My review of Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is now available on alternatetakes.co.uk. The editors trimmed it down a bit in line with their word count policies. What follows is the slightly lengthier version I submitted, with more of the clauses that I have a(n over-?)fondness for.
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, yet 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 the case of 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. I am perhaps pushing my point a little too far in order to initially stake it. On one level, the characters do indeed see their surroundings as we do. However, on another, those surroundings are more for our benefit than that theirs.
Whedon’s main dramatic achievement in restaging Much Ado in the house and grounds of a 21st century rich person (ie. himself), I would argue, lies less in finding witty ways of ‘updating’ things (there is a bit of this – when Don Pedro [Reed Diamond] and company decide they want music it is supplied not by an attendant but by a iPod; when news of a villain’s capture is relayed, it is via a video clip on a mobile telephone – but it is kept in its place), 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 pleasantries are exchanged in sight of all, when sub-groups within the party then repair to their separate (and single-sex) bedrooms for more private and purposive conversations, and when things are winding down in the kitchen after a long night of socialising (and drinking), that we understand, before the characters even open their mouths, what is at stake in particular scenes. As Barbara Everett has observed in her critical account of the play, every major turn of the 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. Staircases, in particular, are used highly effectively. One could almost trace the trajectory of Beatrice and Benedick’s unfolding romance according to how they behave, and interact with one another, around various sets of steps.
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 Acker and Denisof, and from the hapless Dogberry and Verges, played by Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk. The protracted ‘comedic’ passages of the play featuring the latter two characters are often complained about due to their labouredness, but it is hard to imagine a more successful realisation of this material than that achieved here.
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 topic will be the focus of the Alternate Take.