Often described as the original romantic comedy, Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare's most beloved plays. Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) celebrates a victory over his wayward brother Don John (Sean Maher) by visiting his friend Leonato (Clark Gregg). He brings with him the self-proclaimed eternal bachelor Benedick (Alexis Denisof), who has a history with Leonato's niece, the quick-witted Beatrice (Amy Acker) and his friend Claudio (Fran Kranz) who soon falls in love with Leonato's daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese). A wedding is quickly arranged, but in the build-up to the big day, Don John conspires to tear apart the romantic relationship of Claudio and Hero whilst the rest of the company plot to unite the sparring Benedick and Beatrice, both using the cunning ruse of eavesdropping with a touch of voyeurism.
Much Ado About Nothing was shot by Joss Whedon over 12 days during a break from The Avengers, filmed in his own house with a cast handpicked from his assorted company of players. The results are nothing short of wonderful as the film is a witty, sexy and entertaining update of the Bard's romantic comedy. The use of predominantly one location works well within the context of the play and this is also helped in no small part by Whedon's house. The open plan architecture allows for plenty of eavesdropping opportunities whilst also building familial atmosphere as we look in on the lives of the central family and their friends.
The modern setting could have been incongruous with the classical text, but Whedon has put a lot of thought into making the combination work. The sheer amount of alcohol drunk by the characters over the course of the film makes the paranoia more plausible, the pratfalls more comical. The score composed by Whedon well befits the shifts in mood and his arrangements of songs from the original text sound and feel like modern pop songs, particularly the beautiful Sigh No More.
Shooting in black and white proves to be an inspired choice, giving the film a classical look that enhances the action, particularly the noirish elements of Don John's plot. There are a couple of moments that jar with the modern setting, particularly the emphasis on the female characters' virginity towards the end of the film. Especially as we've seen a glimpse of Beatrice's past that tells us something entirely different. However, this is a relatively small gripe and has very little impact on the quality of the film.
It is also one of the more accessible Shakespearian productions, aided by a cast who clearly understands what they're saying, a blessing in any adaptation of the Bard. If you're a fellow fan of the Whedonverse then one of the biggest delights is seeing the vast array of actors plucked from the director's various shows and it certainly adds to the family feel of the proceedings. There is an easy ensemble chemistry that ensures all are working well towards the vibrant atmosphere of the production; even Sean Maher as a deliciously evil Don John can't help but have a twinkle in his eye. There are a few performances that stand out, particularly Clark Gregg's Leonato; his scene with Morgese's Hero after the revelations is heartwrenching, particularly because of the comedic scenes leading up to it. Kranz' Claudio also manages to be one of the more sympathetic interpretations of the character and his double act with Diamond's Don Pedro has some great comic moments.
However, the stage will always belong to Beatrice and Benedick in this particular play. They exchange some of the best barbed conversations and have one of the most prickly yet adorable relationships in the Shakespeare oeuvre. Acker and Denisof rise wholly to the challenge, bringing their charm, comedy and dramatic ability to the fore to give us a Beatrice and Benedick for the ages. Denisof balances the buffoonery inherent in the character well with the maturity that emerges more in the latter stages of the film and his chemistry with Acker still crackles like it used to in Angel (yes Angel fans, seeing Wesley and Fred back together is every bit as good as it sounds).
Then there is Amy Acker at the centre of it all, bringing the audience a Beatrice that is at times spiteful, witty, venomous, charming, vulnerable and wicked all at once. The addition of the opening scene of a tryst between her and Benedick at some point in the past (hinted at but never confirmed in the text itself) gives Acker an excellent platform from which to launch her interpretation of Beatrice and grants an added layer to her relationship with Benedick. Her showstopping moment is naturally the 'If only I were a man' speech and Acker gives it her all, delivering with such passion that she completely steals the film. It's an impressive performance, one that I hope is recognised in amongst the usual Oscar bait fare.
One of the best Shakespeare adaptations of recent times, Much Ado About Nothing is a joy from start to finish, as capable of making you cry as it is of making you laugh. What elevates it above the rest is just how accessible it is from every conceivable angle; fans of the Whedonverse get to see the Whedon Company Players, Shakespeare fans can delight in the interpretation and those are neither can just enjoy the ride. Masterful.
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