The Plot: One of the great crimes of high school is making students read Shakespeare — at least without watching it be performed first. Stripped of the life (and the context) that performance give it, the text of the plays, in its archaic language, just serves to frustrate most kids and, in the worst cases, give them a lifelong hatred of Shakespeare.
It’s easy to get the opposite result, though. In ninth grade, my English teacher showed us the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli version of Romeo & Juliet (standing strategically in front of the television during the brief naked booty scene). Suddenly, this work that seemed so intimidating when thumbing through it, with all of its annotated footnotes, came to life in a way that freshman-me could understand. Better still, it took ALL of Shakespeare’s work and put it in the “attainable” category.
Bringing Shakespeare to the modern screen can be intimidating, because, let’s face it, there usually aren’t enough car chases. Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V from 1989 is a high water mark (because wars on film are cool). Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing brings Shakespeare’s comedy into a modern setting and it works.
The story, like many of Shakespeare’s comedies, is pretty much your straight-forward Three’s Company plot based on misunderstandings and secretly overheard conversations. Returning from some type of a civil war with his brother Don John (Sean Maher), Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) visits his friend Leonato (Clark Gregg), the governor of Messina. Pedro’s officers and friends Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Claudio (Fran Kranz) accompany him, where Claudio immediately falls for the governor’s daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese). Benedick, on the other hand, enjoys verbal battles with the governor’s niece, Beatrice (Amy Acker).
With all the love in the air, Benedick and Beatrice say in no uncertain terms how they’ll never be married to anyone, much less to each other. Pedro, Leonato and Claudio accept the challenge, and set about to hook them up. The tale of love gets twisted, however, when John decides to get his evil in where he can, and fools Claudio into thinking that his now fiancé Hero is being unfaithful. Will they get things straightened out? Will the lovebirds be reunited? Will Benedick and Beatrice find true love despite themselves? Mayhaps.
The plot is really not as important as the way it’s told, and this telling of it is filled with people who are enjoying themselves (Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk as detectives particularly seem happy to be there). Filmed at his house in 12 days (actually filmed at the same time he was directing The Avengers), Whedon pulled friends and family into the project and manages to pull off a film quickly without it ever feeling rushed. It does help, I suppose, that this wasn’t exactly a new work to be built from the ground up, but it’s told with a style that is refreshing in a summer full of explosions and people being crushed in various ways. The film is set in completely modern surroundings (the timing of a fist bump is amazing), none of the wording has been changed and yet is still works. I’m hoping that this film will be shown to high school students in the future, and bring Shakespeare into the reach of a new generation.
Thoughts on Much Ado About Nothing:
• Joss Whedon has a very nice house.
• For me, there was a learning curve of about 5 to 10 minutes at the beginning of this film where my mind tried to catch up with the style of language used (there was an interesting sensation of different parts of my brain switching on from what’s usually necessary when watching a movie). After you get accustomed to it, though, it’s pretty smooth sailing, so hang in there.
• Whedon must be an okay guy to work with, because so many actors seem to be willing to go on more than one film set with him. Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, Cabin in the Woods and The Avengers are all represented here.
• Mild Spoiler Alert: For Angel fans, Wes and Fred finally get to live happily ever after, unless there’s a sequel, in which case one or both of them will be ripped apart by a para-demon.