It’s been 20 years since the big-screen debut of Kenneth Branagh’s joyous, sun-drenched adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Critically acclaimed and modestly successful at the box office, Branagh’s Much Ado boasted a powerhouse cast (Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, Emma Thompson, Michael Keaton and a nearly unrecognizable pre-whatever-the-work-she-had-done Kate Beckinsale, among others). More importantly, it represented an exuberantly manifested understanding and love of the source material, faithfully presented by a talented director.
Now, two decades later, Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing has landed in theaters, and though the cast may be less star-studded and the golden hues muted to a cool black and white, the result is nearly as pleasing.
In Hollywood, a 20-year gulf between a successful film adaptation and some sort of reboot, remake or sequel would usually signal a failure in the performance of the original, or at least some interesting story of development hell and battling property rights. But this is the Bard, in some ways immune to the industry’s insatiable need to repackage, sequelize and rip off anything with a track record in the popular imagination. Granted, Shakespeare’s works are rivaled only by the Bible as inspirational material for pretty much every movie genre out there. (And the day a version of Twelfth Night brings in $100 million will be the day before the green-lit production of an Eleventh Nightprequel is announced.)
Unlike the 1993 film, in which Branagh roughly maintained the setting of the original play, Whedon places his Much Ado About Nothing in present-day California. (The film was shot in Whedon’s Santa Monica home.) Though the setting has been updated, the language has not—a reason for lovers of Shakespeare to rejoice, and for those less familiar with him to go, “Wait, what…?” Much as with Branagh’s version, it’s a decision that guarantees Whedon’s Much Ado will not venture far beyond the confines of the art house theater and Netflix’s “Shakespeare Films” category. Of course, the language is also pretty much the reason the plays of this particular 16th Century playwright are still being made into movies. (Consider Shakespeare contemporary Christopher Marlowe, who has appeared in more films as a character than had his own work adapted to the screen.)
As its title suggests, Much Ado’s plot is a light and airy thing (yet still so, so much better crafted than most movie fare)—Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), fresh from victory over his bastard of a brother, Don John (Sean Maher), stops at the estate of a loyal supporter, Leonato (Clark Gregg). In Don Pedro’s entourage are Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof). Residing with Leonato at his estate are his daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese), and her cousin, Beatrice (Amy Acker).
Claudio falls for Hero, Hero doesn’t mind a bit (nor does her dad), and to pass the time between betrothal and wedded bliss, Don Pedro decides to trick avowed matrimoni-phobes Benedick and Beatrice into expressing their love for one another. (For his part, Don John tries to cause trouble.)
As with any well-executed production of a much beloved, older play (be it on stage or screen), Much Ado comes loaded with elegant solutions to the challenges of communicating with a contemporary audience in a non-contemporary (no matter how beautiful) language. A celebratory fist bump here, a shared look there—Whedon and his cast usually insert enough non-verbal cues into the proceedings that most viewers will be able to follow the action even when an understanding of the dialogue proves evasive.
Virtually every actor in Much Ado About Nothing is a veteran of at least one of Whedon’s television or film projects, and for the most part, their efforts are not wasted in this particular labor of love. So much of the joy of Much Ado rests on the acerbic Benedick and Beatrice, and Denisof and Acker perform their roles with the energy and charm. As the malapropism-prone Dogberry, Nathan Fillion’s performance is a marked improvement, not only in comparison to Michael Keaton’s “pre-death Beetlejuice” turn in Branagh’s film, but also in how effortlessly it updates the “bumbling constable” character so familiar to the audiences of Shakespeare’s time to its contemporary equivalent.
If there’s a casting misstep, it’s in putting Kranz in the role of Claudio. To borrow from the same categories Whedon played with in The Cabin in the Woods, the soldier Claudio of Much Ado is a basically a jock—an earnest, handsome specimen of a man. Even dressed to cut a more striking figure, there’s a reason Kranz played Marty, the paranoid, pot-smoking “fool” in Cabin and not “athlete” Curt (played by Chris Hemsworth).
In setting and tone, Much Ado manages to smoothly present a contemporary vision of the play’s original setting of wealth and ease—this is how the better, effortlessly hipper, half lives. The performance by Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon of “Sigh No More” (music by Joss, lyrics by William) serves as a languid, melodic theme for the film as a whole.
Modernizing the setting of Much Ado while keeping the original language doesn’t come without a few hiccups. While the premise of a bastard brother rebelling, being defeated and then initially brought back into the fold works well enough in a feudal context, it seems a little strange when presented as a present-day occurrence. In the opening scene of the film, when the messenger reporting Don Pedro’s victory over Don John is asked “how many gentlemen have you lost in this action,” he responds, “But few of any sort, and none of name.” That may have been all well and good in the original context, but I’m pretty sure that even a few, inconsequential deaths would merit harsher consequences than some cable ties (soon removed). Then again, it’s never quite clear what power structure Pedro and his crew represent—U.S. political, government intelligence, urbane drug lords, shadow government?
Later, when Leonato rages that death is best for his daughter if the accusations against her are true, it sounds a bit strange, given the setting. Still, in a world where the phrases “honor killing” and “slut shaming” exist, this scene jars less because it’s alien to the modern context than than because it ill fits the specific California-enlightened vibe of of House Whedon.
Fortunately, such quibbles are just that—briefly noted and easily set aside in a film that successfully meets the challenges of adapting Shakespeare for a modern audience far more often than it falters.
For a look at one of the lesser appreciated joys of Branagh’s 1993’s version, check out Much Ado About Keanu.
Writer: Joss Whedon (screenplay); William Shakespeare (play)
Starring: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond, Fran Kranz
Release Date: June 7 (limited)