On first glance, there could be few dramatists further apart than the American television writer and producer Joseph Hill Whedon and the 17th century English playwright William Shakespeare, yet as with so much of the work of both, first impressions rarely carry the full truth; both deal with the complicated interplay of webs of characters, juggling multiple narratives, often against a framework of supernatural elements to highlight the obligations and choices they make (Buffy Summers had vampires, Hamlet had a ghostly father and Macbeth had witches), and both are regarded as the masters of their time at wordplay, the banter and insults their creations hurl at each other endlessly quoted.
Perhaps the surprise is more that Whedon, a writer who has developed his own shows and set himself up as both a producer and director to leverage his fierce protection of those shows, has chosen to adapt the work of another writer, and after the global $1billion gross of his preceding feature, The Avengers, to do it so counter intuitively, gathering a group of friends for a black and white shoot in his own home, with no special effects, no budget to speak of, and no expectation of the film other than the enjoyment of making it.
Of course, for Joss Whedon, gathering friends means getting Alexis Denisof (Wesley Wyndam-Pryce on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel and Senator Daniel Perrin on Dollhouse), Amy Acker (Fred Burkle/Illyria on Angel, Doctor Saunders/Whiskey on Dollhouse) to play your leads, with support from Frank Kranz (Topher Brink on Dollhouse and Marty in Cabin in the Woods), Reed Diamond (Laurence Dominic on Dollhouse), Sean Maher (Simon Tam on Firefly) and Clark Gregg (Agent Phil Coulson in The Avengers and Whedon’s upcoming S.H.I.E.L.D.) with comedy relief from Nathan Fillion (Malcolm Reynolds on Firefly and Captain Hammer in Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog) and Tom Lenk (Andrew Wells on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel), and the undeniable strength of Much Ado About Nothing is that not only is the ensemble supremely talented, but that they are likely having even more fun performing than the audience is watching them.
Returning from war, Don Pedro (Diamond) calls at the house of his friend Leonato (Gregg); in his company are his friends Benedick (Denisof) and Claudio (Kranz), and in his custody, for crimes unspecified, is his younger brother Don John (Maher). Leonato greets his friends old and new, but Claudio has eyes only for their host’s daughter Hero (newcomer Jillian Morgese), and Don Pedro immediately sets about obtaining her hand for his besotted friend. Benedick, however, is jaded to romance, with the presence of Hero’s cousin Beatrice (Acker) spurring him to great discourse on the folly of love, that position being the only thing he and Beatrice will ever agree on.
And so it is that Don Pedro, Claudio and Leonato, even as they plan the wedding, conspire that they will draw Benedick and Beatrice together, tricking each into believing the other loves them, but is too proud to reveal it. While that game is in jest, Don John engages in another conspiracy, to ruin the reputation of Hero and disrupt her wedding to Claudio.
Versatility is the key to an association with Whedon, and as Beatrice, Acker is astonishing, a role that could have been written for her ability to be alternately warm and gentle, loving and passionate, hurt and regretful, cold and vengeful, and always believable in every turn she takes. Denisof’s Benedick, far from being the hero of the piece, returns to the slapstick of his early Watcher days at Sunnydale, especially in a hilarious exposition scene where he eavesdrops from the garden, but Diamond’s Leonato matches him in his own way, showing an affinity for comedy rarely required from the head of security of the Los Angeles Dollhouse. Conversely, Sean Maher, the devoted elder brother escaped with the troubled River Tam on board Serenity here turns to devious sibling rivalry, no act to cruel to be concealed behind his angelic looks.
Though only a supporting double act, as befits the Shakespearean template, Constable Dogberry and his partner Verges are the least capable of Messina’s officers, bumbling with a dedicated incompetence that could only be rendered so delightful by the overblown pomposity of Nathan Fillion and the nervous eagerness to please of Tom Lenk.
With a soundtrack by Whedon himself, enhanced by songs performed by Maurissa Tancharoen (Kilo on Dollhouse) and produced by her husband Jed Whedon, most with lyrics taken from the original text, the film could not be more of a family affair if it tried, and Whedon’s beautiful mansion could not have been a better filming location had it been purpose designed, from the cul de sacs that allow characters to conceal themselves to the open plan design that allows action to be observed from on high, the wooden beams of the high ceilings casting ominous shadows in the black and white tones of the film, the gardens allowing parties and weddings and, possibly, duelling, should such be required.
The dress and setting may be modern, but it is a traditional reading of the script, no liberties taken other than the abbreviation required by adaptation and the modern delivery of the lines, meaning some of the plot does require some suspension of disbelief, such as Hero being wooed by proxy then consenting to be married to a stranger of her husband’s choosing a week later, but it is a story that has set the template for all romantic comedies that have followed it, and when the presentation is as enjoyable as this, it would be unseemly to quibble. After all, to take another phrase from the writer, all is well that ends well, and this most certainly does.
Much Ado About Nothing is released on June 14th
Joss Whedon discusses the film during his visit to the Glasgow Film Festival here
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