For a director who’s tackled everything from science fiction to horror to superheroes, it may be surprising to see Joss Whedon jump to Shakespearean comedies. He’s done just that in his film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, however, and managed to pull it off without any vampires or space cowboys at all.
The movie itself is lifted directly from Shakespeare’s original prose, though set in modern times.
During a visit between Leonato, governor of Messina (Clark Gregg) and Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), Leonato’s daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese) falls in love with one of Pedro’s officers, Claudio (Fran Kranz). All of this takes place over the course of the visit at the home of Leonato.
The bulk of the romance plot lies in the two sides playing matchmaker for another couple: Leonato’s headstrong niece Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Don Pedro’s other officer, proud bachelor Benedick (Alexis Denisof). A jealous Don John (Sean Maher), Don Pedro’s brother, plays the villaina s he does everything he can to sabatoge the coupling.
Even with the original dialouge, Whedon proves as skilled as ever at maintaining a sense of modernity. With few exceptions — Denisof felt stiff through the first act of the film, though he is able to loosen up when more comedic scenes give him a chance to shine — the cast sounds natural and casual throughout the film.
The cast as a whole is chosen well and includes several actors known from Whedon’s previous works. Nathan Fillion, for one, does a hilarious turn as police Constable Dogberry. Though he only appears in a handful of scenes, Fillion’s charming take on the role stands a serious risk of stealing the show.
While the cast is uniformly excellent throughout, other aspects of the film seem to suffer in comparison. Not much is done to reinforce or elevate the setting beyond “a mansion in modern times,” but it’s a peril of budget filmmaking as Whedon made the film with very little money and even used his own home as a backdrop. With little studio backing, the movie was shot by a crew made up of Whedon’s friends and is clearly a labour of love for the acclaimed director.
The film was shot in grayscale and, while it adds an interesting flair, it isn’t entirely clear why that decision was made. It doesn’t detract from the proceedings too much, but it may take some viewers out of the moment as they try to understand just why it was presented in this way.
While not perfect, Whedon’s take on Much Ado About Nothing stands as a welcome and novel addition to the director’s filmography. Those new to Shakespeare may be put off by the use of the original prose, but once you settle into the plot and characters it becomes easy to digest.
Whether you’re a longtime enthusiast for the Bard or are simply curious to see how Whedon handles a more down-to-earth story, Much Ado About Nothing is worth a watch.