On Friday I had the immense privilege of going to see Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing at the Toronto International Film Festival. This film had been making waves since before all of the Avengers hype turned Whedon into a living legend, so I was very interested to see what his take would be like.
Spoiler alert: it’s the best Shakespeare adaptation I’ve ever seen.
Now I don’t claim to be an expert on Shakespeare, but I’ve studied it in university, seen quite a few theater and film adaptations, and even delved into more creative media like the fabulous comic series, Kill Shakespeare.
And this tops them all. Joss Whedon’s take on one of Shakespeare’s best plays (easily in his top 5, anyway) is visceral, charming, and like all things Whedon, the perfect balance of laughter and “Oh, right in the feels!” moments.
Whedon made a number of choices with the film that impact it right away. It’s shot in black and white, which I think makes the viewer focus more on details. It is also set in modern times (and is actually filmed almost exclusively at Whedon’s own home).
The modern-style adaptation is a tricky one, because the adaptation often goes too far overboard in attempting to meld the details into a modern context. Not so with Whedon. Instead of royal garb, folks wear suits. Cell phones and guns make brief appearances, but don’t factor majorly into the plot. Dialogue is full Shakespeare, except with perhaps a few more modern touches, but they’re rare and don’t feel out of place. In fact I found myself thinking back to the text of the play, trying to remember if they were originally there. He’s that good.
For those of you not familiar with Much Ado About Nothing, the plot is fairly straightforward. Don Pedro and his two officers Claudio and Benedick come to stay with Leonato, the governer of Messina, for a month. While there, Claudio and Benedick, wittingly and unwittingly fall in love. The play is all about their two relationships and the various machinations involved in either. It is a lighthearted comedy, but that doesn’t stop it from having some fairly tense emotional moments, which seems to be Whedon’s specialty.
By watching the film, you can almost tell it’s Whedon behind the camera. One of the challenges with any Shakespeare adaptation is that his plays are very dialogue-heavy. So the director has to balance the near-constant dialogue with the cinematography. And he does! By god, he does! There are tons of non-verbal cues, very expressive body language, and plenty of setting details that take the film so far above and beyond a simple ‘reading Shakespeare in front of a camera.’
As Whedon fans would expect, the cast is absolutely packed with old favorites. Leonato, the host, is played by Clark Gregg, otherwise known as Phil Coulson of The Avengers, Thor and others. Benedick is played by Alexis Denisof, better known as Wesley from Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He stars opposite Amy Ackers, also from Angel, who played Fred. Dogberry is Nathan Fillion. If you don’t know who he is, you haven’t watched enough Whedon. Even Tom Lenk (Andrew from Buffy) manages to sneak in as Verges, the deputy to Dogberry.
Yes, you heard that right. Tom Lenk and and Nathan Fillion have a buddy cop bromance. That should be reason enough for you to run out and watch this movie at the earliest available opportunity.
Shakespeare and Whedon is a match made in heaven. A match I’m surprised no one considered before Joss did. The two are both masters of pacing, masters of mixing lighthearted comedy with heavily emotional weight, and Whedon certainly has no shortage of creative vision.
Whedon’s Much Ado feels alive and real, like you’re looking in on a dysfunctional but loving family for a weekend, sharing this wonderful and ridiculous experience with them. And when I left the theater, I had a serious case of the warm-n-fuzzies. Go see this film. If you like Shakespeare, or Whedon, or any combination thereof, you will love it.