Sunday, June 30, 2013

"Much Ado About Nothing" in the Whedonverse

Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film of Much Ado About Nothing had one of the wittiest title shots I can recall.  I burst out laughing in the theatre when I first saw it, and it still tickles me.  It’s over the top, as is much of the film.  I like Branagh.  I love Joss Whedon.  I like Kenneth Branagh’s work as an actor better than that of Alexis Denisoff.  And yet, watching Branagh’s delightful Much Ado, his Benedick seemed to be overdoing it a bit — downright broad for film.  This did not diminish my enjoyment of that Much Ado then or now.  Set in a vivid and hot Italian landscape in another century, Branagh’s film was more. exuberant than Whedon’s modern version, which setting required something resembling realism. 

Joss Whedon said in an interview that he felt some of the choices made by characters in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing had to have been made under the influence, which makes sense.  Perhaps therefore everyone in this film is drinking excessively.  While Kenneth Branagh’s production of Much Ado was lush, in Joss Whedon’s film everyone is a lush.

The innocence of a period film’s ingénue and juvenile (Hero and Claudio) cannot be captured in a film set in the 21st century.  That presents a problem, yet not as great a one as the fact of Don Pedro and his followers.  They wear no uniforms, yet they carry guns.  They are not soldiers.  In what wars do civilians in well-cut suits carry guns?  Drug wars?  In the 21st century, must give one pause to wonder if Don Pedro’s a drug lord.  And his brother Don John tried to strike out on his own.  What was “this ended action” (I.i) about?  The scene in which Benedick challenges Claudio is extremely well acted by Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), Claudio (Fran Kranz), and Benedick (Denisoff), but that he was carrying a gun made Benedick a troublesome personage.  It tends to make him look like a hood.  Don Pedro and Benedick and Leonato and Claudio don’t seem like they’d be involved in the illicit drug trade.  This problem and that of Claudio’s churlish behavior at an American 21st century wedding are slight distractions from the pleasures of the film.
Amy Acker as Beatrice and Jillian Morgese as Hero.  (c) 2012 Elsa Guillet-Chapuis & Roadside Attractions

Alexis Denisoff surprised me with his adept use of Shakespeare’s language in a modern setting.  The chemistry between Denisoff and Amy Acker has been well documented in their years together on Whedon’s television series, Angel.  I never had doubts about Acker — I had complete faith she was great casting as Beatrice, and the pairing did not disappoint.  Ms. Acker’s Beatrice is highly intelligent, her wit sharp, her heart aching.  The pair was funny and believable whether fighting or loving. 

Reed Diamond is excellent: straightforward and real as Don Pedro whether serious or comic.  I’ve always liked his work, but this side of him surprised me, quite pleasurably.  Fran Kranz is sweetly hilarious as the foolish Claudio.  The party scene in which Claudio rises from the pool in a snorkeling mask (see poster) only to be misguided by the heads above water belonging to Don John, Borachio and Conrade was incredibly funny and quite possibly the best I’ve seen that scene done.

Sean Maher, whom I would not have envisioned as Don John, was a fine, understated villain and I quite liked his performance.  Clark Gregg was a goodhearted Leonato, struggling with what seems to be (but regrettably probably is not) an outdated character and trying to bring him likeably into the present.
Lenk as Verges and Nathan Fillion as Dogberry.  (c) 2012 Elsa Guillet-Chapuis & Roadside Attractions

I’ve been a fan of Nathan Fillion since Firefly, and am delighted that he took on Dogberry for this film.  He plays the famously mangled lines absolutely straight, so the humor really works.  Dogberry’s ego shines through, and just little touches make the “low” humor parts of the story truly funny.  Clearly, physical comedy need not be violent.

Jillian Morgese was practically a real live girl as the ingénue Hero, filling the blanks of that thankless role with a level of self-confidence in addition to obedience.

Beatrice eavesdrops....
Ashley Johnson as Margaret was excellent, old-fashioned while modern, innocently knowing.  Emma Bates was very good as Ursula, and Riki Lindhome was quite interesting as Conrade, a different sort of companion for Don John.

Dull as dishwater, however, was Spencer Treat Clark as Borachio until the moment he heard Hero was dead, which brought to him a spark of life.  Tom Lenk as Verges was dull and obviously acting.  Romy Rosemont as the Sexton brought some gravitas to the legal proceedings but, more, made us believe she had a life waiting for her when those danged fools stopped talking.

Elsa Guillet-Chapuis as the Photographer was focused and intent on her work, a naturally unnatural part of the proceedings. 

The costume party scene is a sultry modern gas; the world of excess that is in this 21st century Much Ado seems so much more vulgar than the aristocratic excesses of the past.

I keep comparing these two very different films of the same Shakespeare play, but they’re both wonderful and exciting in their very different ways.  Joss Whedon’s film is in a lower key than Kenneth Branagh’s, as it must be since it is set in the present and in a small, intimate, black-and-white film.  (I love black and white.  It seems some how more real to me than color.)  And Whedon’s addition of a silent prologue providing us a glimpse into the back-story of a modern Benedick and Beatrice’s relationship was priceless. 

While the 21st century works just fine for Shakespearean tragedy, somehow this romantic comedy that is the beginning and model for all romantic comedies just didn’t quite work in our time.  Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is a film I’ve been looking forward to for years, and while I enjoyed it, I did not walk out of the theatre whistling, or floating on air.  I never thought I’d say this about a Whedon Shakespeare film, but although I liked it, I did not love it.

~ Molly Matera, recommending the film, while accepting the disappointment of reality.

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