The rumours started as soon as the cameras stopped rolling: Josh Whedon had just wrapped a modern day adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. Famously, the play pits one of Shakespeare’s best written female characters, Beatrice, against Benedict in a full out war of wit and disdain for all things love related. Whedon’s reputation is for delivering hot female characters who are strong and complex. Endless discussions surround the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and feminism, but for now I’ll just say the combination of Whedon and Shakespeare sounded promising.
Also, “Whedonites” are diehard. As soon as the press release went out, the internet lit up in speculation.
Adding to the hype: the mere twelve shooting days the director took while on a post-production break from The Avengers, and the fact he cast no big names stars, but instead rounded up friends and family. Plus, he used his own home as the principle location. Oh, and he shot the whole thing in black and white. Basically the creator of Buffy Summers broke all the Hollywood rules when it comes to making a Shakespeare movie.
Still, despite a guaranteed audience, given the source material, the summer movie release, and the lack of pyrotechnics the film played here in Montreal, for one week only. There’s a good chance you missed its speedy run through the theatres, so here are four reasons why you should definitely rent, download, borrow, or by some other means get at look at this sexy, dark, and at times absurd love story:
1. It’s gorgeous. Just take a look at the perfectly stylized images on the film’s web site. Each shot looks as carefully composed as a still photograph, but speed is actually part of the aesthetic. There’s a spontaneous and off-handed feel to the scenes that combined with the 60’s style wardrobe gives the film a French New Wave vibe. A few stand out moments: Benedict casually sitting next to a little girl’s dollhouse while he delivers his speech on bachelorhood; the dazed Claudio in the pool, with snorkel gear, sipping from his martini glass; a masked ball with sequined clad Cirque du Soleil type acrobats, twinkle lights, and smooth jazz.
2. It’s fun. Whedon obviously gets Shakespeare’s slap-stick type humour. There are pratfalls down stairs, buffoonish jumps behind bushes, and ridiculous exercise lunges. As Beatrice and Benedict loose their cool they begin to literally trip over their own feet, and their transformation into love struck happy goofballs is laugh out loud funny. Then there are the winks to modern day technology that play like inside jokes between Whedon and the audience: messages arrive by smart phone; music plays on ipod speakers; cops and mobster types adjust their Miami Vice sunglasses. Though the film definitely takes a stark look at the dark underbelly of love, the physical comedy, and the modern touches play up the production’s fun side.
3. It’s sexy. Usually when the Bard gets the Hollywood treatment it’s time to roll out the magnificent landscapes, the castles, the crinolines, and other grand and elaborate Merchant-Ivory-type tricks from the director’s toolbox. Here, instead, the camera is mostly hand held, and the lighting is natural. The pared down aesthetics create a sensual mood inviting you inside the scenes. Plus the film bounces along as one long extended boozy party in a spare but elegant house where everyone looks fabulous.
4. The acting is stellar. Unless we’re talking BBC version, often there are a few weak links in any given Shakespeare movie. (Sorry Keanu, I’m a fan, but I sill haven’t forgotten your stilted interpretation of “the Bastard Prince” in Branagh’s 1993 version.)
Special mention goes to Amy Acker’s Beatrice who is all sting and verve, then glowing devotion. Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk are hilarious as the blumbering constables. Sean Maher as Don John is pure menace. And Clark Gregg plays Leonato with a languid slightly tipsy ease until he turns frighteningly heartless.
Despite the film’s numerous charms I did wonder how a modern audience would react to the emphasis on virginity. When asked about the play’s anachronistic narrative Whedon himself said he wanted to stress “the human, not the not the hymen.” Then I remembered the numerous online slut-shaming tragedies covered by the media and realized the play wasn’t dated at all. Hurt, betrayal and jealousy are, of course, still with us, but the harsh truth is, even today a girl accused of sleeping around can have her reputation broken along with her spirit. That’s when I realized that Whedon had captured a level of contemporary meaning in this famously saucy story I hadn’t considered.
Of course, Much Ado About Nothing is not a tragedy, but a comedy, so yes, all the calamities schemes and deceptions are eventually smoothed out. But along the way, Whedon delivers an endearing film that crackles with wit, passion, betrayal, humour and heartache, in one smooth package. In the end, the much ado over the movie is definitely about something.
Here’s a taste.
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