Shakespeare has never been as accessible on the big screen as he is in Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” Sure, there have been plenty of modern Shakespearean film adaptations, but they often rely on well-known actors or massive stylistic updates to connect with audiences. Whedon’s version bridges that gap because it features his stable of performers and includes modern technology, while maintaining the essence of The Bard’s work.
Just because Whedon changes some aspects of the tale to suit our time however, doesn’t mean that he throws tradition completely out the window. If you’re the type of person who hates iambic pentameter or doesn’t even know what the term means, you probably aren’t this movie’s target audience. The characters still speak the words as Shakespeare wrote them and wear clothes that are a mixture of old and new. Any lines or portions cut, have been nixed to suit the movie’s tight two-week shooting schedule and minimal budget.
One element that does not seem influenced by time or budgetary constraints is Whedon’s decision to shoot the film in black and white. With his track record, this was almost certainly a conscious choice to accentuate contrasts in the lighting and the expressive faces of his actors. Plus instead of fading to black, he gets to employ a fun trick where he dissolves to white. There are also humorous parts where the absence of color makes the scene sillier, like a moment where Claudio (Fran Kranz) is standing up to his neck in a swimming pool with a scuba mask on and a cocktail in his hand. Other characters hilariously swim over to him in order to have a chat, and then drift away when they’re done.
Although the entire film is shot on the grounds of Joss Whedon’s house, he does a tremendous job of recreating the atmosphere of theater. Most shots are medium ones to preserve the smallness of the space and to make you feel like you’re watching the set of a play. This ambience is magnified by scenes where characters like Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof) are sneaking around in the background, interacting with the audience, while action continues to happen “on stage.” Additionally there are other sequences where the camera follows the action to keep you engaged with a character’s monologue, like a speech where it goes up and down the stairs with Benedick talking as he’s exercising.
Everyone involved in the adaptation is a joy to watch, but certain members of Whedon’s actors feel like they were born to read Shakespeare, especially Amy Acker, Clark Gregg, Fran Kranz, Alexis Denisof, and Nathan Fillion. They each take their unique approach to their lines, making the words and inflections their own. Comically, they even play with the absurdity of some of the text in relation to modern speech. Whedon works with those moments in his editing with a quick cut here or there for emphasis.
Acker and Denisof give particularly delightful performances as Beatrice and Benedick, opposing forces who love to hate each other. They’re awesome on their own, although boy are they great when their characters are trading barbs. You can’t help giggling every time Nathan Fillion is on screen either, as the charmingly inept officer of the law Dogberry. Fillion reportedly tried to back out of this project due to his schedule, but if you see the film you’ll be thankful he didn’t.
The spirited performances of the actors and stylistic flourishes added to the movie make it fascinating to watch, however Whedon truly excels in this particular effort because he has the same passion and respect for the source material that he exercised when bringing Marvel’s superheroes to life in “The Avengers.” As a result not only is “Much Ado About Nothing” an entertaining film, it’s an great Shakespeare adaptation. Both Whedonites and fans of The Bard should be pleased.
My Grade: A+....As in Absolutely Perfect. A New Classic!
IFFBoston closes tonight, April 30, 2013. For more information on the festival and on how you can help support independent film, visit www.iffboston.org.