Writer/director Joss Whedon is a brave man. Not only has he made a film based on a Shakespeare classic, he’s updated the setting to modern times while maintaining the original Elizabethan language. And it’s in black and white. The end result is a mixed bag of success and failure, a noble experiment in entertainment that can boast good performances; even if there are problems it can never overcome.
Much Ado About Nothing is comedy of love, marriage, misunderstandings, jealousy, innuendo and rumor. It revolves around two sets of lovers, Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Claudio (Franz Kranz) and Hero (Jillian Morgese). The setting is a country home is Messina on the island of Sicily.
In Joss Whedon’s film, the setting was filmed in his own Santa Monica home, and even though the beauty of Shakespeare’s language is pretty much left intact with all characters retaining their original Italian names and talking of Messina as though they were really there, everything about the film looks and sounds American with no attempt to even suggest they are anywhere else.
Traditionally, when Don Pedro’s army first arrives at Leonato’s country estate in Messina you can tell who they are by their uniforms and ranks. In this new telling, the men turn up in sleek, black limos wearing dark suits, white shirts, ties and shades. Everyone looks like a threatening FBI agent, including the owner of the estate, Leonato (Clark Gregg) and it’s initially difficult to tell anyone apart. Naturally, scholars of Shakespeare will soon pick up on the individual characters by their dialog, but those new to the play will have some difficulty in understanding individual roles. And here lies the big quandary.
The comic situations and their effects, caused by the villainy of Don John (Sean Maher), are dictated by the style of language and the time in which the play is supposed to take place. By updating it and having modern characters speak a dated language, not to mention the oddness of location, there’s a jarring effect that might be difficult for some to overcome.
For instance, in its original time and form it is easy to accept that young Claudio would be so gullible as to believe without question that the virtuous young woman he is about to marry would be having sex with another on the eve of the wedding. It plays into the theatrical farce that was embraced by Elizabethan audiences, but not today, unless the setting retains its original time and place. So it also follows that on the actual wedding, just as the priest is asking for the couple to say “I do,” Claudio confronts Hero with accusations of infidelity, thus ruining the ceremony and humiliating Hero beyond belief in front of her friends and family As those familiar with the play will know, Don John’s villainy in spreading such damaging rumors will eventually be revealed for the lies that they are and love will conquer all, but seeing this played out in modern times by modern looking young people changes everything. They wouldn’t act like that. My first thought was, why, after such unforgivable humiliation, would Hero ever want to go back with Claudio? He’s obviously immature and way too naïve, believing the first piece of gossip he hears. A modern woman would tell him to beat it, and rightly so.
When Kenneth Branagh made the definitive, full text version of Hamlet in 1996 he updated the setting by a couple of hundred years, yet it seemed so perfect that most audiences never even realized it was in reality a more modern take on Shakespeare’s original work. With this new version of Much Ado About Nothing there is no seamless time adjustment. Despite the sincere efforts of Whedon – I’m sure making this film was something of a labor of love for him – he doesn’t pull the gimmick off.
The cast, however, are good. There’s playfulness in their delivery that is tremendous fun to watch, and Nathan Fillion stands out as great comic relief in the smaller role of Dogberry, the bumbling policeman. In fact, the actors are so much fun and deliver the dialog so well that anyone ever thinking of claiming that Americans can’t do Shakespeare need to take a back seat. If Whedon has proved anything with this new telling of a comedy classic it’s the issue of accents. If the actor is good at his craft, regardless of birthplace, Shakespeare’s language will always come alive.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 119 minutes Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)