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One word sums up my reaction to Joss Whedon's film of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing: Huzzah!
Here is the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer — and the director of The Avengers — working with American TV actors who have little or no training in verse-speaking. Who could have predicted such a team would produce the best of all filmed Shakespeare comedies?
No, not the best filmed Shakespeare; there are plenty of more exciting Hamlets and Henry Vs and Richard IIIs. But whenever a theater director like Peter Hall or Trevor Nunn or even an experienced filmmaker like Kenneth Branagh shoots a comedy, it generally ends up over-busy.
Whedon's approach seems off the cuff — which in a sense it was, given that he filmed it in his house in 12 days, between production and post-production on The Avengers. The actors have been directed to sound as if they talk this way every day, and it's amazing how clear Shakespeare's language can be when spoken quickly and without undue fuss.
When Shakespeare is done right, it's hard to imagine him ever done wrong.
This Much Ado is set in a modern compound owned by a business mogul, Leonato, played by Clark Gregg, usually surrounded by young men in crisp dark suits and ties. Among those followers are Alexis Denisof as stubborn bachelor Benedick and Fran Kranz as Leonato's heir apparent, Claudio.
One reason Claudio is destined for the top job is that he's in line to wed Leonato's daughter, Hero, played by Jillian Morgese. That stirs the ire of a business rival, Sean Maher's Don John, who contrives a diabolical scheme to make Hero appear to be a trollop instead of a virtuous maid.
This is one of the Shakespeare comedies that skirts tragedy: Don John is a precursor to Iago in Othello. The subtext is serious: Almost everyone dons a mask to test someone's loyalty, an impulse that usually leads to disaster.
But bumpkins save the day. There are marriages and songs. And the playwright's heart is less with the beleaguered Claudio and Hero than with stubborn bachelor Benedick and Hero's cousin, Beatrice, who rank among Shakespeare's — indeed, among all of theater's — most acid-tongued and delightful romantic antagonists.
Whedon has built a pedestal for Amy Acker; her Beatrice is lyrically high-strung, given to huge pratfalls when emotion gums up her strenuous self-composure. Denisof's Benedick is frankly overmatched, but the actor uses his relative weakness to good comic effect. He looks afraid of getting too close for fear of being devoured.
It's no accident that Whedon, who gave us the girl-power heroine Buffy Summers, puts special weight on Beatrice's inability, in a male-centered culture, to avenge an injustice to her cousin Hero's reputation. Such powerlessness is, after all, why we needed Buffy.
The freshest performance is by Nathan Fillion — swashbuckling star of Whedon's sci-fi TV series Firefly — as Constable Dogberry, one of Shakespeare's simplest buffoons. But when Fillion is insulted by a female crony of Don John's, he turns a simple man into a convoluted tangle of officiousness and injured pride.
This Much Ado About Nothing whizzes by, with Jay Hunter's silken black-and-white photography stylizing everything while belaboring nothing. Shakespeare, I think, dictates his own close-ups and long shots. If a film director follows the dramatic beats, he or she can intuit when to go intimate — to bring in the camera — and when to jump back for a wider context. Whedon is on the Bard's wavelength.
I do have quibbles. I'd rather have used my imagination instead of seeing a flashback of Beatrice and Benedick in bed. The male actors' smooth faces are hard to tell apart — to the point where I was sorry when Denisof's Benedick shaved his beard during the film, in a bid to project earnestness.
That's about it, though. When Shakespeare is done right, it's hard to imagine him ever done wrong. It's the ease and clarity of Whedon's work that's so engaging. As I said, he shot Much Ado in his house, and you feel like an invited guest, hanging out in the backyard and watching a great play. (Recommended)