Film review: Much Ado about Nothing - The merry wiles of Joss Whedon prove promising

4.00

(12A)

I find the story behind this dress-down, no-budget Shakespeare adaptation incredibly heartening. In the summer of 2011, the writer-director Joss Whedon, having completed principal photography on Marvel's Avengers Assemble, was contractually obliged to take a week off before he began editing.

Instead of just kicking back, Whedon decided to gather a few friends – the same ones with whom he had organised readings of Shakespeare for years – to shoot a pared-down version of Much Ado about Nothing. In black-and-white. In his own house in Santa Monica.

Given that Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, could do pretty much as he pleases, this choice of "personal project" seems almost an act of humility. I wonder how many other nabobs of the Hollywood blockbuster would do the same. Can you see Michael Bay pausing between Transformers for The Winter's Tale anytime soon?

Thinking about Avengers now, the best parts of it were the verbal thrust and parry among superheroes forced to jostle for the limelight. (I recall Robert Downey Jr's Iron Man coming out on top.) The point is that Whedon's ear for jokes and droll byplay hasn't been deafened by the need to thrill a multiplex crowd with explosions every 15 minutes.

The cast he has assembled for this Much Ado has two distinct advantages. For a start, they are more or less unknown, unless you watch Whedon's latest TV outings (I don't). Clark Gregg will be recognised from Avengers, but few others. Second, and more importantly, they speak the verse as if Elizabethan English were native to them; when you can secure that, misgivings about costume and anachronism (mobiles, security cameras) come to seem irrelevant.

Indeed, Jay Hunter's shimmering black-and-white photography even makes the modern garb of business suits and summer dresses look natural. Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) and Leonato (Clark Gregg) are a pair of politicians with their own retinue and limos, but they could as well be tycoons or Hollywood players gathering for a weekend house party.

The centre of the story involves a pair of matching romances, the senior one a spiky reunion between Leonato's colleague Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and his old flame Beatrice (Amy Acker), their acerbic putdowns and quips the surest evidence that they're still hot for one another. The junior one is a coup de foudre that clinches Don Pedro's young friend Claudio (Fran Kranz, scene-stealer of Whedon's meta-horror The Cabin in the Woods) with Leonato's daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese). Their lightning attraction causes brooding rival Don John (Sean Maher) to plot mischief against them by sullying Hero's virginal reputation.

That malignant scheme hovers like a black crow over the play's sunny uplands – you can hardly believe what it's doing there. Was the playwright perhaps testing out the deadlier subterfuges he would dramatise in his later Othello? If so, he misjudged the tone. Much Ado should only be about romantic hoodwinking and gamesmanship, not dastardly plots to defile a lady's name. Even less apt is the savagery of the proposed revenge.

When Beatrice demands Claudio's death – death! – for his failure of loyalty to Hero, you feel the play's airy comedy drastically lose altitude. It's an old complaint. How could a writer of Shakespeare's godlike wit and facility with language be so inept with plot? Even the contrivances surrounding the deception of Beatrice and Benedick are mismanaged; the slapstick of playing a secret eavesdropper is laboured beyond endurance. Here it's almost at the level of panto. We know the course of true love never did run smooth, but did it have to be quite so ridiculous?

And yet, and yet... Much of Whedon's interpretation is enjoyable, especially the comic sparring between the lovers. As Beatrice, Amy Acker is a revelation, flashing-eyed, quick-witted, pretty adorable; one never doubts she was "born in a merry hour", even in her darker moments of grievance. I don't think I've seen anyone play the part better.

Denisof as Benedick is overshadowed, but gamely self-mocking, and his peacock streak is nicely expressed in a sequence of squat-thrusts and push-ups he does for Beatrice's approval. Even the roistering scenes, always a problem in Shakespeare, are well done, as Benedick play-wrestles with Claudio in a child's bedroom festooned with cuddly toys. The comic highlight, though, is Nathan Fillion's wonderful, deadpan performance as Dogberry, caressing the lines instead of blurting them, and showing how there's no fool quite like a solemn fool. Everything the clueless constable does is funny, and that includes the throwaway gag of locking his keys in the car.

Whedon's freewheeling take on the play may offend scholars and traditionalists. It doesn't have the starry polish of Kenneth Branagh's Tuscany-set Much Ado of 20 years ago, but polish isn't what you strive for inside a 12-day shoot – maybe the aim is fun and spontaneity, which this has in spades. I find it so admirable in Whedon that he decided on Shakespeare as his palate-cleanser between blockbuster duties, and I hope it will give other film- makers a shove in the same direction.

There is no reason why people who flock to Avengers and The Cabin in the Woods shouldn't be just as entertained by a story full of jokes and romance and sly banter, even one that first played to audiences more than 400 years ago.

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Film
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence