C: Ever since this project was announced after the secret 12-day filming process wrapped, people I know have been going pretty much crazy. Joss Whedon, considered by some a god? Doing Shakespeare’s finest comedy? With Nathan Fillion and the rest of Whedon’s repertory players? Ermagherd!
E: Does it even admit of a doubt that I swooned? And once they released that stylish trailer? Smelling salts, please!
C: Not being a passionate Whedonite myself (my favorite thing he’s done is Avengers) (*ducks for cover*), I wasn’t about to go insane when the film had trouble finding distribution, but I was looking forward to seeing it. I love the play, and I love Fillion.
E: I too love the play to distraction. And I’ve tried to bring you into the Whedonverse for years so I, at least, am tired of railing at you for your inability to see the brilliance of Buffy and Firefly.
C: Gotta love the implication that I’m somehow defective. That’s true sibling affection speaking, folks!
E: Always happy to enlighten you, sis.
C: As I was saying, this movie did strongly catch my interest, especially with its modern house-party setting and the use of black-and-white combining for a stylish aesthetic. My excitement levels would’ve skyrocketed if Fillion had been playing Benedick rather than the small role of Dogberry… but that would also have been an obvious and possibly less interesting choice.
E: While I’m glad that Fillion rescued the sometimes unbearably broad role of Dogberry, and while I can see why even he might have found it too much in his wheelhouse, he would have just knocked the hell out of the romantic lead.
C: Too true. But we’ll come back to that below. First, the overall verdict. After seeing it together with friends, E and I found we had pretty much the same impression: it’s not the best Much Ado ever, but with plenty to enjoy, it’s worth the price of admission. A few tweaks to the casting, and few altered directorial choices, would have pushed this into classic territory.
E: Exactly. We enjoyed it. We laughed. We said the lines along with the actors. It was really good; the frustration, of course, is that it could have been great.
C: Shall we start with a few of our favorite things? I know Nathan Fillion heads both of our lists…
E: Duh. I find Nathan Fillion one of the cutest and most adorable distractions ever (even in his current, slightly portly condition). What I loved is the way he underplayed Dogberry. Unlike Michael Keaton in Kenneth Branagh’s seminal film version, Fillion isn’t frothing at the mouth. He’s an idiot, but a dignified one; he doesn’t scream his buffoonery even when insisting that we remember he’s an ass.
C: “Understated” and “Nathan Fillion” aren’t usually words one combines, but I’ll give you that he played the role with deliberation. His Dogberry is a sort of would-be hardboiled detective, trying to be savvy and suave but utterly lacking the brains. I adored it.
E: Ditto. I can’t really think of another scenario where the comic bit players’ scenes would be the most exciting part of a Much Ado for me, and yet there it is.
C: I had utter confidence going in that he would be great. One pleasant surprise, on the other hand, was Fran Kranz’s interpretation of the role of Claudio. Never having seen Dollhouse, Kranz was a new face to me.
E: I did watch Dollhouse (surprise, I love Joss Whedon!!) but since callous computer wizard is all I’ve seen him do, I was curious to see what else he had in his tank. And to start with I got a big kick out of his double-take when Don Pedro offers to woo Hero for him. About time someone acknowledged the screwiness of that proposition!
C: Yeah, why does that seem like a good plan to anybody? But overall, Claudio is a tough role on two counts. In the first half of the play, he’s thoroughly earnest and more than a little shmoopy. He’s lovesick and easily fooled. In this phase he can still be very likeable (Robert Sean Leonard makes him winsomely appealing, while Tom Ellis plays him as a Andy Dwyer-like loveable dumbbell). But after his accusation of Hero, it’s very hard to like, or even not hate Claudio.
E: Incredibly difficult. This was our biggest debate after the film, the likability of this character.
C: Now, part of what made Kranz’s take on the role stand out to me was that I’d recently rewatched the 2005 BBC modernization (which stars Damien Lewis of Homeland fame, and is amazing, so you should all see it). In that version, the really unforgivable thing is that Claudio confronts Hero at the altar. Even if she’d really cheated on him, this public humiliation regarding a private matter seems unworthy for a decent man.
E: Yes, this deeply bothers me. He doesn’t just leave her, he shames her so violently that pretty much everyone including her doting father wishes she were dead. That’s a tough thing to stomach.
C: In the new version though, both Kranz’s acting and the original Shakespearean dialogue (helped by Whedon’s editing) emphasize that in Renaissance times, this wasn’t just a personal matter. No matter how we feel about it today, “modesty” and “purity” were part of the social contract when an upper-class lady married then, and when Claudio is given good reason to believe he’s been tricked by Hero and even more so by her father into marrying a woman who would bring him and his house shame, this becomes a public matter.
E: I get what you’re saying, I do, but it’s so hard from a modern standpoint to look at marriage from a contractual rather than a personal standpoint. Not to mention the whole woman as chattel thing.
C: Oh, I’m not saying I like it as a plotline, just that this way of playing it made me see the situation from a new angle. Kranz delivers the accusations with such a halting voice, such a torn expression, that what we see is a man who’s been crushed and is going through the socially required motions, rather than a self-righteous member of the morality police. I never thought the role could be played that way — and that’s what new adaptations of Shakespeare are for, isn’t it?
E: Quite so. I’ll have to watch it again to see if I can see what you see, because I hated Claudio even more than usual this time. The modern setting made this bit of sexual politics feel evening more jarring than usual.
C: Hm, I think I’ve always found it loathsome and jarring. It was rewatching the 2005, which is entirely modernized — and the fact that Kranz doesn’t shout and flail like Robert Sean Leonard — that made me pay attention to Shakespeare’s language this time.
E: I guess I was just thinking more of Hero through the whole scene.
C: Um, yeah… that brings me to something in my “dislike” column. No particular malice meant toward Jillian Morgese, I’ve never seen her before, but gosh was she boring. It’s not a showy role, but Kate Beckinsale is proof that even using the original text, Hero doesn’t have to be the acting equivalent of a limp handshake.
E: It’s such a bland role that it’s very difficult to make something out of it — Beckinsale brings to the role a luminous sweetness the likes of which I’ve never seen. I was probably less underwhelmed by Morgese than you, but mostly because I have bigger fish to fry with this adaptation’s casting. Namely, Alexis Denisof’s wildly underwhelming Benedict.
C: I’m not sure about “wild,” but yeah, a bit underwhelming. At first I was interested when he played the unreformed Benedick as more of a winking, smooth-guy player than I’d ever seen the role done before. While Amy Acker as Beatrice settled into the role and got more convincing as the story progressed, though, Denisof did a better clown than an earnest man in love.
E: Even his clownishness was lacking, especially when compared with Kenneth Branagh’s fits of genius in the extended monologues. In general I felt like Whedon had all his actors play their lines more straight and naturalistic than emotional, more calm and measured than mercurial; there was very little scenery chewing, and while in the case of Dogberry this was a wonderful improvement, it wasn’t a uniformly beneficial choice. It’s all a little too sedate.
C: That’s a good point. Especially in the opening scenes, they’re consciously saying everything in a Very Casual Voice. Which is obviously aimed to make the Shakespearean language sound natural, but results in the cast underplaying moments where they should be animated.
E: Acker, for instance, sadly lacks Emma Thompson’s liveliness — would anyone really have called her a merry hearted lady, or feared her fierce tongue? But she makes up for this when she becomes convinced of Benedick’s love.
C: Yes, she definitely played the more earnest scenes most convincingly. The chapel scene, combining “I love yous” with death threats, she did particularly well.
E: On the other hand, I don’t believe for a minute that Benedick actually loved Beatrice. Which is kind of a bummer, considering. I get that it’s a difficult role to pull off, especially the lengthy series of monologues where he completely reverses his emotional state, but the whole movie kind of hangs on his ability to make us feel it.
C: And that’s why I can’t help feeling Nathan Fillion would have rocked it. As we’ve seen from Castle, he can go from immature playboy to man in love with utter conviction. And he’s got the witty banter thing down. Then again, we have seen it all before in Castle. Oh man oh man, if only they could do an episode where he and Beckett somehow have to play Benedick and Beatrice…
E: Like the Taming of the Shrew episode of Moonlighting!
C: But as Dumbledore says, it does not do to dwell on dreams; back to the movie. Whedon tries to provide an explanation for Beatrice and Benedick’s “merry war” by beginning the film with a flashback of Benedick sneaking out of her bedroom post-tryst, looking somber and regretful, while a similarly somber Beatrice pretends to be asleep.
