In many of his best-loved romantic comedies, William Shakespeare sends his mixed-up couples into the woods so they can learn some lessons and straighten out their complicated alliances away from the strictures of society and surrounded by the natural world. But in “Much Ado About Nothing,” the two couples resolve their mix-ups and misunderstandings at home.
Whedon’s new film version of the play takes that literally. The movie was filmed in the director’s own house. Whedon had a break in filming “The Avengers” and decided to invite some friends over to make a movie. There are scenes in his daughters’ bedroom. While characters confer in Shakespearean iambic pentameter we can see the girls’ dollhouse, music box, and stacks of stuffed animals. His kitchen, back yard, and hot tub provide the settings for eavesdropping, plotting, pining, and law enforcement. Wisely, Whedon had cinematographer Jay Hunter film in a lush black-and-white that gives magic and timelessness to the modern dress and decor. It seems to dip the proceedings in moonlight, very fitting for the story of two moonstruck couples, one dramatic and one comic, who mirror each other with themes of trust, honor, and intimacy.
Every romantic comedy with witty repartee between initially antagonistic lovers can trace its origins to “Much Ado’s” Beatrice and Benedick, who spend so much energy discussing their dislike for each that other they must be in love. “There is a kind of merry war” between the couple, a character explains, with a “skirmish of wit” whenever they see each other.
A silent opening scene added by Whedon shows us Benedick (Alexis Denisof of Whedon’s “Angel”) sneaking out after spending the night with Beatrice (Amy Acker, in a performance of striking intelligence and grace). He thinks she is still sleeping. She does not let him know that she is watching him leave. Much later, he returns with his friends the Prince (Reed Diamond) and Count Claudio (Fran Kranz), triumphant after success in battle. He is welcomed by Beatrice’s uncle Leonato (Clark Gregg of “The Avengers”), but not by Beatrice, who mutters, “You always end with a jade’s trick: I know you of old.” We understand what she is remembering.
Their friends conspire to make them fall in love. They let Benedick overhear them talking about Beatrice’s love for him and when they know she is listening they discuss his love for her. The next thing you know, the sworn bachelor Benedick has changed his mind about marriage. “The world must be peopled!” he reminds himelf.
Claudio impetuously falls for the lovely Hero (newcomer Jillian Morgese), daughter of Leonato. The Prince’s bitter half-brother (Sean Maher) tricks him into believing that Hero has been unfaithful. In the middle of their wedding ceremony, Claudio accuses Hero and storms off. Claudio is so afraid of his feelings, he clings to the certainty of believing the worst rather than take on the risks of intimacy.
The capable cast is mostly made up of Whedon regulars, with Nathan Fillion a standout as the clueless cop Dogberry, who is a challenge to modern audiences with less tolerance for slapstick and malapropism than the 16th century audience at the Globe Theatre and modern actors who tend to overplay him. Fillion plays him with a light, understated touch that conveys confusion rather than coarseness.
Whedon brings the same light touch in making the comic couple in every way the heart of the story. Beatrice and Benedick may be clueless about their own feelings, but they are the only characters who have the wisdom and integrity to understand the injustice of Claudio’s accusations. That unity of understanding and purpose is as important in sealing their union as their friends’ trick was in revealing that their “merry war” concealed a deep affection. This play about the ability to see through disguise and misdirection has been brought to the screen with wit and style that illuminate its true spirit.
Parents should know that this film has some bawdy language and sexual references and situations, some drinking and drunkenness, and brief drug use.
Family discussion: Why is it hard for Beatrice and Benedick to admit their feelings? Why is it easy for Claudio to mistrust Hero and the Prince?
If you like this try: The 1993 version with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson