Play: Much Ado About Nothing
Year Produced: 2011
Amy Acker – Beatrice
Alexis Denisof – Benedick
Jillian Morgese – Hero
Fran Kranz – Claudio
Sean Maher – Don John
Director Joss Whedon chose this black and white, understated, shot in his own home, almost completely true to the text film version of Much Ado as a followup to directing The Avengers, which in and of itself is a delicious contrast that delights me ever so much. But even for those unfamiliar with Whedon’s work, or with superhero movies (Oh man, get it, superHero? I AM SLAIN) this movie, I think, stands very firmly on its own two feet.
There are people who have very strong feelings re: Joss Whedon (strong positive and strong negative) and while I do have some separate from this film, they’re mostly not relevant. When I got the chance to see this one in the cinema, I was so enthralled by it that even if it isn’t perfect, it’s new and different and bold, and I appreciate that. It’s moving, heartfelt, timeless, instantly relatable, and even if some of the choices are slightly askew from what I prefer and how I read the text, I get why the choices were made.
It’s early morning when the film opens, and Benedick quietly puts his clothes back on while Beatrice sleeps on the sofa-bed. He hesitates, wanting to wake her, wanting to let her sleep; this is a wordless exchange, not in the text, a modernization of the presumed history between these two characters. This, we are made to understand, is part of their ‘merry war.’ Like other productions, mostly modern filmed ones where directors can do these type of scenes, the choice has been made to up the stakes and intimacy for our two leads. Here, they are former lovers. Maybe not on-again, off-again, maybe just friends with benefits. Maybe not even friends.
In contrast to the ShakespeaRe-Told version’s choice to make Benedick the one who bails on Beatrice, this one makes them both complicit in this relationship; Beatrice, we soon see, is awake, laying on her side, turned away from him. Neither of them want to have the awkward morning conversation; neither of them are ready, yet, to reach that emotional depth. There’s a callback to this history—’he lent it me a while, and we made use of it’ takes on a whole new shade of meaning in this context. You get the sense that they both like each other, so long as their mouths are busy doing other things. Sex things.
I have to say, I adore the casting of both Clark Gregg as Leonato and Reed Diamond as Don Pedro. They both have such a warm, natural rapport and they handle the original Shakespeare so elegantly, and especially next to some of the other actors (at least, in early scenes) their delivery is natural and playful. It’s nice to see a father-daughter pair where the ages look right, because Leonato tends to get cast quite a lot older than whoever plays Hero. I cannot, however, find any indication of the actress’ actual age, but Jillian Morgese plays Hero as a doe-eyed, kind-hearted, observant woman, and anyone would fall in love with her. She does look younger than Beatrice, Although, Hollywood being what it is, Clark Gregg and Amy Acker have also played a couple in another show, so, what’s fifteen years between friends?
At any rate, Benedick has always seemed to me to be a man always in motion. He’s a soldier, as is Claudio, and even though this adaptation doesn’t play that element up (the men who arrive are clad in very dapper suits, and we’re not totally sure what it is they are meant to be other than handsome) I think there’s a quality about his lines that has a sort of momentum, and in this adaptation, that feeling is lost. Especially early on. While it’s poignant when he and Beatrice reunite (Acker’s delivery on, ‘You always end with a jade’s trick. I know you of old.’ is especially meaningful, given the prologue we see and the hurt in her eyes) there is no real spark to their banter. It’s more of an ‘unfinished business’ than a ‘merry war.’ And while it’s well-staged when Benedick and Claudio have their discussion about Hero—set in a guest bedroom that looks like it belongs to a very young girl—it’s clever to have Benedick sit and bemoan how marriage changes men while crouched next to a dollhouse, again, there’s no real spark, no playfulness. Maybe it’s just that Reed Diamond and Fran Kranz seem to approach the mouthful of dialogue as if it’s just normal dialog, and in the early scenes, at least, Alexis Denisof doesn’t totally do the same.
As Don John, Sean Maher gives an utterly captivating performance, approach the deeply unlikable, vengeful, jealous, scheming brother with a cool stillness that makes him all the more frightening.
I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace,
and it better fits my blood to be disdained of all than to
fashion a carriage to rob love from any. In this, though I
cannot be said to be a flattering honest man, it must not be
denied but I am a plain-dealing villain. I am trusted with a
muzzle and enfranchised with a clog; therefore I have
decreed not to sing in my cage. If I had my mouth, I would
bite; if I had my liberty, I would do my liking. In the
meantime, let me be that I am, and seek not to alter me.
