Revolving around two pairs of lovers, Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker take the leads as Benedick and Beatrice, ever at odds with each other in their sabre-rattling speech, with Fran Kranz and newcomer Jillian Morgese playing the sweet young couple-to-be, Claudio and Hero.
Updating the play to the modern day – with the Luhrmann touch of switching out swords for guns – the film takes place over approximately a week in the house of Leonato (Clark Gregg), whose daughter Hero is to be married to the young Claudio. And having heard him many times speak out against the institution of marriage, the good Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) and Claudio hatch a plan to bring Benedick and Beatrice together in the interim as well.
But as the wedding preparations are made, Don Pedro’s brother, Don John (Sean Maher), conspires to deceive him and Claudio into believing that young Hero is not the innocent girl she is, leading to a dramatic display of accusations on their wedding day.
The plot (which, of course, continues beyond this wedding scene) will be well-known to readers/viewers of the play. Yet Whedon breathes much new life into the words, and, as he said during the Q&A section of its world premiere on Saturday, he made the film in part because he wanted to understand the text in ways that previously hadn’t made sense to him.
If you’ve read the play, you’ll know there are aspects of Shakespeare’s original play that do not entirely make sense, and it is these which Whedon adds his own take to, or brings to the fore in a way that the play cannot. He adds in a small subplot of his own making, for instance. And the past love between Beatrice and Benedick intimated in the play is beautifully rendered in the film’s opening scene.
The original text is one of Shakespeare’s greatest and most well-known comedies, yet it is nonetheless a pleasant surprise to discover how funny Whedon’s adaptation of it is. (In reality, it should come as no surprise at all, for Whedon has always been excellent with comedy, and The Avengers proved once more this year how ingenious a wit he has.) He brings to life elements of comedy that have always amused on the page, and adds to them his own touches that match, and even at times outdo, the original work.
The brilliant duo of Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk as Dogberry and Verges, for instance, bring a terrific level of comedy to an already entertaining film, playing off each other perfectly to great comic effect, with Dogberry’s repeated assertion that he is an ass and his constant desire to be the bigger man working so well.
The film does not shy away from the darker tones of the play, however, and fully embraces the tip towards tragedy that the play almost takes. The dramatic wedding scene broken up by Claudio and Don Pedro’s accusations is incredibly powerful, and Kranz’s performance here is tremendously affecting. Morgese, too, proves herself to be a fantastic Hero in her debut role, crushed by her lover’s charges and her own father’s response to them.
Yet, as we know, it is indeed a comedy, and ultimately we know how comedies must end.
At the heart of the film, Denisof and Acker are simply brilliant, bringing both levity and gravitas to their roles in equal measure. Their requited love is heartfelt and inspiring, and there are few lovers such as Benedick and Beatrice with such influence across the centuries. (Romeo and Juliet are naturally another prime example from the same pen.)
The film will perhaps not be for everyone – it is shot in black and white, and it uses the original Shakespearean language. Yet whilst these aspects may (in my opinion, unreasonably) put some people off, they are a part of the beauty of the film itself. Things do look beautiful in black and white, and Shakespeare is best told in the language it was originally written in, with Whedon truly making us feel with the character the comedy and the tragedy throughout.
Of all writer-directors, few have such a stellar record as Whedon’s, who has never created anything less than genius. Whether he is creating from scratch, or adapting with his own vision, the result is always brilliant, and his latest effort is no exception.
He proves the truths we always know but do not always see evidence of: that talent is more important than money when it comes to making a film, and that Shakespeare is not a writer only for academics. His plays were well loved by people of all classes in his time, and that they have lasted is a testament to their timelessness and continued relevance to all.
Simply put, Much Ado About Nothing is a masterpiece. A heartfelt, beautiful, affecting masterpiece. Consistently hilarious, not a beat in its entirety goes amiss. Fans of his work will love seeing their favourite actors collaborating once more, and newcomers will love Whedon’s take on a classic play that has never been told quite like this. It is a remarkable adaptation of the highest calibre that Shakespeare himself would no doubt be proud of.