Sunday, 30 June 2013

Stage-to-screen review: Much Ado About Nothing (Bellwether Pictures)

I rarely venture away from live performance in my reviews on this blog, but if the worlds of Shakespeare and Buffy the Vampire Slayer collide you know I'm going to be interested1. Since Joss Whedon started running TV shows in 1996 he's been fond of using certain actors again and again across Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse and Dr Horrible, while constantly adding new faces to the ensemble. It's also been common knowledge that his casts would spend their days off at Whedon's home where he'd direct them in Shakespeare readings. So when a black and white film version of Much Ado About Nothing suddenly materialised, filmed secretly at Whedon's Hollywood mansion in the break between shooting and post-production of Avengers Assemble, it was both a surprise and somehow completely inevitable. In retrospect, all these years he's been building a repertory company, but for TV and film rather than theatre.

Opening with a silent scene in which Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof) share a one-night stand that's only hinted at in the play, the film makes no secret of the fact that what is technically a subplot will, as it usually does, dominate this edited version. The two are thrown together again sometime later when Benedick is among a group of long-tern guests at the home of Beatrice's uncle, Leonato (Clark Gregg.) As a pair of young lovers jump into marriage, the older pair's protestations of wanting to stay forever single are put to the test by Don Pedro (Reed Diamond,) who determines to trick the two into falling in love.

There's different ways you can play Benedick and Beatrice at the start of the play; Denisof and Acker, perhaps working off leftover chemistry from their characters' unresolved relationship on Angel, definitely go for a long-standing love that they both thought unrequited. They're not even trying to convince themselves with their apparent disdain for each other, it's purely for the benefit of their friends - who aren't fooled for a moment. Working with actors he clearly knows so well, Whedon gives them different approaches to the gulling scenes, Denisof all too happy to make himself look ridiculous, while Acker's turn is a lot more slapstick.

My one main issue with the film is in just quite where the modernisation has transposed these characters - who are they exactly? There's a few remaining references to them having been in a battle but these clearly aren't the soldiers of the original. In their designer suits with guns concealed under them they could be mobsters, but there isn't any hint of an additional darkness to their characters that would support this interpretation; and the "Wanted" posters on the Night Watch's walls suggest they are part of the police, and Leonato's people cooperate with them from the start, when Sean Maher's dastardly Don John is brought in to stay under house arrest.

I settled on deciding Pedro and Leonato were politicians and the other men their entourages. Whedon doesn't neglect the main plot, and doesn't shy away from the nasty slut-shaming that forms a major turning point - Gregg's affable Leonato turning coldly against his daughter is quietly brutal - but he doesn't quite confront it head-on either, quickly moving back to the lighter side of things as the scheme to pretend Hero has died is hatched. I wasn't sure what to think of the casting of Fran Kranz as the tricky character of Claudio; he does a passable job but there's no real exploration of just how hard it is to reconcile his actions with his status as romantic hero (but to be fair, I've only once seen Claudio make sense as a character, so Kranz is in good company.) Hero meanwhile is a female romantic lead with very little to say for herself, and it takes an actress with a bit more charisma than newcomer Jillian Morgese to make something of her.

Of course another character who's unaccountably problematic is the malapropising Dogberry, whose dialogue is funny enough on its own but who for some reason seems to attract a lot of overacting that sucks the fun out of him. Fortunately the balance of good to bad Dogberrys I've seen seems to be slowly swaying in the right direction, with Nathan Fillion trusting Shakespeare's ludicrous text and playing the bumbling cop poker-faced. He and Tom Lenk's Verges come up with a funny double act of small-time watchmen intent on playing out their jobs as if they were in a hard-boiled cop movie.

Actually there's a lot of faith being shown in Shakespeare's text here, 15 years of practice on their days off having left Whedon and his company clearly comfortable in his language, and the clarity of language and story is one of the film's best features. It's a sweet, sparkling Much Ado rather than a hilarious one, with a couple of sly little digs, at Shakespeare himself for one, as Claudio's unfortunate "were she an Ethiope" line is delivered with a black background actress in frame. And I couldn't help wondering if the ever forward-thinking director was having a dig at the Hollywood preconception that audiences don't like seeing gay actors play straight, by having the openly-gay Maher's Don John seem rather convincingly heterosexual as he seduces a gender-swapped Conrade (Riki Lindhome.)

Let's face it though, the moral of this Much Ado is that Joss Whedon has the best house. Palatial on the outside, with a swimming pool, stone staircases, and not so much a garden as grounds, yet the inside somehow seems welcoming and cosy. I guess if you lived there why wouldn't you show the world?

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes.

1I also don't tend to give people tags if I don't think I'll be writing about them again at some point but Joss Whedon gets one because... well are you going to bet against him writing a stage musical sometime soon?

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