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Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film 2

#9: Much Ado About Nothing (2012)

Joss Whedon’s remarkable follow up to The Avengers was, a bit surprisingly, Much Ado About Nothing.

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If a superhero movie demands that characterization needs to be squeezed in with an eye-dropper between pyrotechnical explosions and sublime, seizure-inducing battles between IMPOSSIBLE BEINGS, Whedon squeezes in characterization about as well as anyone. Yet his work adapting Shakespeare demonstrates a capacity to let characters think and feel and act in recognizable ways that are precisely as rich and complex as Shakespeare intended.

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Whedon’s contemporary setting offers us a relatively tasteful world, yet it is filmed in black and white that both semiotically nods to the sense of the oldness of the source material and also—and this is huge—places the comedy in a neutral context.

So many film adaptations of Shakespeare’s work are too eager to pour on the opulence, as if material luxury was necessary to match the exquisite language of the bard, a habit that I have privately nicknamed architecture porn. Carlo Carlei’s 2013 film of Romeo and Juliet is egregious in this regard.

Whedon’s film is serious about Shakespeare without ever being pretentious, or using Will’s cultural cachet as a form of self-aggrandizement. All of Whedon’s choices are meant to serve the drama.

Amy Acker as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing.

To people unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s comedies, the chief difference between a comedy and a tragedy might be anticipated in extreme levels of humor or seriousness, but such an emotional binary is seldom demonstrated by Shakespeare’s plays. Hamlet happens to be wickedly funny, and Romeo and Juliet, with Mercutio’s wit, has its hysterical moments. Some Victorian productions of that play uncrossed the stars for those lovers with a happy ending. (Repulsive, no?)

The real difference between comedy and tragedy in Shakespeare’s plays is almost entirely what happens in the last act. Comedies end in marriages, and tragedies end in piles of corpses. Until then, the stories could go either way.

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Much Ado About Nothing is a paradoxical title, because in one sense what is considered nothing is really the destruction of a woman. To be publicly jilted and shamed for a scandal on her wedding day in Shakespeare’s time is about as bad as it would be today. Shakespeare makes us feel that, and so does Whedon and his excellent cast.

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This Much Ado is also distinctly American, which in this case is not a detriment.

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As a director Whedon’s focus make us feel this world so powerfully. I suspect the film was shot in sequence, for the acting begins fairly well and grows better, more comfortable with Shakespeare’s words, as the story progresses.

Kenneth Branagh filmed this play in 1993, and while watching his Benedict verbally spar with Emma Thompson’s Beatrice is dishy, most of the actors don’t even  seem to be in the same movie. The acting styles clash. Keanu Reaves out-acts Denzel Washington. Michael Keaton stole the movie as the zany comic relief Dogberry, sort of a Dickensian recycling of Beetlejuice cartoonishness. (That isn’t a slam.)

One impressive side-note about Joss Whedon’s film is that the score is by Whedon himself. The music never resorts to the pomp that is too often heaped onto Shakespeare films (I am looking at you Patrick Doyle). Instead, the music skirts melodrama without ever being trite or clichéd or flimsy. The music is beautiful, and never quite predictable. The touch is light, but suggestive of darkness.

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The year before The Avengers came out, Kenneth Branagh directed Thor. Perhaps Whedon directed Much Ado over territorial spite. Or maybe he happens to love Shakespeare. Having seen this film a few times, I would have to guess the latter.

Now that he’s no longer on The Avengers franchise, perhaps Whedon will try another play out for the screen?

NOTE: This review originally appeared in a slightly different version in the other Drunken Odyssey Shakespeare blog, Shakespearing, on November 16, 2014.


John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.