Monday, April 1, 2013

Simply Shakespeare, on Film: MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, directed by Joss Whedon

Last Friday, in a prologue to a sneak preview of his new movie, Much Ado about Nothing, Joss Whedon betrayed some anxiety about exposing the film to scholarly scrutiny. The occasion was the Shakespeare Society of America’s annual meeting in Toronto, the audience was several hundred British and North American Shakespeare academics gathered in a vast hotel ballroom, and the mode by which Whedon expressed his nervousness was a fake British accent. Not that he mocked the crowd. That would have been unShakespearean. In his filmed introduction, he alternated between the stuffy drone of an Oxford academic and his regular voice, in which he expressed gratitude to those who’d committed their professional lives to helping students understand and like Shakespeare. When the film began, it became clear pretty quickly that Joss Whedon knew how to do both.

Whedon’s stripped-down, low-budget, black and white version of Shakespeare’s great mid-career comedy is simply Shakespeare, without modernizing gimmicks or tricks.  Except insofar as every transplanting of a play from live theater to film is an adaptation, it isn’t one.  It’s the play. The setting is a Los Angeles-ish mansion in the twenty-first century, to which characters arrive by limo, toting cell phones, but Whedon has made no attempt to update the ceremonial language of the
Renaissance Italian court wherein Shakespeare placed his story, nor to retool the lines so they fit a recognizable twenty-first century situation. The men and women remain dons and ladies, and though his American actors sound American, the locale isn't presented as a suburb of Los Angeles, as was "Verona Beach" in Baz Luhrmann's 1996 Romeo + Juliet. Benedick, the heroine Beatrice's reluctant suitor, is called by her cousin Hero "the only man of Italy." In an early scene, as honored guest Don Pedro and his retinue arrive at the home of Hero's father, the local magnate Don Leonato, Leonato's brief scrutiny of some figures on paper faintly suggests that the "full numbers" Don Pedro has just achieved somewhere and somehow constitute success in a mutual financial coup, rather than victory in battle as in Shakespeare's play. But no more is made of the suggestion -- the "swords" and "soldiers" of the subsequent dialogue do not become trade-ventures and CEOS -- as though Whedon understood that the initial motive for the party at Leonato's was immaterial; that it could remain vague or even ridiculous. (After all, nobody can tell what the battle was about, or even who the newly arrived men are supposed to have been fighting, in the play itself.) The point is to have young men come from somewhere outside a house into the house, and then to position them in proximity to the young women of the place, who are Beatrice (Amy Acker), Hero (Jillian Morgese), and a sexy maidservant named Margaret (Ashley Johnson). From that point on, a series of flirtations and practical jokes played by various groups of allied characters on other characters takes over the plot, which works inexorably towards its comic conclusion, the transformation of Beatrice and Benedick from wounded marriage-phobes to betrothed, trusting lovers and friends.

That Whedon begins the film with a purely invented, wordless scene showing Benedick and Beatrice as lovers does not compromise his fidelity to Shakespeare’s script. In an odd way, it confirms it. Benedick (played with appropriate egotism by Alexis Denisof) is seen pausing at the door on the way out of Beatrice’s bedroom, looking uncertainly at her apparently sleeping form as she lies with her back to him, then making a beeline for the hall, after which the camera dwells briefly on Beatrice’s open-eyed, disappointed face. Was this their first sexual encounter? Does Benedick habitually leave her side with no expression of affection? Either way, the scene makes Beatrice’s subsequent public scorn for Benedick understandable, and, furthermore, gives visual life and specificity to her later bittersweet response to Don Pedro’s teasing charge that she has “lost the heart” of Benedick. “Indeed,” she says, “he lent it me awhile, and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one. . . . he won it of me with false dice.”

 The fearful heart of Benedick and the wounded pride of Beatrice are so palpably real to viewers, so instantly (in the classical sense) pathetic, that Whedon doesn’t need to doctor the dialogue; to find substitutes for terms like “rechate” or “invisible baldrick” or try to explain what they are. He lets his actors speak rather than dodge or jettison Shakespeare’s lines, and as they speak Shakespeare, their various stark human predicaments become painfully clear. Young Claudio (Fran Kranz), smitten with Hero, sounds like a man of the world when he mocks Benedick for his reluctance to woo Beatrice, but Claudio proves an unforgivably easy mark when duped into suspecting his own Hero’s infidelity. Benedick, more fearful of marital commitment than any of the other men, proves ultimately the only one who actually knows what marriage means (and no wonder he’s scared). He’s tricked into professing love for Beatrice, but once he does so, he lives by his word, forswearing his companions, Claudio and Don Pedro, out of loyalty to Beatrice and her cousin. In the painful scene when Claudio aborts his garden-wedding to Hero by publicly accusing her of promiscuity, after not even her father takes Hero’s side, Benedick – for Beatrice -- does. Whedon lightens the scene by having Don John punctuate Claudio's vicious tirade against Hero by grabbing a cupcake from a table as he exits. (They've thrown Hero, the “rotten orange,” back on her father, but you know, John’s kind of hungry.) The visual joke reminds us that the play’s a comedy, but, as often in Shakespeare, a lover’s insensitivity leaves scars that linger in a way that borders on the tragic. Hero, reunited to Claudio at the end of the film, tells him she has “died,” and Jillian Morgese speaks the line sadly. Her ill treatment at his hands has fundamentally changed who she is. As for Claudio’s transformation, Whedon makes sure we know he hasn’t experienced one. He’s still a callow kid who believes what he’s told and can’t see past surfaces. “Another Hero!,” he says, gaping at the woman her father has restored to him. He’s right – she’s a different woman -- but not in the way that he thinks. “I’ll hold my mind” – marry this woman – “were she an Ethiope,” he declares, while, in the rear of the frame, an African-American wedding guest regards him with cynical contempt. (The viewing room erupted in applause at this moment. Rather than cut Shakespeare’s potentially offensive line, Whedon has visually contextualized it to unleash its real meaning: that Claudio is abhorrently superficial.) Because Hero’s chief accuser, Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark), is allowed to look briefly heartbroken at Hero’s initial demonstration of interest in Claudio, the villain Borachio’s repentance for having slandered her seems, ironically, more genuine than the victimized Claudio’s. A jealous lover, Borachio at least had a motive for the slander. In a ludicrous plot twist, both men are in different scenes falsely informed that Hero has died of grief after her disastrous wedding day. Only Borachio looks stricken by the news, or sounds genuinely repentant afterwards. She should have married him.
Notwithstanding the garden cupcake stack, and the visual lushness of scenes showing household staff preparing hors d’ouvres for Don Leonato’s endless festivities – cuts to hands chopping onions, brushing pastries, and pouring wine abound – the absence of actual color in the film allows for a minimum of visual distraction from the film’s dialogue. The muted tone functions like the bare Elizabethan stage, to direct audience attention to rich language rather to the mere show. Because Whedon’s cinematography is so successful in this regard, his decision to make one of the more sinister members of Don Pedro’s retinue, Conrade, a miniskirted blonde (played by Riki Lindhome) is disappointing, especially since the choice seems to have been made merely so that her conversation with Pedro’s brother Don John (Sean Maher) could be delivered during a rather yicky sexual encounter (a choice which will prevent high-school teachers from showing this film to their classes, as someone should have warned Whedon). Still, Whedon’s decision not to change any of the masculine nouns or pronouns Shakespeare used for Conrade makes for some subtly hilarious moments when Conrade and Borachio are arrested by Dogberry, the pompous local policeman (brilliantly underplayed by Nathan Fillion). Dogberry calls her “gentleman Conrade,” and she rolls her eyes rather than correcting him. He’s an ass. It’s not remorse on the part of Claudio or even Borachio, but Dogberry’s revelation of the slander that makes a comic ending possible, but still, he and his deputies can’t get any of the smaller things right. The second watchman (Brian McElhaney) repeatedly blinds himself with his flashlight, and Dogberry and Deputy Verges are last seen peering into their car in bafflement outside Don Leonato’s house; Verges has locked the keys inside. Simplicity again rules, and unleashes Shakespeare’s comedy, in Fillion’s deadbeat portrayal of the ludicrously self-important Dogberry. Fillion’s calm gravitas contrasts markedly with the scary weirdness of Michael Keaton’s bizarre “Beetlejuice” Dogberry in the last notable film of Much Ado, directed in 1993 by Kenneth Branagh: Branagh, who should have known to trust Shakespeare’s language, but did so less than Whedon, even though Whedon’s new to the game.

Like Fillion’s Dogberry, Acker’s Beatrice and Denisof’s Benedick perfectly incarnate their characters by voicing their lines with absolute, ringing sincerity. “I am loved of all ladies,” Benedick says loudly and smugly, before privately expressing shame and bafflement at Beatrice’s insults. Sharp-tongued Beatrice enjoys torturing Benedick, but makes the hollowness of her triumph evident in a slight slackening of her smile when, defeated by her wit, he flees the kitchen where the other guests are gathered. We wait for these two to drop their masks, and when Hero’s crisis gives occasion for it, we see in their taut body language, in Beatrice’s folded arms, how tempted they are to clap them back on at the least hint of each other’s untrustworthiness. But they resist the temptation. So they earn the schmaltz of the last scene, as the camera pans to the two of them, embracing and staring at one another fondly, outside the room where crazy dancing has overtaken everyone – including a surprisingly hip Friar Francis and youngish Don Leonato, played respectively by Paul Meston and Clark Gregg. Clint Bennett’s gently humorous score swells, and it’s all turned to music, with sounds of woe converted into an Italian-Californian hey, nonny nonny.

 Click for the film's trailer.
Click for interview with Joss Whedon, Amy Acker, and Alexis Denisof:

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