Director/writer/producer Joss Whedon has become known and beloved through a number of action-packed movies and television series, including the Avengers movies, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly. But in his 2012 adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, Whedon applies his unique vision and a more subtle approach to one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies (sans superheroes and vampires).
In Whedon’s Much Ado, we step into a sleek—and somewhat surreal—modern noir fantasyland, where everyone is dressed in 1930s-inspired fashion and shot in beautiful black and white. Don Pedro, Prince of Arragon (Reed Diamond) has not only forgiven his evil brother Don John (Sean Maher)—who recently led an unsuccessful rebellion against him—but is gracious enough to include him in his entourage as he goes to visit Leonato (Clark Gregg), governor of Messina. The Prince’s train also includes two young noblemen, Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Claudio (Fran Kranz), who have distinguished themselves in the wars. They all have a history with Leonato’s family, and Claudio quickly realizes that he is deeply in love with Leonato’s only daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese). Meanwhile, Benedick quickly resumes the perpetual verbal sparring match between himself and Hero’s cousin Beatrice (Amy Acker). Once the date is set for the marriage between Hero and Claudio, the Prince hatches a conspiracy with Leonato and Claudio to make Benedick and Beatrice fall in love with each other. But they are not the only ones who are scheming: when Don John hears of Claudio’s upcoming nuptials, he begins plotting ways to destroy Claudio’s happiness. In additional to being an evil and spiteful person, John wants revenge against Claudio for the glory he gained for his part in John’s downfall. John’s first plan falls fairly flat, and leads only to Claudio being mightily angry for a few hours (if that); but when he enlists the help of his lackeys Conrade (Riki Lindhome) and Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark), his second conspiracy is far more devastating. The trio manages to deceive the Prince and Claudio, leading them to accuse Hero of unforgivable scandal. As a consequence, Hero and her family agree to pretend that she is dead until the truth is revealed.
Whedon creates additional romantic tangles and much more ado in what is already a comedy of errors. First, one of Don John’s henchmen, Conrade, is changed from the original male sidekick to a female lover. Second, John’s other lackey, Borachio, appears to have loved Hero from afar for some time; his part in John’s deception of Claudio & the Prince is therefore driven not by loyalty to John, but by jealousy. Both of these details create motivation for the pair of them turning on John and confessing to the conspiracy against Claudio and Hero’s marriage. Conrade is furious to hear that John has fled the city, leaving her behind. To quote from another of Shakespeare’s plays, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Borachio, on the other hand, is devasted to learn that his actions have led to Hero’s (alleged) death. As for John, it would seem that when Shakespeare was reading Proverbs 6:16-19 when he created that character: “There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to Him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.”
Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker do very well in the roles of Benedick and Beatrice, and play well off of one another. Admittedly, I have a difficult time not comparing their performances to those of Kenneth Branaugh and Emma Thompson in Branaugh’s 1993 film adaptation (more on that next week). As the two lead characters, these two have the most dramatic character arcs—though the arc is more of a hairpin turn. But while they are ready enough to profess their love for each other, they are reluctant to make any sort of public declaration. In the end, it is Hero and Claudio who bring them together—by exposing love poems that Benedick and Beatrice have secretly composed for each other (I would say “spoiler alert,” but the play was originally published in 1599). Clark Gregg’s (Iron Man, Avengers, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) portrayal of Leonato stands out as endearing, adorable, and hilarious. And Nathan Fillion’s assumed dignity and gravitas as Dogberry is a comedic contrast to Dogberry’s gross misunderstanding of English vocabulary (for instance, he uses the word “comprehend” instead of “apprehend,” among numerous other verbal gaffs). As the Prince points out, “This constable is too cunning to be understood.”
One of the many wonderful things about Shakespeare’s plays is that Shakespeare wrote virtually no stage directions aside from entrance and exit cues, which allows directors and actors alike a great deal of freedom to add their own story and character elements through nonverbal means. At first, Whedon’s highly subtle approach to Much Ado seems incongruous to the story, and is actually a bit difficult to adjust to for someone who has seen numerous other—more traditional—productions, but the subtlety serves the story well as Whedon layers in additional complexities. A couple of my favorite comedic moments are created through the clever use of setting: 1) The scene in which Claudio tells Benedick that he wants to renounce his previously-sworn bachelorhood in order to marry Hero takes place in a room which clearly used to belong to two little girls. Thus, Benedick staunchly defends the state of bachelorhood surrounded by stuffed animals, butterflies, and Barbie dolls. 2) After Benedick overhears that Beatrice is (allegedly) in love with him, he leaves his highly ineffective “hiding spot” outside the window and runs out into the grounds, where preparations for the upcoming wedding (between Hero & Claudio) are being made. And so it is that Benedick moves directly from confirmed bachelorhood to the altar in a few quick steps.
While it took multiple viewings for me to adjust to Whedon’s subtle take on Much Ado, the enriched intricacies of story and character make this adaptation highly enjoyable and refreshing. The excellent ensemble cast includes many familiar faces from Whedon’s canon, including actors from Buffy, Firefly, Avengers, Cabin in the Woods, and Angel. The setting and costumes work together beautifully in this noir world of black and white. Most importantly, there is plenty of great comedy–both written and unwritten, subtle and slapstick. I definitely recommend this highly original take on Shakespeare’s work to anyone, Shakespeare enthusiast or not. The entire play may arguably be summed up in Proverbs 10:12: “Hatred stirs up dissension, but love covers all wrongs.”