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William Shakespeare, also known as the Bard, has contributed some of the greatest works ever to be included in the Western literary canon. His works have been studied in homes and schools, produced, reproduced and re-imagined to fit the times for centuries. Joss Whedon, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Avenger’s fame, has brought forth the latest adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s classic romantic comedies. While knowing the play from your high school or college English classes certainly might help in viewing this film, it isn’t totally necessary.
Two couples are at the heart of this story. Benedick and Beatrice (played by Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker respectively) and Claudio and Hero (Fran Kranz and Jillian Morgese). The former are bitter verbal sparring partners following a tryst that ends in heartbreak for Beatrice, while the latter are the standard Shakespearian star-crossed lovers destined to be married. Surrounding these two sets of lovers are friends and family conspiring to either get one couple to make up and declare their love for each other or destroy any hope for love and marriage for the other. This is a tale of deception, love and jealousy, themes that can be found throughout Shakespeare’s work, but most of all this is a tale of fun.
It is this fun that is brought to the table by Whedon and his team of talented actors. Many of whom have worked with Whedon from his TV days on shows like Angel and Firefly. Some of these thespians have been seen in more recent Whedon films like The Avengers. Each of the aforementioned works, as well as nearly everything Whedon has done, contain the ensemble aspect. It is one of several areas where Whedon is supremely talented. Much Ado is no exception. It is always a treat to see how he manages to juggle all these characters, which this film has a fair number of, with ease. No disrespect to Sir Kenneth Branagh, Shakespearian legend, but Whedon manages to put his stamp on this play in a way that while faithfully adapted, very much carries his more contemporary sensibilities.
If you’ve ever taken an acting class or done any kind of acting at all, chances are you’ve been exposed to some Shakespeare. His works can serve as a kind of basis, a springboard if you will, of contemporary acting. I think you’d be hard pressed to find an actor working today who has not done or read Shakespeare. One of the treats of this film for me was watching these actors, many of whom seemed very comfortable with the text, which can be difficult to crack especially if you happen to be new to it. It was like watching them in an actor’s workshop hitting Shakespeare hardcore. The result is entertaining and riveting at best and slightly cringeworthy at worst.
Alexis Denisof is handily a standout as bachelor-for-life Benedick, as is Amy Acker as the strong-willed and witty Beatrice. Acker’s take on Beatrice is particularly powerful. However, the show stopper is perhaps Nathan Fillion, as the bungling Constable Dogberry. His delivery of the text is surefooted and focused in a laser beam manner that sets him apart from the other actors. His body language and expressiveness does much to play up the humorous nature of the character. The result of which is consistent comedic payoffs each time he is on screen. For such a small role he makes the most of it. Less is definitely more here. Sean Maher as the villainous Don John is also a solid player. He brings a decidedly more serious tone and darker quality to the otherwise light film. He is the smooth and Iago-esque villain without whom, this film wouldn’t be a true Shakespearian piece. Fran Kranz as Claudio, was the only actor who felt a bit inconsistent to me. At times he was spot on and other times it felt as if he were in a high school production of the play.
The film’s music composed by Whedon himself, was surprisingly very good and quite appropriate for the ways in which he updated the play. The look of the film, being shot in black and white, is a bold stylistic choice that calls to mind the golden age of cinema and sets it apart from other modern retellings of Shakespeare’s work.
As both a Shakespeare fan and a Whedonite, this is a film I would definitely recommend. Perhaps this makes me a bit biased, but I believe that coming off the hugely successful The Avenger’s, Whedon has proved that he doesn’t need a huge budget (this film was a true indie, shot in 12 days, which is ridiculous to me) and tons of explosions to make a good movie. Do you know why? Because as I’ve said before about The Avenger’s, as great as that film is, I believe that one of the things that makes it great is the pitch-perfect writing. No, Whedon didn’t write Much Ado, but his adaptation of the text must be respected as adapting Shakespeare (and understanding it) is no easy task. He just makes it look that way.