Reviewed by James Zborowski.
Watching and trying to get to grips with Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, one is presented with an interesting dilemma. Either this film is set in the present day - as its clothes, haircuts, cars, guns and occasional pieces of communication technology would suggest - yet peopled with characters who speak and think as though they were living about 400 years ago, or it is set about 400 years ago, but with the visual trappings just mentioned.
Opting for (or at least acknowledging) the latter possibility, although it may feel counter-intuitive, in fact solves a lot of potential interpretive problems. To take a rather pressing one, it spares us the difficult task of explaining the extreme attitudes towards premarital sex expressed by several characters. When Shakespeare’s plays are realised on the stage, it will often be with a minimum of props and sets, yet we are not meant (quite, entirely) to take it that the world of the characters is equally sparse. In film fiction, we are not used to driving such a wedge between our experience of the physical setting and that of the characters, but that does not mean that we never should. On one level, the characters do indeed see their surroundings as we do. However, on another, those surroundings are more for our benefit than for theirs.
Whedon’s main dramatic achievement in restaging Much Ado in the house and grounds of a 21st-century rich person (i.e. himself) lies less in finding witty ways of ‘updating’ things (though there is a bit of this) and more in using spaces and the behaviour of characters within those spaces in such a way as to render immediately intelligible to the viewer the purpose and the nature of a given dramatic moment, thus reducing the degree of distance and cognitive burden that Shakespeare can present to modern ears. It is because we understand the different kinds of conversations that occur when, say, guests first arrive at their hosts’ house and when sub-groups within the party then repair to their bedrooms for more private and purposive conversations that we understand, before characters even open their mouths, what is at stake in particular scenes. As Barbara Everett has observed, every major turn of the play’s plot depends upon eavesdropping, and Whedon makes full use of the fact that he is filming not on a series of discrete soundstages, but in an actual house - a series of interconnected rooms.
The performances created by Whedon and his cast (most of whom he has worked with before) are equally accomplished and eloquent. Watching with a cinema audience, some of the biggest laughs come when line delivery departs from the declarative mode (which will be familiar to anyone who has studied, and had to recite and hear recited, Shakespeare in a classroom). On several occasions, characters, for various reasons, will falter in the performances they are delivering, and will glance at their fellows with a look of entreaty: Am I getting this right? How should we proceed? The effect is enlivening and refreshing. The other big laughs come mainly from the body comedy of romantic leads Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof, and from the hapless Dogberry and Verges, played by Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk.
All of which is to say that the piece is directed with a masterly touch. It is assured and delightful - so much so, in fact, that it can make one ignore or forget the particular challenges involved in updating a text in which a woman is demonised and vilified for her supposed lack of chastity.
This review was published on June 19, 2013.
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