Well, doesn’t this feel like a gift? In between helming mega franchises, Joss Whedon has crafted this little, sex-comedy bauble. Shot in his own home on a $20,000 shoestring budget and starring a cast of trusted friends and seemingly anyone who was knocking about, Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is faithful to Shakespeare and still indelibly a part of the whedonverse. Fanboys will be sated.
Whedon has professed a love of Much Ado above Shakespeare’s other comedies, possibly explaining his decision to make this so relatively recently after Kenneth Branagh’s justifiably exalted version from 1993. Although, in a world where Spiderman origin stories exist barely a decade apart, perhaps this isn’t such a shock. Whilst Branagh’s film was a bawdy, Tuscan romp (with Keanu as the bad guy), Whedon’s version is a tighter, more world weary vision, a careful observation of love shot through with pathos rather than a saucy seaside postcard if you will.
Ostensibly a play about Claudio (stoner from Cabin In The Woods) trying to secure Hero’s (new) hand in marriage despite the scheming machinations of Don John (doctor from Firefly), Much Ado is much more focused on getting sparring ex-lovers, Beatrice (Fred from Angel) and Benedick (mini-Giles from Angel) to fall in love despite their collective bitterness concerning the ideals of marriage. These plots are helped, hindered and investigated by Hero’s father, Leonato (SHIELD guy from The Avengers), Don Pedro (some guy from Dollhouse, which we never watched) and bumbling flatfoots, Dogberry (Firefly captain) and Verges (one of the nerd-herd from Buffy). This familiarity of cast is a stroke of genius as firstly, they worked for free and, secondly, for the warmth and comfort with which they deliver their lines, the cadences and syntax of Shakespeare’s flowery, old english rendered into twenty first century gossip and bickering, flowing as free as the ever present wine.
Whedon’s skill has always been in being fully aware of the rules of the genre he’s working within and subsequently subverting them gently, yet plausibly. Here, he takes Shakespeare, remains faithful, albeit with a cut here and there, and shoves it through his knowing prism, fracturing a brash comedy into a fragile, delicate, worried tramedy. He bravely leaves in a racist slur from the original, instead using it to highlight our discomfort and ability to turn a blind eye to such things. His decision to shoot in the softest of black and white’s gives this comedy an austerity that grounds it in reality (despite the conceit of a woman “dying” of shame, which must of stunk in the sixteen hundreds as much as it does today) and lends an honesty to the broken relationship of Beatrice and Benedick.
So, Whedon gives us this, a deft, little gem, blending a classic with his own comfortable style, creating a work as pleasurable to view as it clearly was to make. A Shakespeare adaptation that can sit with McKellen’s Richard III, Branagh’s trio of this, Hamlet and Loves Labours Lost and er….10 Things I Hate About You as the best of recent times. Let’s see him do that with the Avengers sequel……