Monday, February 25, 2013

Joss Whedon's 'Much Ado About Nothing': There Was a Star Danced

After having just described my on-again-off-again relationship with Shakespeare, I find myself discussing the Bard again, this time in Joss Whedon's film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, which just screened at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. My review coming up just as soon as I was born under a rhyming planet ...

What qualities define the ideal Elizabethan woman? Good social standing is a place to start. A mind won't go amiss just as long as you don't speak too freely - it could mean talking yourself out of inheriting your father's kingdom (see Cordelia in King Lear). In fact, best do whatever your father tells you, even if that means spying on your boyfriend for him like Ophelia does in Hamlet. Chastity is a big plus - it will attract good boys named Romeo who will stalk your balcony. The vaguest accusal of adultery, however, is a dealbreaker and can lead to an awkward trial case, much like what happened to Hermione in The Winter's Tale.

As for the ideal Elizabethan man - he's a write-off according to Beatrice, who is waiting for God to "make men of some other metal than earth". In fact, she enters Much Ado About Nothing unchaste and unafraid to speak her mind. Perhaps it was her clever use of phrase and overthrow of the conventional presentation of women of the period that attracted the play to screenwriter Joss Whedon, adored creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and several other wonderful things which I won't mention in fear of digressing), who is prone to writing strong female characters capable of kicking ass, cheating death and blowing up hell dimensions.

Beatrice's uncle, Lenato, has invited guests to festivities in his home and among the arrivals is Benedick - a wisecracking lord who Beatrice is engaged in a "merry war" of insults with. Her contempt originates from a personal injury - a past romance with Benedick from which she made herself believe the holder of his heart. "He lent it me awhile", she reveals in a vulnerable moment. Amidst their exchange of barbs, both can agree on a cynical outlook on love. "Truly, I love none", says Benedick. "I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me", adds Beatrice.

Whedon has shot the film in nostalgic black-and-white. Minutes into it, after the delivery of the first few bars of Shakespearean verse, you can see the heads of the audience turn to each other as if to say: "What have we gotten ourselves into?" We know that the sold-out auditorium is in attendance out of love for Whedon first and Much Ado second. Delightful it was then to see how settled into the verse the audience became - a feat which many stage productions that I've seen didn't achieve. One-liners gave rise to laughs (one about Benedick's "amorous tail" comes to mind), usually delayed a second or two by the time needed to decipher them.

The adaptation sustains because of the playful performances of Whedon's players. Amy Acker dazzles as the witted Beatrice, perfectly pitched between comedy and sorrow. Alexis Denisof is at the best I've ever seen him as Benedick, sly but earnest. Worshiped for his roles in Whedon's Firefly and Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, Nathan Fillion receives a rapturous applause the second he appears onscreen as the ridiculed watchman Dogberry, and his handling of the text goes to demonstrate the great comic relief the character truly provides. The revelation of the comedy in slight moments (Clark Gregg is a weapon here), and the fluidity of the camera that reduces the lengthier speeches, make this monochrome marvel so damn easy to watch.

Sweepingly elegant, it succeeds in what any theatre enthusiast can hope for - making Sheakespeare's writing ring in such a way to catch the ears of a contemporary audience. Furthermore, it leaves you with a presence of something that predates the current age of 'rom-coms', almost prehistoric. It's not 'The First' evil but rather 'The First' telling of a story, one that has become timeless, regarding that delicate state of both loving and being loved.

What did everybody else think?

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