During the years when he was diligently bringing the world Buffy and Angel et als, Joss Whedon was also inviting the cast members of said shows over to his house for Shakespeare readings. Itís only fitting,then, that Whedonís film version of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING should be filmed in that very house. Working at a breakneck pace with the 12 days of shooting during which everyone concerned was available, Whedon and company have produced an adaptation that is sheer perfection, honoring the Bard by breathing life into the story and returning to it the blithe comedy and harrowing tragedy of people in love.
It is an oft told tale, but Whedon has swept away the dust and cobwebs by using a potent imagination and a genuine love for the work itself that transcends mere admiration. Set in the present day, rife with cell phones and iPods, not a word of the rich Elizabethan language has been altered, and yet not for one moment does there seem anything anachronous, aside from the paramount importance of an unmarried womanís virginity. The company of players, including Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker in the roles of Benedick and Beatrice, use contemporary body language and a fine sense of spontaneity that gives the words the freshness of wit and contrivance that the original audience would have experienced. Speeches are not declaimed, but spoken; dialogue has the immediacy of real conversation, with all the attendant discovery and surprise. Which is not to say that the careful meter of the poetry is ignored. The words sparkle the way they were meant to do, falling, as it were, trippingly from the tongue.
The story is one of intrigue and crossed purposes. A prince (Fran Kranz) has pardoned his treacherous brother, Don John (Sean Maher), and seals their new friendship with a stay at the home of a loyal countryman (Clark Gregg with all the wondrous superciliousness of a born politician). There a callow young count (Reed Diamond) in the princeís retinue falls for the hostís daughter (Jillian Morgese modest, comely, and winsome), and old enemies Beatrice, the hostís niece, and Benedict, the princeís courtier, meet again. Courtships of many types ensue, as does a plan of revenge that plays to humankindís natural tendency to believe the worst about people.
The only alteration Whedon has chosen to do is to add a small, wordless, but devastatingly potent prologue to the story, in which a backstory for Beatrice and Benedict is revealed. Everything those characters do afterwards, and every choice the actors make in portraying them, is given new layers of meaning because of that once scene. The barbed jibes, the extravagant posturing, the overwhelming emotionality of characters who are above all scathingly intelligent. Acker brings a jolting ferocity to Beatrice, a proto-feminist chafing under the rules of gender that prevent her from being a woman of action, and, like everyone else in the film, a fool for love. Denisof is her equal in every respect, running the emotional gamut from slapstick to suspense with an unaffected ease and absolute sincerity. Whedon has also done the unthinkable, turning one of Don Johnís courtiers into a Valley Girl, complete with bored monotone and vapid expression, who is not above a little nooky while listening to fiendish plots be planned. Itís so counterintuitive, and yet so very right.
Filmed in black & white for a properly timeless effect, the confines of Whedonís home never comes across as a restriction. Aside from the house being a spacious one, every inch of it and its grounds are used to excellent, visually inventive advantage, as are the staging of scenes, that stand on no ceremony, remaining kinetic and engaging whether going for a pratfall and belly laugh where necessary, or, where necessary, catching a moment of riveting drama. Details are as precise as they are telling. A villain stops to snatch a cupcake when everyone else is stunned into grief, an elegant, unobtrusive monogram graces a cuff peeking from under a coat. Even Nation Fillion, as the comic relief of the piece, the malaprop-prone self-important, hopelessly obtuse Dogberry, catches his voice at the precise moment when the absurdity demands it while railing about the perceived stupidity of others.
Joss Whedon has taken what in lesser hands is an emotional trifle and turned it into an emotional powederkeg. Focusing as much on the complex characters and the scathingly knotty plot as on the sublime language, his MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING may be as close to The Bard's oriinal intentions as we are likely to see here in the 21st century.