Can you make no use of your discontent?
I make all use of it, for I use it only.
Having him be in a relationship with a genderswapped Conrade (Riki Lindhome, who is also great here in this very small part) is another solid choice, and turning their scheming and plotting into a kind of kinky foreplay is really good. I really get how Don John is chafing under his brother’s cheerful leadership, the way others seem to flock to him, the way he favors Claudio even when John is, like, right over here, bro. Of course, some of then nuance behind this is lost in a modern adaptation, because a huge portion of this character’s resentment is the fact that he is a bastard, and the society has rejected him and cast him in an untrustworthy role right from the off. He’s not just evil for the lulz, he is the person who says, “Fine, you doubt my word, you doubt my ability to be a decent man? I’ll be that villain, then, since there is no place for me.
The party scene is one of my favorites, though, both in the film format and for the play in general. I have been known to listen to Maurissa Tancharoen’s lovely, lovely ‘Sigh no more’ just as part of my regular chill-out mix, but it captures the feel of the party—the wine, the masks, the marshmallows, the fire, the acrobats, the playfulness, the friendship, the lovers sneaking off into the bushes for a bit of fun—so well. “We must follow the leaders!” becomes a conga line. I love it. I love how the party winds down, fades into morning, and finds everybody either still partying or still recovering.
Fran Kranz as Claudio is a bundle of nervous love and nervous insecurities. And frankly, having someone like Reed Diamond play Don Pedro lends a ton of believability to Claudio’s jealousy and how quickly he believes that Don Pedro woos Hero for himself. This Don Pedro is handsome and charming, and for an insecure man like Claudio, you’d believe that a young woman would be easily charmed by him. And of course, Hero is so lovely, Claudio is right that she would be easy to adore.
Lady, as you are mine, I am yours. I give away myself to you, and dote upon the exchange.
—Act 2, Scene 1
I’ve always loved this line in the play, especially since it’s such a visceral callback to the wedding vows, the giving of one’s self, the marriage of true minds, etc etc. Claudio gives this line such meaning, and makes his betrayal later so piercing.
Where this movie falls flat for me is in the monologging. I mean, other than here on a blog, people don’t just stand and talk to themselves; there has to be some kind of dynamic, some kind of movement throughout the speech, and typically on stage this is conveyed with a sort of self-awareness, directly to the audience. Benedick’s Act 2, Scene 3 speech is conveyed while he’s out for a run, and for me, it doesn’t work. He’s already breathless, and the speech feels like it runs long… I don’t know why, but I don’t care for this staging.
However, the subsequent scenes where Benedick, and then Beatrice, overhear the ‘gossip’ about them, both of them are fiercely adorable and well-staged. Excellent physical gags, great acting, fun as hell. Also, I must give a shoutout to Nathan Fillion as Dogberry, who tends to be just absolutely grating as a character (Funnier on stage, I’ll grant you; I am sorry but I don’t care for the character like 95% of the time) but here, he works.
Another thing that really is marvelous about this adaptation is the energy brought into the confession of love scene between Beatrice and Benedick. Here, they play it very tender, very gently—as opposed to some productions who play it almost comically. There’s no emotional whiplash here; it’s like an extension of the earlier scene, a mirror to Claudio and Hero’s fracture, something that tonally works and doesn’t make them into a joke.
Princes and counties! Surely, a princely testimony, a goodly
count, Count Comfect, a sweet gallant, surely! Oh, that I
were a man for his sake! Or that I had any friend would be
a man for my sake! But manhood is melted into curtsies,
valor into compliment, and men are only turned into
tongue, and trim ones too. He is now as valiant as Hercules
that only tells a lie and swears it. I cannot be a man with
wishing, therefore I will die a woman with grieving.
—Act 4, Scene 1
This Beatrice and Benedick are, at their core, and when they reach their resolution, so tender with each other. And I do love that, the melting away of their pride and hard outer shell to reveal the gooey, gooey center. This production really works to highlight the themes of intimacy—how sex and love intertwine, what they mean for us, together and separately. Which, really, despite some of the changes and trimming to the original text (Keep the ‘Ethiope’ line and make it a joke by saying it in front of a black woman? Really? Um…) is a remarkable success.