Picture the scene. It’s October 2011, and Joss Whedon is taking a holiday from post-production work on The Avengers. Having spent a a lengthy period working on one of the most hotly anticipate movies for years, dealing with the stresses of huge expectations from the legions of fans (and as we know, expectation is the root of all heartache*) and working all the plot strands into a coherent whole, he finally has a little time on his hands. So, what does he do with it? Does he buy a load of booze and sit back, relax and enjoy a well-earned Angel, Firefly, or Dollhouse marathon? Or does he turn his house into a movie set, invite most of the cast of the aforementioned shows around, and shoot a version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing in twelve days?
While most of us would have gone for the having a nice sit down option, Whedon decided to do the latter. And how fortunate for the rest of us that he did as his Much Ado is that rarest of things – a genuinely funny version of a Shakespeare comedy. It’s a pretty faithful conversion, although given a modern setting. He sticks with full Shakespearean language, but the modern intonation and easy delivery helps prevent that from being an issue “ and the cast say so much with gestures and looks that it’s easy to interpret them anyway.
It opens with the male leads Don Pedro, Benedick and Claudio returning home from a war – though what kind of war is unclear “ they are dressed in smart suits, but carry guns. Is it a metaphorical war of the business world? Some kind of gang war that they have emerged from victorious? It is never made clear, with this uncertainty about who these people are and what they may have done is allowed to sit in the background unresolved. The return of Don Pedro and his supporters is a reason for celebration in the house of Leonato, his daughter Hero and his niece Beatrice, and the film’s scenes take place in one long party. It’s the kind of party that rolls over days, where people wake up and pour themselves a glass of wine, where people fall in love and out of love and, as with all Shakespeare comedies, have mix ups, confuse one another’s identities and generally complicate the affairs of couples who seem perfect for one another but can’t quite get it together.
The film has a huge sense of fun to it “ as if the shoot as well as the scenario was like a big party. The cast is stuffed with regular Whedon collaborators who all click perfectly with one another. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves “ but in a way that feels inclusive to the audience rather than a private party. There are a few funny little touches “ at one point I was sure one of the characters plays the theme to Firefly on the guitar, and there’s even the odd bit of lens flare on the black and white photography.
But there’s lots for those who aren’t firm Whedon fans to enjoy too. Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker are great as Benedick and Beatrice who bicker and scorn one another while being obviously crazy about each other. The over-the-top villainy of Don Pedro’s brother Don John is hilarious “ he and his cronies are always lurking, ready to pop up “ at one point, as Claudio ponders over a cocktail in the swimming pool (as you do), they suddenly bob to the surface in full scuba gear before they start whispering poison in his ear about his lover Hero. Behind the fun, there is always a hint of sex and violence, that mostly prevents it from tipping over into silliness, as much as the source material allows anyway, and at times the silliness is embraced “ especially when the bumbling police duo appear on the scene.
As we now know, The Avengers ended up satisfying the comic book hardcore and the casual fan. Now it seems that Whedon has made a Much Ado About Nothing that’s energetic, full of life and genuinely entertaining. It should please Bard buffs as well as the general cinema-going population “ he is proving himself to be quite the versatile fellow.
*obligatory Shakespeare quotation as required in any Shakespeare-relating writing