This year has been for me, in a sense, the year of Much Ado About Nothing. Back in November, I began helping a couple of colleagues to direct our students in a performance of the play. We spent November and December closely reading the text, then we spent January and February intensively preparing for the stage. We also paid careful attention to both Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film adaptation and the 2011 West End production starring David Tennant as Benedick and Catherine Tate as Beatrice. And although we pulled the trigger too soon to catch Joss Whedon’s more recent take on Shakespeare’s material, I saw his Much Ado when it hit cinemas this summer and I’m convinced that it is the best of all those I have seen. It could have just as easily gone the other way. Whedon shot the film in only twelve days, while in the middle of post-production on The Avengers, using his own house as the set and restricting himself to a grainy monochrome palette. It could have been a sloppy, rushed, underdeveloped mess. But it isn’t. Why not?
Part of the film’s success resides in the minor changes Whedon makes to Shakespeare’s original text and in the talents of some first-rate cast members who do full justice to those parts of the play that Whedon doesn’t tinker with. Most notably, I think, Whedon’s decision to transform the ancillary character of Conrade from a female role into a male role works wonders not only for that character but also for the more crucial character of Don John. Whereas Shakespeare’s pages render Don John a “plain-dealing” villain who turns out to be so pathetic and paper-thin that he barely warrants the stage time allotted to him, Whedon’s film shows he and Conrade involved in a sexual relationship which subtly reconstrues his motivation for manipulating the other characters and kickstarting the plot. Now, rather than having no stronger basis for his villainy than bitterness over the bastardy that keeps him in his brother’s shadow, his cruel machinations appear to be more the result of a purely opportunistic and misguided attempt to live up to his lover’s perceptions of his masculinity. Whedon also does a skilful job of eliding the character of Balthasar and reworking Balthasar’s into pop songs that better suit the film’s contemporary setting, and his decision to allow Nathan Fillion free reign as the bumbling Dogberry has produced not only the best available performance of that character but, perhaps, the best conceivable performance as well. I don’t see what any other actor can do with Dogberry from here on out except imitate Fillion’s line delivery and physical buffoonery as accurately as possible. Only the excision of the character of Antonio seems to me to be a misstep on Whedon’s part, particularly since Antonio’s absence prohibits the staging of one of Shakespeare’s best and most dynamic scenes, equal parts hilarious and devastating, when Antonio and the aggrieved Leonato confront and threaten Don Pedro and Claudio over their accusations against Leonato’s daughter, Hero.
Most of the film’s success, however, seems to me to reside in something less immediately identifiable, something that sets Whedon apart from the other film directors who have been drawn to Shakespeare since the 1990s. The films of Kenneth Branagh present lavish stagings of Shakespeare’s plays with the ultimate aim of clearly conveying the dramas that Shakespeare orchestrates by way of enunciating and thus foregrounding his language, which basically involves Branagh pointing a camera at a group of accomplished actors and simply letting them do their work. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet takes the opposite approach, forcing flashy camera movements and ritzy editing to convey the drama while the actors enunciate monologues and soliloquies but employ more physical techniques for communicating the content of minor dialogue, and the films of Julie Taymor offer some compromise between, or combination of, Branagh’s and Luhrmann’s approaches to Shakespeare. In each case, though, the result is an admixture of three languages: the language of Shakespeare, comprising the dialogue; the language of the staging, comprising setting and set design, props, and costuming; and the language of cinema, comprising camera movements, editing, and soundtrack scoring. In each case, too, the language of Shakespeare is the dominant element whose occasional weaknesses or infelicities, as the directors perceive them, determine when and how much compensation should be made using the languages of staging and cinema. Whedon, however, does not let the language of Shakespeare dominate Much Ado About Nothing. His film allows the language of staging to dominate while the language of cinema that supplements the staging and the language of Shakespeare follows on from, and is at the mercy of, the other two.
In practice, this means two things. First, it means that Whedon uses the distinct capabilities of cinema as an artform to avoid simply producing a stage version of Much Ado that happens to have been performed in front of a camera. Utterly unlike Kenneth Branagh, for instance, he rarely allows a character to deliver more than a few lines of dialogue — even during monologues and soliloquies — before cutting to reaction shots of other characters and, almost as frequently, intercutting a dialogue delivery with action from another scene that takes place elsewhere and at a different time but nevertheless speaks to the content of the dialogue. Second, it means that, when Whedon sets his Much Ado in a villa in contemporary Los Angeles, he has his actors deliver their Shakespearean lines almost the way they would deliver them if they were performing a role in that setting without any Shakespearean language at all. There is very little showiness and glamour to the delivery of dialogue, and sometimes even a deliberate rebuke to the way we might expect dialogue to be delivered. Eloquent lines are mumbled, pithy lines are drawn out, witty lines are dampened and drained of their buoyancy, and there is often a tinge of emotional equivocation to lines that seem to be, on the page, either outrageously joyful or desperately cruel. These things are particularly true of all the lines delivered by Fran Kranz as the besotted Claudio when in conversation with Jillian Morgese as his lover, Hero, to such an extent that those two actors, solely by way of body language and tone of voice, reconstitute the meaning of words that literally refer to virginity and maidenhood and force upon them new meanings relating more broadly to infidelity, promiscuity, and betrayal. And these things are likewise true of the lines delivered by Alexis Denisof as Benedick and Amy Acker as Beatrice, between whom there seems to be not so much a “merry war,” a bantering battle of witty words, but a real and deep bitterness over the failure of a bygone romance — so much so that the sparring exchanges which advance a largely intellectual one-upmanship in Shakespeare’s text now obtain an element of malice intended to open emotional wounds. The result, on the whole, is a decidedly different but impressive take on Much Ado About Nothing. By bringing Shakespeare’s characters into a setting that suppresses and attenuates the crackling repartee of their words as written, Whedon harnesses the energy that those words only sporadically release on Shakespeare’s pages and transforms it into an edgy, bristling, abiding susurration that undergirds every frame of his film.