There is a story – and I can’t remember where I heard it – that during the filming of Avengers Assemble, a break from shooting meant that Joss Whedon found himself without a project to work on. With nothing to do, the unstoppable Whedon, unable to sit around idling, got his actor friends together, took them to his Santa Monica mansion, and filmed an adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing over the course of twelve days, all the while quaffing red wine and generally having a great time.
I haven’t looked the specific details of this story up, because it seems too perfect to spoil. One of the most likeable men working in Hollywood, working with one of the most endearing groups of friends? This is the foundation that the film is built on; why would I ever want to undermine it? Lightness of heart and a camaraderie born of familiarity pervade Much Ado About Nothing. Nathan Fillion, Alexis Denisof, Fran Kranz, Amy Acker… the list goes on. Perhaps only the addition of Gina Torres could improve such a stellar Whedonverse cast.
Joss Whedon is a storyteller. That’s how he describes himself, and at the heart of his craft is the truth that the medium in which he works doesn’t matter, as long as he is weaving a tale or building a world (think of the massive canon of the Buffyverse). Shakespeare lends himself to this, with very distinct characters and a self-contained imaginary world. This is even truer of Much Ado, a play whose quickfire chat is almost Firefly-esque and whose fictionalized Messina is stuffed full of stylized characters, from the poisonous Don John to the bumbling Dogberry, the beautiful, quiet Hero to her noble, honest father Leonato.
I was lucky enough to interview Whedon last year, and he talked briefly about Shakespeare. He said, “We’re all telling the same stories. It’s not like anyone has come up with anything new: The Greeks did it, and Shakespeare did it in a more complex way, and they’re all cribbing. All of my favourite artists, in every medium, were enormously popular in their time, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Some are storytellers and some aren’t, but I think what is considered highbrow you have to look at historically.”
This film is a perfect example of how to bring “high” culture low without devaluing it. It’s accessible but not dumbed down. Working with the cast of Firefly (and Avengers, and Buffy, and Angel) allows for Whedon to pull this off. It would be easy to make Much Ado About Nothing into a boring teenage romance, or to overplay the literary parts and stifle the comedy, but the huge experience and talent of the cast means the film remains engaging throughout. Of course, Amy Acker as Beatrice and Alexis Denisof as Benedick are the real pull factor in this film, as they ought to be in any decent adaptation (in Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 version this is true as well; he and Emma Thompson make the whole thing). Acker and Denisof have a chemistry honed over 70 episodes of Angel as Fred and Wesley. They’re a joy to watch when delivering lines by the best script writer ever. How did Shakespeare understand flanter so well?
Some snobby British people claim Shakespeare sounds bad in American accents – that’s patently ridiculous, considering people in Elizabethan England had completely different accents to those we speak in ourselves. The elegant suburban American setting also suits Much Ado well, and makes sense. It’s harmless enough that we know this is a comedy, and at points Much Ado is laugh-out-loud funny, yet refined to a point that suggests the princely court of Messina. Similarly, shooting in black and white is a good decision, somehow – it removes the film from real life by one extra degree, making it into a fable whilst letting us still recognize the very human, universal conclusions about attraction that the play draws – as is the almost flamenco soundtrack written by Whedon and performed by his brother, Jed.
And with that, there’s not much else to say, really. Poor Hero has hardly any lines and would do well to speak a little bit more in the first half of the film; I still don’t quite understand all of Dogberry’s lines, but it doesn’t matter because I’m watching Nathan Fillion; but these aren’t complaints so much as facts of Shakespearean writing. All I can say is this: I hope Whedon makes my favourite Shakespeare play, The Tempest, next.