Much Ado About Nothing
Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker as Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing
(Photo: Elsa Guillet Chapuis)

The trick to updating one of Shakespeare’s plays is making it seem fresh and relevant without losing the spirit of what made the original timeless in the first place. Joss Whedon has deftly pulled that off with his new adaptation of the Bard’s comic favorite Much Ado About Nothing.

Filmed quickly, on the sly and on the cheap during a break in post-production on The Avengers, Whedon assembled a number of faces familiar to fans of his work, updated the setting to a house in the hills near Santa Monica and had it all shot in a crisp black and white. Funny, energetic and stripped down, the result has a very different feeling from the lusty, joyful, golden-lit adaptation Kenneth Branagh filmed 20 years ago in Tuscany.

Regulars from Whedon’s Angel, Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof play Beatrice and Benedick, the sparring pair who profess hate for one another but who are brought together through trickery at the home of Leonato (Avengers‘ Clark Gregg). Meanwhile, Fran Kranz (Dollhouse, The Cabin in the Woods) plays young Claudio who falls in love with Beatrice’s cousin Hero. Reed Diamond (Dollhouse) plays dashing Don Pedro who plots to bring everyone together, while Sean Maher (Serenity) plays his brooding bastard brother Don John who seeks to drive everyone apart. Stirring up the madness in the middle, Nathan Fillion (Serenity) turns up half way through the play as the comically inept constable Dogberry and Tom Lenk (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) plays his sidekick Verges.

Being a Shakespeare comedy, there are the usual verbal jousts, the schemes and the misunderstandings which point toward tragedy, but are all finally resolved in the final act with order triumphing over chaos in a series of happy marriages. Not only has Whedon left the story intact, he’s also left Shakespeare’s original language unmolested. As a writer, Whedon is known for his own gift for comic patter but here he had the good sense to not try to out-Shakespeare the master. Instead, he peppers the spaces between the lines with a series of little visual gags that add to the fun and impart a certain Whedonesque stamp without getting in the way.

Writing aside, this sort of thing lives or dies by the cast and Whedon’s stock company is up to the task much more than you’d expect from a group without a lot of Shakespearean training in their résumés. From leads Acker and Denisof down the line, each one handles the language gracefully and naturally without missing a beat.

The end result feels effortless and unforced. Whedon zeroes in on the themes of romantic love – both the fantasies and the hard realities – that seem nearly as relevant today as they must have over 400 years ago. Neither obliterating the original nor being suffocated by it, Much Ado About Nothing is both a welcome celebration of Shakespeare and a winning entertainment in its own right.

5 Responses to “Much Ado About Nothing (2013)”

  1. Thrilled to hear this, and I must say with Mozart and Shakespeare capturing your attention the past few days you have scaled the heights of western culture! Ha! I came very close to seeing this on Saturday night, but erred in not figuring on the sellout, and wound up seeing a mixed Australian film, WISH YOU WERE THERE. But great review and more motivation to make sure I watch it over the coming days. I did like the Branagh adaptation of two decades ago but am indeed expecting something far different here.

  2. Anything involving Joss Whedon is must-watch and almost guaranteed to be great (except for Angel Season 4). I hope I can catch this one online anytime soon.

  3. It’s surprising Sam how well this did at just 5 theaters. There was a healthy sized audience for the 10am Saturday screening in Hollywood was well.

    Rodrigo, if you’re a Whedon fan, it’s hard for me to picture you not digging this at least a little bit.

  4. I saw this when it opened at the Toronto Film Festival last summer, and I enjoyed it. Having just directed and acted in my own adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy for a one-act drama festival, it was great to see a totally different take on it (my version was set in Upper Canada during the War of 1812 period). Particularly enjoyed Nathan Fillion as Dogberry (he got a rousing ovation at his first screen appearance). Also enjoyed the Q&A with the cast afterwards (although I still regret I didn’t get to ask my question, though not from lack of trying).

  5. The combination of Whedon and Shakespeare is one that I wish we had gotten sooner, although with all that newfound Avengers’ studio credibility, maybe we’ll get more.

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