It must be a lovely thing to work with Joss Whedon. For one thing you get the privilege of knowing one of the finest wits in Hollywood, a perennial golden boy – or golden manchild, he’d probably prefer that – whose films and TV shows have earned him adoring fans in equal measure. For another, if you’re lucky enough to be one of his actors, you’re more than likely to have been invited to his home to partake in the reading of Shakespeare.
Whedon and his players seem, from countless interviews, commentaries and making-ofs, to enjoy a genuine bond. Professionals taking the time to know and enjoy each other outside of work. He’s spoken of these Shakespeare recitals many times before. That one of them should reach the screen as a fully realised adaptation should have seemed inevitable. Instead it’s somehow managed to arrive as the nicest of surprises. After Avengers Assemble one would have been forgiven for thinking that he’d never make a modest-sized feature again, that superheroes and super-explosions would keep him beavering away for the foreseeable future. But here’s Much Ado About Nothing, shot in 12 days with a cast stuffed with familiar faces.
Familiar faces, but not A-listers. Whedon has stayed true to his friends. As such Buffy, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse fans will relish in what seems like a classy little high-school reunion, albeit one served up in the rich language of the bard. Filmed in crisp black and white at the director’s own home, it’s like a peek behind the curtain. I must confess to being a fan of the man’s work – making this review somewhat impartial – and so Much Ado About Nothing feels like something of a treat. Hopefully not just a treat for us Whedonites, for this adaptation really is rather exquisite.
Whedon has proven himself distinctive in the past. The episodes of his shows that he himself directed were always bold, attention-grabbing highlights. Mini-masterpieces that suggested an artful feature filmmaker honing his skills. The smaller scale of Much Ado recalls these efforts, and whilst this could so easily have been just a one-off TV special, Whedon makes it feel effortlessly at home on the big screen. If anything he is less showy here than he has been in the past, allowing the wonderful words and the genuinely impressive performances to hold court. It’s this delicate touch that appears to have been so openly missed earlier this year in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. Whedon doesn’t need music video trickery to engage his audience; he knows we’ll always go for the heart.
And so back to those performances. Sparring deliciously early on, Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof shine as Beatrice and Benedict. Both give what ought to be star-making turns here, as Shakespeare’s tale of matchmaking trickery allows them both to flex their comedic and dramatic muscles. Acker in particular is fabulous, spitting out barbed put downs and witticisms as pithily as Denisof tears through soliloquies. Both are equally game to play the fool as Whedon accentuates the farcical side of the text. There’s some genuinely funny slapstick on the menu here and, joyously, everyone appears to be game.
That goes for the supporting players, where the really isn’t a bum note. Fran Kranz is wonderfully sincere as Claudio, Clark Gregg flits from clownish to thunderstruck effortlessly as Leonato, whilst Nathan Fillion reminds us (frequently) that he’s happy to make an ass of himself as Dogberry. Transmitted from the performances directly through the camera is a sense that everyone involved is really enjoying the work. That may make this sound like an indulgent puff piece – and yes there is a sense of that – but it’s also incredibly infectious. We in the audience are invited to join in as well. As a result Much Ado About Nothing is, simply, fun.
With no sci-fi McGuffins or super-powered heroes, this may seem like a departure for Whedon stylistically, but really it’s not. Strip away the monsters and the magic from his TV shows and you’re left with what generated so many devoted fans in the first place; wonderfully nuanced characters exchanging smart dialogue with serious emotional clout and comedic glee in equal measure. Shakespeare’s play offers Whedon exactly that, and so he’s on comfortable ground here. Whedon makes Shakespeare sound fresh and modern and appealing in ways that the likes of Ralph Fiennes and Kenneth Branaugh just don’t quite seem to grasp. All due respect to them, but Whedon’s approach to the material is the more engaging, and signposts a way forward for these excellent works to endure.
The story, if you don’t know it, is not one I feel that I want to dig into in this review. Those who are familiar with it will enjoy seeing a fine iteration of the text, whilst those coming to it fresh will hopefully become engrossed in the masterful weave that marks even the lighter of Shakespeare’s plays.
Really, adaptations like this just don’t come along often enough. Easily Whedon’s best feature film to date, and some of his best directorial work since either Firefly‘s “Objects In Space” or even Buffy‘s “The Body” (if you’ve ever written Buffy off as a show for kids, watch this and learn), Much Ado About Nothing may be filmed in monochrome but it feels like a Technicolor success story. Great as entertainment, perfect date-movie material and primed for mass consumption across the age strata, I strongly urge any and all to catch it whilst it’s playing in cinemas. Something I’d never have said for Coriolanus.
Am I being impartial? If it wasn’t Whedon would I have enjoyed it so, or even have sought it out in the first place? I can’t answer that, because it is Whedon, and it’s his sensibilities that help make this little gem what it is.
Take that, Ralph Fiennes.