1990s version, starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, is my favourite film version of any Shakespeare play. And hearing that it was filmed in a few days in between Whedon’s more important projects, using lesser known actors from some of Whedon’s earlier TV work, implied that this wasn’t really a serious effort. And some of the earlier reviews seemed to be more excited about seeing the inside of Whedon’s home (used as the location) than about seeing a new Shakespeare adaptation (Much Ado about Whedon’s House…) But all of that is unfair on what is really a wonderfully joyous film.
Returning to the play, Beatrice is probably Shakespeare’s best female character – loyal to her friends, witty and strong. She is stranded in a man’s world that she can’t really change, and given the choice between bitter despondency and surrender (or both), she finds a third way combining cool detachment and humour (‘I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow, than a man say he loves me’). And when only a man can accomplish what she needs most (revenge for the ill-treatment of her cousin), she skilfully uses Benedick’s attraction to her to achieve it. Initially she has similarities with the pre-tamed Katherina from The Taming of the Shrew. But where Katherina is ultimately ‘tamed,’ Beatrice is never less than Benedict’s equal (and she often comes off better in their duels). She isn’t Shakespeare’s only strong woman; Portia in The Merchant of Venice is also a powerful, witty character. But Portia marries an idiot, whereas Beatrice and Benedick are matched perfectly. So their ultimate union is therefore much more satisfying. Benedict’s and Beatrice’s will they/won’t they love story might seem a little stale now, purely because it has been the basis of so many modern rom-coms, but there is so much else happening, and the characters are so much more profound than we would see in the average rom-com, that this play still has the power to move us.
So this is great material and that 1990s film adaptation is my idea of Shakespeare film perfection (except for one small drawback, which I’ll come back to). A cast of great actors; Emma Thompson was at her most alluring, Branagh was showing an early glimmer of the less annoying actor he would eventually turn into full-time, and Denzel Washington, Richard Briers, Kate Beckinsale and Brian Blessed added colour and character. The Tuscan setting is also every middle-class English person’s idea of Eden (I’m not middle-class, but I can still dream). Even the inclusion of Keanu Reeves at his most moronic barely detracted from the sheer loveliness of this film.
So Joss Whedon’s version has a lot to live up to. And early reports – filmed at Whedon’s house in only a few days, the lesser known cast - indicated that it might be an amateurish effort. But if it is amateurish, it is amateurish in the best sense in which the term was originally meant. In the Victorian period, the amateurs were the ones who did it for love and passion, whereas ‘professional’ was often a derogatory term, indicating one who put grubby money ahead of art. England’s cricket team was led by amateurs from their first test in 1877 until they appointed their first professional captain in 1952. Of course, such noble ideals didn’t always work out in reality, and the professional/amateur divide, when it is remembered today, is more often recalled as a time when talented working class professionals were demeaned in order to feed the egos of mediocre, entitled aristocrats. But in its noblest sense, in theory as opposed to employment, the cult of the amateur lauded love over money, and joy over seriousness. Which is all a long (long) way of saying that Whedon’s Ado is amateurish in the finest way possible. The acting is excellent, the Shakespearean language is really brought alive, and every twist and turn of that beautiful language is amplified and underscored, without ever being over-acted or dumbed-down. Shakespearian comedy, which, for me at least, is rarely actually very funny, here had the audience laughing throughout.
The use of actors with minor roles in Buffy and Angel was never a drawback because they all played their parts here with panache and aplomb, and their inclusion gave the audience a little bonus whenever they recognised an old favourite (‘Ah, it’s Drusilla the vampire, but with blonde hair’). Alexis Denisof as Benedick is much better without the irritating English accent he adopted in Angel, and Amy Acker (Beatrice here, Fred from Angel) is a revelation – beautiful, fragile, waspish and funny - she really needs to get some much bigger roles after this. The police were a big improvement even on the 1993 film. In Branagh and Thompson’s version, Dogberry was played by Michael Keaton in a manner more annoying than funny. Here, the police were incredibly dumb but still somehow believable, and very funny too. Finally, Whedon’s house is less impressive on the outside than I expected, but it’s very tastefully decorated inside, and the California style gave it a contemporary ‘nearly Italian’ feel that went well with the play’s setting.
This is a feel-good film that shows that ‘upbeat’ and ‘shallow’ don’t have to go together. It is also a celebration of old-fashioned love that leads to marriage. I left the cinema with a spring in my step, and my one regret at the end was that Whedon ‘wastes’ so much of his time making gigantic blockbusters like the Avengers, instead of focusing on his real vocation of making low budget Shakespeare adaptations.