So maybe time is a circle. On April 28th, 2009, I posted my second review here, for Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing. Now, on May 28, 2014, I'm reviewing Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing. While the symmetry sure is nice, this new version is no remake of the prior film - it's a complete re-staging of Shakespeare's comedic play.
The story is simple: adoration, rejection, manipulation, deception, misunderstandings, and self-delusion - in short, romance. The underlying plots are more complicated: Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, takes his men to rest in Messina after a military campaign. They stay at the home of Don Leonato, Pedro's old friend and the governor of this town. While there, Count Claudio pursues his love for Hero, Leonato's daughter. But Don John, the Prince's brother, plans to undermine both the much-loved Claudio as well as Pedro himself. Throughout, people in both groups try to make the fiercely-bickering Benedick and Beatrice fall in love.
Joss doesn't acknowledge his moving the story out of Messina, Italy and to Santa Monica, California. Nor is the play itself changed much (some roles were cut), even though this is so different from the earlier effort: the black and white cinematography gives the film a very old tone, despite this movie being set in modern times. What's really surprising, then, is how well the 2013 pic measures up to Branagh's 1993 work. In time, I may like it even better.
Kenneth Branagh assembled a cast of heavy-hitters for the movie he released 21 years ago: in addition to himself and his then-wife, Emma Thompson, he gathered longtime Shakespearean pros Richard Briers and Brian Blessed, Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, Keanu Reeves, and Imelda Staunton, as well as Robert Sean Leonard and Kate Beckinsale. That cast could do any production beautifully, and they really nailed MAaN.
By contrast, the 2013 pic is packed with actors that fans will recognize from Mr. Whedon's prior film and TV works: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond, Fran Kranz, Sean Maher, Nathan Fillion, Jillian Morgese, Riki Lindhome, and Ashley Johnson. None of these thespians are as established as Branagh's cast was - but they handle the material with an ease and grace that puts any actorly comparison to rest.
If anything, the story is easier to follow because of the updated setting and the cast. In some ways, Branagh's team is so familiar with the dialogue that it slightly backfires. While they made their expressions naturalistic and credible, that could make viewers focus on a scene's general tone and less on the meaning of every word spoken in it. This even happened to me, and I have a love of language as well as some knowledge of Shakespeare's work. It's (partly) why multiple viewings of KB's film were such a joy.
For all that Much Ado '93 was a treat, I found Much Ado '13 to be more understandable in its finer details - an unexpected change that I found quite rewarding. I can't pinpoint why, exactly, yet Gregg, Johnson, Morgese, and everyone else simply speak in a way that is clearer to my ears. I found myself following everything that was said. One major benefit is that the machinations of the villainous Don John are much clearer here. Beyond that, I found myself picking up on sentences and speeches so that I was better able to think about and analyze them.
As a result, this adapted play became all the more affecting. Just as important - it is a comedy, after all - it got funnier. So I not only followed the dialogue better, I laughed more often. Part of this was probably due to the younger cast operating in modern and more familiar ways - but it was also because Diamond, Fillion, Denisof, Kranz, and Acker all show themselves to be fine comedians. I was smiling at their words and the physical comedy so handily displayed by them.
In short, the changes due to the modern take were excellent. Nothing's funnier than watching two people speak Shakespearean words and then share a fist bump. And, hey, recounting one's evil deeds aloud makes more sense when the villain is smoking a joint. Other little treats are on display, too, like queuing up an IPod instead of having live musicians at hand, or the antagonist grabbing a cupcake from the banquet table as he leaves the scene of his crime. Similarly, I like that one of Don John's lackeys is a woman, and is also his lover. It's a good change, and makes the film sexier.
And, beyond everything else I've described, the exchanges work better now that everyone is drinking throughout most of the film. It not only explains the ongoing silliness of the characters' choices, it gives the actors more to do than simply stand and talk at each other.
Just as surprising - the visual beauty of this new picture stacks up nicely, too. I cannot praise Branagh's film enough, nor the beauty of the Tuscan locale that he chose. Yet this latest version, filmed in and around Joss Whedon's home, is equally striking and makes for just as lovely a setting. You walk away from this Much Ado almost jealous of his living space.
The black and white cinematography was superb. It produces many striking effects - a shot of Kranz in a pool is just majestic - and lends a nicely muted mood to the events that transpire here. It also works nicely with the opening - a flashback to Benedick and Beatrice when they first got together - to give the whole affair a very pleasing "jazzy" feel.
This contrast between the b&w, the old speech, and the setting has a big impact: Benedick does a modern workout routine while arguing with himself, which is better to look at than pacing, while suiting both his vanity and his station as a soldier. Fillion's turn as Dogberry has a film noir look, even as he and Tom Lenk (Buffy's Andrew) dress like present-day feds. The professional photographer at hand stresses the importance of Pedro and Leonato.
And, finally, Much Ado About Nothing will also serve as a nice little gift for fans of Mr. Whedon - especially lovers of Firefly and Dollhouse. Fillion plays against type, doing the part of the buffoon as charmingly and credibly as he does the honorable rogue, while Maher is fine as an utterly black-hearted, envious man. Kranz neatly conveys a gentle and innocent, yet insecure lover, only to be outdone by Reed Diamond's letter-perfect turn as the Duke who gracefully expresses all civility even while he parties his heart out.
Above all, fans of Angel get their chance to see Acker and Denisof in a fine romance. Despite their animosity, you can tell that Beatrice and Benedick won't leave each other alone because they are truly invested in one another. The biggest surprise was that they actually surpass Thompson and Branagh (!) in conveying how their characters both mean everything they say and yet also are putting on a show for their peers.
Beatrice is not as happy or as hard-hearted toward men as she seems, nor is Benedick so frivolous and disdainful of women - and neither is so independent as to want to be alone and without affection. They both leap at the possible love of an equal too quickly... Denisof and Acker express all these undercurrents so well! As noted before, I love Ms. Acker, and I love Mr. Denisof at least as much (I feel bad I haven't watched his film work 'til now). Seeing them work with this material is delightful.
I thought I would enjoy Much Ado '13, but it was better than anticipated. I expected to draw some unfavorable comparisons to the 1993 version - yet I found this one funnier and easier to follow. I figured that my respect for these familiar TV figures would color my opinion, then discovered that they handled the material beautifully...
Despite seeing Branagh's take so many times, one viewing showed that Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing is not just a fine interpretation and performance of Shakespeare's play, it may become my preferred version. It's a fine romantic comedy, and a fine Shakespearean production.