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



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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor