Joss Whedon filming a Shakespeare? Much Ado About Nothing, no less? With a cast drawn almost entirely from the staples of his (excellent) television work? The very idea of it was enough to induce paroxysms of giddy euphoria in people of a certain demographic when news of this project first appeared. Now the wait is finally over, and the much-anticipated treat is at last showing in Australian cinemas. And it does not disappoint. It’s probably not what you expect from Shakespearean comedy, and it may not be what you expect from Joss Whedon. But it’s a true delight.
Much Ado About Nothing is shot in sumptuous black and white, and filmed entirely in Joss Whedon’s equally sumptuous Santa Monica home. Everything in it is beautiful – every frame of stylish grey photography, every room and garden of this lovely house, and every actor who graces the screen. The men stand around in sharp suits and ties, the women in flowing, delicate dresses, and they look every bit as poised and perfect as the lines of poetry in which they speak. This is a film with class and coolness to spare. There’s not much depth to it, but Much Ado About Nothing was never one of Shakespeare’s more profound comedies. Whedon makes it a play of gleaming surfaces and sexy, effervescent wordplay; and that’s all it needs to be.
The heart of the film lies in the chemistry between Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker as Benedick and Beatrice, who channel the latent sexual tension at the basis of their relationship into a neverending contest of wits. Both actors are superb: Denisof is colder and more overtly cynical than most Benedicks, yet endears himself to us nonetheless; while Acker delivers perhaps the film’s best performance, subtly balancing a spirited self-confidence with just the faintest shade of underlying insecurity. Whedon is clever enough to add a wordless opening scene in which Benedick leaves Beatrice’s bed in the morning after, we presume, a one-night stand, so that from the outset their verbal sparring carries an extra layer of subtext.
Meanwhile the impending marriage of Claudio (an appropriately naive Fran Kranz) to Hero (Jillian Morgese), who is the daughter of the host and master of the house, Leonato (Clark Gregg), is put in jeopardy by the suavely villainous Don John (Sean Maher). It is a testament to Whedon’s success in transposing a sixteenth-century story to the modern day that when Claudio becomes enraged and repulsed by the idea that his bride-to-be is not a virgin, it only feels slightly unbelievable. On hand to inadvertently set things right is a team of security guards led by the faultless Nathan Fillion as Dogberry. In a film that generally goes for the cool and charming rather than the laugh-out-loud funny, his scenes are the glorious exceptions: he is hilarious in every moment.
Like the much-loved Kenneth Branagh version of twenty years ago, this Much Ado About Nothing is, in spite of its darker twists, a light and sensuous experience. Yet where that film found sensuality in the warmth and vivacity of its Sicilian setting, this is a film of sensuous interiors, of style and chic delivered in icy black and white. Don’t see it for the comedy – it’s not designed that way. See it for the simple pleasure of hearing Acker and Denisof deliver those sparkling lines of verse. See it to rest your eyes on its seductive visuals and listen to its gorgeous musical rendition of “Sigh No More”. Whedon and his friends made this film in secret over just twelve days while he was making The Avengers, and it’s hard to imagine they didn’t derive great pleasure and satisfaction from taking time off their more challenging projects to make a film like this. See it, then, in the same spirit in which they made it: as an indulgence, as a relaxing, beautiful treat.