Hilary and Anna Shakespeare’s first film, coming of age comedy Soundtrack to Sixteen, struck a chord with me. Of course it did; it was set right around the time I was a teenager, with characters who felt very much like myself and my friends at the time. Unfortunately, the cinema release coincided with the start of the first COVID lockdowns, and it still hasn’t been as widely seen as it should be. Two years later, the Shakespeare Sisters have returned to coming of age rom-com, this time with a modern set adaptation of a play by an illustrious namesake.
The story of Much Ado About Nothing usually sees soldiers returning from war. Here we have a group of Uni lads coming back from their rugby tour, staying at the country house of Leonato (Peter Saracen) when their bus breaks down. From there it’s the old tale of romantic rivalries, with Beatrice and Benedick (Emma Beth Jones and Johnny Lucas) trading barbs, while trying to make a match between Beatrice’s cousin Hero (Jody Larcombe) and team captain Claudio (Luke Hunter), only for their efforts to be undermined by John (Jack Boal).
On the one hand, Much Ado is the perfect Shakespeare to adapt to modern times. In many ways, the basic structure is that of every romantic comedy that has come since. In this respect, this version works brilliantly. The dialogue always takes a little getting used to, but the Shakespeares pull their audience in by having it spoken very casually. The tone not only forces you to engage with the dialogue, rather than listen to it being spoken at you, but it benefits the repartee between Beatrice and Benedick in particular. When Beatrice says to Benedick “I know you of old”, that casual style speaks to the history between them, and their comfort with the verbal sparring that has become their relationship. Their dialogue is easily the play’s funniest, with jokes that need little translation even more than 400 years later, and Emma Beth Jones in particular hits both the conversational delivery and the emotion, while landing the laughs, unfortunately Johnny Lucas can’t quite match her, coming off a little halting to make the best of Benedick’s side of the repartee.
Usually depicted some years older than Hero and Claudio (Branagh and Thompson were 33 and 34, Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof 35 and 45), Beatrice and Benedick are roughly in their mid 20s here, which brings them much closer to the younger couple and draws the parallels closer as the two pairs of lovers try to end up together. Another interesting choice is the addition of a dialogue free flashback, set to Imogen Heap’s Hide and Seek, which shows us Beatrice and Benedick in school, again emphasising both their history and the parallels with Hero and Claudio. The story of the younger lovers is the aspect that best lines up with the sisters previous film. Everything has a distinct teen movie flavour, especially the masked party where Pedro (James McClelland) initially tries to woo Hero on Claudio’s behalf, which is something that hasn’t been drawn out by the other major film adaptations.
Directorially, the film looks good, with DP Tom van den Broek lending the film a summery visual warmth. There are also clever pieces of staging that accentuate the comedy. Beatrice, hiding in the swimming pool, to avoid being seen as Hero and Ursula (Tani Toluwa) talk about how Benedick is in love with her, or the Friar’s nonsensical flow chart, describing the plan to rescue Hero and Claudio’s marriage. The choice of when to set the “Bid me do anything of thee” conversation, perhaps one of the more difficult things to fit to the new milieu, is also clever, and you believe that Benedick would be more malleable in that moment.
As well as much of the material fits into a modern context, there are issues with the play that no modern adaptation can entirely get around, and Much Ado falls victim to several of them. The speed of Hero and Claudio’s marriage just doesn’t work in a modern context, and while the screenplay does try to make him more consistent via a few minor dialogue changes, Leonato’s screed to Hero at the wedding, while well acted, still comes out of nowhere for an otherwise rather avuncular character. None of this is entirely specific to this adaptation, but making it otherwise so grounded does sometimes accentuate the logical leaps that have to be allowed to fit the story into its setting. Most of the characters fit easily enough into the action, but the characters of the watch are an exception, their roles within this setting aren’t well defined, and their actions feel unmotivated.
Much Ado, unavoidably, fails to hit as personally and resonate as much as Soundtrack to Sixteen did with me, but there’s still much to enjoy and to recommend here. The directorial choices give the dialogue a new, distinctly modern, and very teenage feeling. The performances, largely from actors early in their feature career, are generally strong. Emma Beth Jones is the standout, but Harish Goutam makes a very funny debut as the Friar while, Jack Boal has fun oozing out John’s plot against Hero and Claudio. With growing budgets and a higher profile, I expect to see Hillary and Anna Shakespeare go on to bigger things, but this is an entertaining adaptation of a play they clearly hold dear, and have been able to bring a distinct and engaging take on.