It is undoubtedly a lamentable sign of my own ingrained snobbery to have low expectations going into a film based on the work of Shakespeare which is largely populated by actors from US television. I’d read plenty of good reviews of it, and I have respect for director and adapter Joss Whedon: he made an entertaining film version of Marvel’s The Avengers last year, and has had some success on television since Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And yet I still didn’t trust that this film, made in a two-week break between the filming and post-production on the aforementioned comic book blockbuster, could really succeed. Well it has — better even I think than Kenneth Branagh’s bigger budget and starrier 1993 adaptation — so I am pleased to be proved wrong.
Of course I can’t claim any special understanding of Shakespeare myself — adaptations of his work quite often go over my head — so the key is having actors and a director who are really passionate about the text, who work well together and understand one another, and this is very much the case here. The passion they show as an ensemble means that it’s never at any point unclear what is going on. Of course (and this is in the text itself, too) you do sometimes wonder why it’s going on, though Whedon has subtly integrated plenty of alcohol consumption: these are characters brought together in a single place for a wedding, after all. There is a certain level of stir-craziness to their actions, and the omnipresence of glasses of wine and shots of tequila (not to mention a crafty joint at one point) motivates some of the more overt slapstick that goes on.
Much Ado is, after all, a comedy, both in the grand sense (it leads to a harmonious ending) and in the details — there is plenty in Whedon’s film that is laugh-out-loud funny, not least the aforementioned slapstick. Stealing the film in this regard is Nathan Fillion’s Captain Dogberry, basically a head of security who has pretensions to being police, though the sparring couple of Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker) show great comic timing without letting it get in the way of their burgeoning love story. The comedy framework, too, means that Sean Maher’s brooding villain Don John is given an unambiguous treatment, with his speeches set in dramatic shadows not to mention overt changes to the musical register when he’s on-screen.
Given the limitations of both the speed with which it was made and the location (it is all filmed in and around Whedon’s home in California), there’s lots of filmmaking ingenuity on show alongside the occasional scene which seems underdeveloped. Framing is often (presumably sometimes by necessity) occluded by doors and mirrors, with some surprising camera angles to emphasise particular moments in the drama. A memorable scene in the swimming pool appears on some versions of the film’s poster, while a garden amphitheatre is used for the wedding scene. It’s filmed in black-and-white, which has the added benefit of taking the film a little bit out of time (although it’s by no means a period piece; mobile phones and streaming video makes occasional appearances).
Most of all, though, the way it’s filmed imparts a sense of energy to both the performances and the staging that contrast with bigger, more stodgier productions. It may have been filmed in Whedon’s down-time, but this version of Much Ado is more than equal to other recent Shakespeare stagings, and even feels of a piece with Whedon’s own scripts. Fans of Shakespeare can take heart that the Bard’s works may reach a new demographic of fans, but for the rest of us it’s simply an enjoyable film which deserves success.
Director/Writer Joss Whedon (based on the play by William Shakespeare); Cinematographer Jay Hunter; Starring Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Barbican Cinema, London, Saturday 22 June 2013.