E: Sigh. That just seems so annoyingly obvious a tactic.
C: Okay, I mean, it does seem like a legitimate modernized take on Beatrice’s suggestive statement later in the play, regarding Benedick’s heart: “he lent it me a while, and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one: marry once before he won it of me, with false dice.” The trouble is, adding this scene doesn’t explain anything.
E: Yes. That. Exactly.
C: How did they end up in bed? Why do they both look sickened about it now? Why is he sneaking out? Were they drunk? Did they have a fight? This was a lost opportunity, I thought: an addition which was supposed to flesh out and give background to the characters’ emotions, but didn’t do the job.
E: Frankly, instead of making me more invested in their story, it forced me to doubt the truth of their fitness for each other. Why did he leave? Was the sex that bad? Yes, we know they both have commitment issues (especially him) and given how much everyone guzzles through the whole movie there was sure to have been alcohol involved, but wow. It doesn’t really feel like they thought the implications of that innovation through.
C: You’re right, it kind of casts the end of the play into doubt; will their romance “stick” this time? But maybe Whedon’s motivation was less to add character and more to add spice. Given that this was only one of many insertions of sex into the play, he clearly felt the need to make it racier.
E: This actually brings me back to the uneven comedic tone of the piece; the sexy bits brought in a lot of strange and puzzling power dynamics (especially with the servants and henchmen; I can’t even keep straight how many people Margaret and Ursula get felt up by) that complicated the narrative in a less than helpful way.
C: Yeah. Changing Conrad from the villainous Don John’s henchman into his girlfriend wasn’t a bad idea, but having Don John explain his evil plans while the two go to town on each other did not work for me at all. What is Don John’s deal? What does he seek to gain? This wasn’t “sexposition” so much as an annoying distraction from an already difficult part of the play to follow. Put down the Game of Thrones DVDs and step away, Joss.
E: Indeed. It’s annoying enough on Game of Thrones. What’s funny to me is that the Branagh version is incredibly sexy, ridiculously joyful and abandoned and hedonistic; for all the overt sex, Whedon’s created something more buttoned up, much more conflicted about sex — which I suppose makes sense from the guy who paired up Buffy and Angel. It ought to be zesty and exuberant!
C: The joyful stripping scenes that kick off Branagh’s version certain are that.
E: Damn straight.
C: His characters seem high on life, not drunk on booze because they’re vaguely sad, which is how Whedon’s version feels at times. But I can’t give all the props to Branagh. There are gleeful moments in Whedon’s film that I absolutely loved, moments where I was howling with laughter. And the actor playing Don John here was a distinct improvement over Keanu Reeves…
E: Ah, the other Achilles heel of the Branagh production. Yes, Sean Maher was a vast improvement over Keanu Reeves, and I could see him relishing the opportunity to play so far against Whedonites perception of him, as he’s best known as Firefly‘s principled doctor.
C: Oh my gosh, I didn’t even recognize him!
E: While we’re at it, I quite liked soon-to-be S.H.I.E.L.D.-wielding Clark Gregg as Leonato, reimagined as a refined businessman coming undone. Reed Diamond proved to be no Denzel Washington, but who else could be? Former child actor Spencer Treat Clark (largely known to me through — yes — The Good Wife) brought more depth than usual to the role of Don John’s other henchman, Borachio.
C: Hm. They obviously tried to complicate his character with an implication that he carries a torch for Hero, but it’s hard to make the character anything but a skeevy minion through his actions. Speaking of child actors, it was awkward seeing Margaret being constantly felt up (as you pointed out before) when I recognized the actress as Mel Gibson’s kid in What Women Want.
E: I’ve probably left readers with the feeling that I didn’t like this version, based on my comments about Denisof and the necessity of him bringing something to the party that he didn’t. I’m just extra picky when I really care about something, so you’re hearing all that now. For all that, however, the gorgeous black and white visuals and the excellent music and sophisticated setting definitely pleased.
C: Yes, the party scene in particular was spectacular, with acrobats and twinkling lights, cocktails and jazz. Perfect for 2013, the year that brought back Gatsby.
E: And then there were the words. You just can’t ruin those words.
C: You can’t. However they’re spoken, they resonate.