There’s much ado to be made about the latest film foray into the world of William Shakespeare as The Bard becomes a part of Whedon’s World; as in Whedon, Joss Whedon. Leader of the “Buffyverse”, commander-in-chief of “The Avengers”, Joss Whedon has proven his innate ability time and time again to capture, nay, celebrate, the rhythmic dance of characters and relationships, giving each room to breathe and constructing visuals around the heartbeats of those interactions. It’s this gift that he now brings to the granddaddy of them all with his interpretation of Shakespeare’s MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. Never have I enjoyed Shakespeare so much!! Parting was such sweet sorrow when the film ended, leaving me chomping at the bit for the morrow when the film hits theatres and I can see it again and again (not to mention a mandatory ownership of the Blu-Ray). Talk about exquisite! This is a master class in performance AND filmmaking.
Prosaic in its styling, MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING is one of Shakespeare’s best comedies, focusing on socio-political commentary - and affairs of the heart - as relevant in 1575 as it is today as told through the story of two couples - Benedick and Beatrice, and Claudio and Hero. Although deign to admit their obvious attraction to one and another, Benedick and Beatrice spend their days and nights locking horns in witty antagonistic debates continually proclaiming their disdain for love - and for each other. On the other hand, Claudio and Hero are so in love with one another, it’s as if one would die without the other.
Thanks to the quick observations of Hero’s father and Beatrice’s uncle, Leonato, and his friends visiting Leonato’s home for the weekend which has turned into a celebration of the pending nuptials of Claudio and Hero, a plan is devised to trick Benedick and Beatrice into admitting their true feelings of love for one another. Unfortunately, while Leonato, Don Pedro, Hero, Claudio and several of the house maids are reveling in their good-hearted trickery of Benedick and Beatrice, Don Pedro’s brother, Don John, has devised trickery of his own - to destroy Claudio and Hero by making Claudio believe that Hero has been unfaithful. And what better time to execute the plan than when the betrothed are at the wedding altar. .
Will Don John succeed with his evil plotting? Will Benedick and Beatrice finally admit their true feelings for one another? Will the local gumshoes, Dogberry and his faithful partner, Verges, uncover the truth about a less than upstanding Don John?
The actors and their performances are consistently why the World of Whedon works, no matter what he does. He has a cadre of actors who have depth, range and work well together; they know and understand Whedon's World and none more than Alexis Denisof, Amy Acker, Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk. Collectively, what sets this cast apart from so many others is the ease with which they deliver Shakespeare’s words, allowing each to roll off the tongue as if speaking this way is an everyday occurrence.
Cutting to the comedic chase, Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk are buffoonish Laurel & Hardy brilliant! To paraphrase Fillion's Dogberry, they are such delicious asses! This is a tour de force by Fillion who gives Dogberry an impervious sincerity that is an exhilarating variance from other interpretations of the over-emoting, over-the-top Dogberry. Fillion brings a quieter subtlety to the clown, making his the true stand-out of the production. Tom Lenk is at his Buffyesque Andrew best, playing foil to Fillion. Delectable pairing and scenic structure.
But talk about perfect pairing and believability - Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker. We saw them and fell in love with them on "Angel" with Acker's Fred being the object of Denisof's Wesley's desire (although as with Benedick and Beatrice here, as Wesley and Fred neither could come to terms to admit their feelings to the other for several seasons). Much like watching Hepburn and Tracy, their well known prior works together just added another layer to the experience of watching them as Benedick and Beatrice here. I knew of Denisof's Shakespearean background but knew nothing of Acker's Shakespearean ability. She sizzles with heartfelt enthusiasm while light plays from her eyes with both a devilish glee and heartbroken weepiness. Together, Denisof and Acker are rapier. A match of wits made in heaven. Timing is flawless. Tit for tat and never is a beat missed or syllable dropped. You just beg to see more.
But, talk about more - Clark Gregg. Masterful as Leonato. Lyrical, funny, playing the gravitas of a tainted daughter to the hammish hilt. Joyous hilarity comes from Gregg, Reed Diamond and Fran Kranz who as Leonato, Don Pedro and Claudio, respectively, harken to the Three Stooges with their devilish plotting and planning to betroth Beatrice to Benedick. Adding to the humor is one scene in particular, that of Denisof’s Benedick spying on the trio outside the house where he lets go with physical comedy that just goes through the roof. I was laughing my ass off. You will be, too.
A true heroine is Jillian Morgese's Hero. Elegant yet filled with girlish naivete. Fun to see is Ashley Johnson. All grown up since being little Chrissy Seaver on "Growing Pains" as handmaid Margaret, she proves her acting mettle, showing she has come into her own.
Don John’s right and left hand henchmen, Borachio and Conrade as played by Spencer Treat Clark and Riki Lindhome, are a contrast in black and white but play extremely well off each other creating a wonderful devious dynamic, while as Don John, Sean Maher just oozes evil at every turn.
With the screenplay written by Whedon, while perfectly capturing the grand foolishness of and celebrating the rom-com aspect of MUCH ADO, he is also deft in delivering the darker undercurrents that permeate the story, playing tragedy against the comedy. Loyalty and allegiances are tested, the rich make light of emotion and the delicate nature of the heart, while the poor are often seduced by what they see with their noses pressed up against the window panes, and yes, true love never does run smooth. Silken smooth, MUCH ADO flows. Captured with a feeling of the camera gliding amongst the players, surreptitiously moving from room to room, the scene locations are not as important as the words, the heartbeats and cadence of the dialogue as that dictates the camera movements and editing. This is also why Whedon’s MUCH ADO feels as much at home in 21st Century California as it did to the Brits in the 16th century.
Technically, I bow to Whedon and his crew, particularly his Director of Photography, Jay Hunter. Talk about the beauty of black & white! Adding another metaphoric texture to MUCH ADO, lensing in black and white captures the stark clarity of a black and white world, but then romanticizing the “greys” of life with shadow and nuance. Camera movements within the house are free-flowing, with a poetic lyricism that matches Shakespeare's words, the cadence of which the actors are so attuned with that the entire sound design of dialogue and music plays lyrically to the auditory senses. A perfect complement to the visual and emotional lyricism.
Production design of Cindy Chao and Michele Yu excels, starting with the house and grounds - Whedon’s own house. Multi-tiered with staggered landings and balconies, the home is designed as if taken from a Shakespearean play, allowing for scene changes with intimacy and ease while completely contained and connected.
In complete symbiosis is Hunter’s cinematography, the production design and the costuming, and never more obvious than during the masque party in the backyard. Exquisitely breathtaking. The use of individual sequins on the acrobats’ costumes, the textured fabrics, gossamer organzas, silks and brocades, and all lit and lensed to as to capture each detail, all of which is telling as to each of the players and their societal place and personalities. And then the wedding bouquet with the glittered organza bow. I literally gasped when Hunter did a zoom into the abandoned bouquet. Such beauty set against such a tragic moment.
Completing the experience is the music. Composed by Whedon, we are greeted with lilting, light, gay, tinkling piano keys, then lusher and more full bodied texture in more serous moments. Everything is integrated, complimentary, going hand in hand with each other element of the film.
All’s well that ends well with MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. One of my Top Ten picks of the year. Welcome to the World of Whedon where Shakespeare not only lives, but thrives.
Written and Directed by Joss Whedon based on the play by William Shakespeare
Cast: Nathan Fillion, Alexis Denisof, Amy Acker, Clark Gregg, Tom Lenk, Reed Diamond, Jillian Morgese