Sunday, March 09, 2014

Much Ado About Nothing

In the director's commentary for his Much Ado About Nothing Joss Whedon says that he conceived the film after years of having friends over for Shakespeare readings at his house. Whedon, who also used his house as the film's set, has made a film that has the coziness and warmth of those readings and that also honors the emotional complexity of the play. In an opening scene we see Benedick (Alexis Denisof) sneaking out after a night with Beatrice (Amy Acker), and Whedon's choice to make real a past that's only alluded to in Shakespeare gives what follows a welcome gravity. In Whedon's telling Much Ado is about waiting for a love that's right there. There are the usual complications, especially the rocky path to marriage of the younger Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Hero (Jillian Morgese), and Nathan Fillion underplays the constable Dogberry in a way I've never seen before. It's Benedick and Beatrice you've come to see though, and Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker both make the most of Whedon's conception of them as battle-scarred love warriors. During her comic excoriation of Benedick in the masked party scene Acker is required to repeatedly brush away the hand of a drunken admirer, and Acker does it with a casualness that suggests it isn't the first time. In most versions of Much Ado I've seen Benedick wears his avoidance of commitment with pride, but Denisof make the character's avoidance of his own feelings almost reflexive and it's all the sweeter when true feelings are spoken at last.

The rest of the cast is equally game for some fun, with Clark Gregg's Leonato a fine master of revels until things turn sour. Whedon has found a way to make the behavior of the play's villains track, with Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark) and Conrade (Riki Lindhome) emerging as instigators of the unhappy Don John (Sean Maher). Claudio's refusal of Hero is as upsetting as it should be, but there is also some wonderful comedy in the scenes where Benedick and Beatrice are each tricked into thinking the other loves them. (Whedon should know how to block these scenes, it's his house after all.) I don't know if Whedon plans any more Shakespeare films or if Much Ado was just a one-off, but we can only hope the energy and intimacy of this effort will infect his future Marvel work.

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