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I finally had an opportunity to see Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. I fully intended to see it when it was originally released to theaters, but we know what road intentions pave. So here I am in May watching Mr. Whedon’s rendition of the Bard’s masterpiece. It’s brilliant. It is full of joy, wit and tragic sadness. The casting is spot on, the cinematography is gorgeous (although I admit I’m a bit of a softy for black & white) and the directing evoked all that the Bard intended.

Much Ado About Nothing Whedon

There might be a couple comparisons you might be tempted to make: the recent adaptation of The Great Gatsby and Kenneth Branagh’s version. If you watch the trailer, it seems to be very reminiscent of Baz Luhrmann‘s hip remake of Fitzgerald’s novel.

The pacing of the trailer is quick, everything is moving pell-mell and the Bard’s hints at sex and wildness are seemingly let free. Thankfully, this is a misleading trailer; the camera work on the action and dialog is natural, the pacing is quick without being frenetic and the allusions to wildness remain just that. So it’s a contemporary setting and soundtrack (about which more later) but black and white film. Why black and white? My theory is that it is that it allows the contemporary setting to be treated in a sort of timeless way. It makes the difference between the language and the visual less glaring; Jay Hunters interview seems to confirm my theory (honest, I didn’t peek):

 showed up at his house on a Sunday morning while Joss was still in post on ‘The Avengers’ and he told me what play he wanted to shoot, and the second sentence out of his mouth was it’s gonna be in black-and-white,” Hunter recalls. “And as a cinematographer, it’s a very rare blessing to shoot anything in black-and-white these days. I told him I’m on board but I was curious to know why. It was an instinctual thing for him. Not only aesthetically but it’s one less thing to worry about logistically with the color of the wardrobe and what you see on the walls. Deep down, he felt like it had a noir quality to it and transposing it to the modern day and shooting it in black-and-white would help bridge the gap between the language and the contemporary setting.”

– from Thompson on Hollywood by Bill Desowitz

 I don’t know if it was any cheaper to produce, but that might have helped the decision as well. It was filmed at Mr. Whedon’s house in 12 days, so this was a quick production. So why contemporary? I suspect that this was partly due to the speed of the production, the contemporary location and cost, but also for the same reason any of the Bard’s work is made contemporary: to get the audience to not treat his work as some costume history piece but rather for what it is, brilliant drama and comedy that resonates with contemporary audiences. It’s why Luhrmann handled The Great Gatsby as he did; to avoid us partitioning this work off a something that doesn’t touch us now. One other benefit of the black-and-white contemporary shooting is that it’s easier to watch the film without immediately and constantly comparing it to Branagh’s version. Of course, we’ll go there, but I didn’t feel the urge to compare while I was watching. First, I love them both. It’s hard to believe the Branagh’s was released 20 years before Whedon’s. Kenneth Branagh is my generations “Shakespeare for Everyman”; he brought vitality, life and made accessible what many thought inaccessible. While Zeffirelli was my entrée into Shakespeare, I grew up on Branagh’s Shakespeare with Henry V, Much Ado and Othello. I confess a little trepidation about his Loves Labours Lost, AKA “Shakespeare, The Musical”, however I loved Kiss Me Kate, I gave it a whirl and it was surprising pretty good. I digress, however, both versions combine both the comedic and tragic well. They are very different and both have their advantages.

Much Ado About Nothing

Tom Lenk as Verges & Nathan Fillion as Dogberry

One area that does stand out, however, is that of the character of our favorite ass, the constable Dogberry. Michael Keaton plays it up, nay hams up the role. It’s funny albeit sometimes hard to follow his speech. Now I will confess to being shocked that Nathan Fillion didn’t out-do Mr. Keaton. This is, after all, the man who played Captain Hammer in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. By comparison, he played it down rather subtly. In another, more under stated performance, Tom Hiddleston’s Henry V St. Crispin’s Day speech compared to Mr. Branagh’s, I definitely appreciated the subtler version. While I like Fillion in this role, I wish I could have seen him play it a bit broader.

Much Ado About Nothing Beatrice

Amy Acker as Beatrice – Official photo Elsa Guillet-Chapuis

The whole cast if fabulous, but I would be amiss in not pointing out Ms. Acker’s Beatrice. Now I love Emma Thompson from Much Ado to Sense and Sensibility, Dead Again to Howards End. She is fabulous in all things including her Beatrice. So it is not faint praise to say Ms. Acker’s own portrayal of the role is on equal footing. Alexis Denisof is good Benedict especially in the funny garden scene as he over-hears how much Beatrice loves him. To quibble a bit, I wasn’t fond of his nasally tone for portions of the film, but liked him overall. Sean Maher plays Don John perfectly. I confess I still think of him as Dr. Simon Tam from Firefly so it’s a little hard to think of him as the bad guy. He pulled it off. Jillian Morgese as Hero and Fran Kranz’s Claudio were perfect in both the sweetness and bitter-sweetness. I think these roles are underestimated sometimes. These roles are crucial, require a broad range of innocence and true love’s fervor, humor and anger and crushing distress  This is Ms. Morgese’s debut in a major role for a feature film. I could go on and on; they all were great.

Sean Maher as Don John

Sean Maher as Don John – Official photo Elsa Guillet-Chapuis

While the soundtrack doesn’t match the craziness of The Great Gatsby, I thought the music fit the movie like a glove. The sort of downbeat, film noir jazz (“If I Had My Mouth”) mixed with music that has roots in the renaissance such as the Opening Title was brilliant. I especially love Maurissa Tancharoen’s singing of “Sigh No More”. Not only was this a clever way to weave the famous “hey nonny nonny” speech, but it fit the mood. Heavily tied perfectly to the sorrow of the moment where Hero’s character besmirched and apparently dead. Really finely matched score to the move.

A final note – the photo stills by Elsa Guillet-Chapuis are nothing short of lovely art. I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned photo stills before in a review, but hers are amazing; I incorporated a few of them. You’ll see her as the photographer in the film.

Jillian Morgese as Hero &  Clark Gregg as Leonato - Official photo Elsa Guillet-Chapuis

Jillian Morgese as Hero & Clark Gregg as Leonato – Official photo Elsa Guillet-Chapuis

If you haven’t seen it, do. If you were worried about it because of the trailer or it’s contemporary or it’s shot in B&W, don’t let that stop you. It’s a great addition to the movie canon of Shakespeare and just plain fun to watch.