Dee Discusses: Much Ado About Nothing

Posted: July 24, 2013 by Dee in Dee, General Media, Movies, New Movies, Reviews
Tags: , , , , ,

This movie was tailor made for me. It’s my favorite Shakespeare play. Shakespeare is my favorite author. Joss Whedon is my favorite modern writer. I love every actor associated with this project. The second I heard about it, I was desperately waiting for it to be released. Unfortunately, it only came out in select cities, and my little Maine town wasn’t able to get it. But I lucked out last weekend when I was in NYC for a wedding, and I got to see it. The theater was packed. I think it’s because the movie is about to leave, and the next time anyone can see it is on DVD. Before I get started on the actual review, I should mention that I love Much Ado About Nothing.  I’ve seen it on the stage many times, and I’ve seen the BBC version, Kenneth Branagh’s version, and whatever I can get my hands on. Beatrice and Benedick are my favorite Shakespeare characters (and couple), so I’m naturally affectionate toward it. I’m also more critical, and that factors in because I’m going to be more critical of this movie than I would be if I didn’t know much about the play. I’m going to start out with a summary, the things I liked, and then my critiques. Ready set go!

Much Ado About Nothing is a romantic comedy about two couples: Hero and Claudio and Beatrice and Benedick. Hero and Claudio are supposed to be the A-list plot, but over time the much more charismatic and fun Beatrice and Benedick have taken front stage. It’s a light hearted romp that quickly turns very dark and centers around a pretty horrific case of slut shaming and deceit. Men are coming back from the war and the Prince, Don Pedro, decides to let them rest in Messina. The mayor there Leonato welcomes him warmly, especially because one of his favorite soldiers Claudio is in love with his daughter Hero. They also bring back Don Pedro’s bitter bastard brother Don John. He tries to make mischief by convincing Claudio Don Pedro wants Hero for himself, but soon afterward is proven wrong when Hero agrees to marry him. They are joyous, and soon afterward decide along with the others to trick Benedick and Beatrice. You see, the two of them verbally spar and snipe at each other, both clever and spirited individuals, but they seem to have disdain for each other. While still being clear that they are slightly obsessed with one another too. Despite having railed and refused marriage, the two of them seem perfectly suited … except they’re just so stubborn!

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The group decides they will trick the two by having Benedick overhear Leonato, Don Pedro, and Claudio talking about how Beatrice is sadly in love with him. They remark Benedick is far too proud to do right by her, and afterward he realizes he is in love with her after all. Similarly, Hero and her maid Margaret trick Beatrice by saying Benedick loves her. Unfortunately the play takes a dark turn when Don John tells Claudio Hero is cheating on him, and one of his men seduces Margaret in her room. Claudio sees only the silhouette of  the two, but he is successfully tricked. Furious, he goes to the wedding only to accuse her of being false and losing her virtue. In Shakespeare’s time, the worst thing that happened to a woman was not being a virgin, and therefore shamed. Leonato believes the lie at first and rails against his daughter as well, but she swears it’s not true and so does Beatrice. Benedick and the Friar also doubt it, so the Friar suggests they pretend Hero died in grief until they figured out what happened. While grieving, Beatrice is furious she can’t be a man and challenge Claudio, and she insists Benedick to it in her stead. He confesses his love and refuses at first, but eventually gives in.

The truth comes out when the patrolmen overhear Don John’s people admitting to it. The foolish constable Dogberry manages to eventually get out the truth (by no real help from himself), and he tells Leonato. When Claudio and Don Pedro hear how they were fooled, and that Don John fled, they are horrified at what they did. Claudio agrees to marry Leonato’s unknown niece to make up for his mistake, but he is delighted to find out Hero is alive after all and she forgives him. The two marry, and Beatrice and Benedick make their peace and marry as well. The forgiveness there went reeeeeeeeally fast, didn’t it? Plus there was no real resolution to Benedick challenging Claudio outside of ‘oh well he’s marrying Hero now, who cares.’ It does have a major tonal shift for a comedy, but all’s well that ends well. Oh wait, that’s another play, isn’t it? The actors here are Amy Acker as Beatrice, Alexis Denisof as Benedick, Fran Kranz as Claudio, Jillian Morgese as Hero, Clark Gregg as Leonato, Reed Diamond as Don Pedro, Nathan Fillion as Dogberry, and Sean Maher as Don John. Do most of those names sound familiar? If you like Joss Whedon, they all are. He’s worked with all of these people before. Except maybe Jillian Morgese, who is she?

This was a fun movie, and the idea of it is great. Joss liked to sit around reading Shakespeare with his friends, so he proposed they filmed this at his house over two weeks, and they did. It must have cost very little compared to big budget films, and the creativity of that is amazing. Damn, his house is gorgeous. It’s black and white and has a slight 1920s feel to it in terms of dress and Jazz music, although it is set in modern day with the cars and suits in some scenes. It has a lot of quirky elements and the slapstick humor is downright hilarious. Acker and Denisof are at their absolute best when they’re playing Beatrice and Benedick being tricked and hiding very poorly to overhear. Fillion chews up the screen as Dogberry, and he is rather funny, although I’ll admit I usually find that role annoying as hell, so I’m glad Fillion is so charming. Clark Gregg I feel is the most well suited to this. For some reason the smoothness he read his lines made it feel like this was his natural tongue. Line readings can be jarring if it seems uncomfortable for the actor, and I never felt like it was for him. Fran was a real surprise as Claudio, since I find his role most of the time flat, but he brought a sweetness to it I didn’t expect. Overall the acting was good, the concept was good, and I’m impressed with what they managed to do.

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Now on to my problems with it. Please remember I said I’m critical because I love this play and so I’m fickle with certain aspects. First up is the Benedick and Beatrice sleeping together scene. That was not in the play nor was it outright implied. There is a line where Beatrice indicates they were romantically attached before, although in the time it’s set, that could be a mild flirtation at best. Joss had the two of them sleep together, and Benedick walk out, which then led most of their later seems to seem a little harsher and more pointed. These two characters are typically funny, witty, and the jesters of their respective groups. They are smart and snarky, but it’s said multiple times in the play that they are usually entertaining and easy to like. In the Branagh version, their lines came off as fun banter, which is the way it was intended. There’s no real undercurrent of anger there, other than being annoyed at times. But with the undercurrent of them having been spurned lovers made it seem like a much more bitter back and forth. Also in a play where virginity is considered a big deal, the fact that Beatrice had sex with Benedick is pretty questionable. Even within the play’s constraints they say clearly that a maid is virtuous, and that if she’s “ruined” by sex, she no longer is. It’s very unlikely that Beatrice would sleep with Benedick, and if she did, he would consider her poorly the same way everyone does Hero. In modern age that’s not as much a big deal, obviously, and I get that Joss was trying to modernize it. But if you’re going to keep the Hero slut shaming storyline in, it just doesn’t gel with that concept.

Second, okay this is where I’m being nitpicky, and this is personal preference. I’m not a fan of how Alexis played Benedick. He did well in the beginning, and he had some great moments with the slapstick, but the whole Kill Claudio scene seemed very off to me. Maybe I’m used to that being a softer and more tender moment with them, when he confesses his love, but he did some really flat line readings in that. I embedded the video below of Branagh’s version of the scene. I’ve seen many stage plays, and the thing is, when Benedick is confessing, it’s much against his will. So he’s surprised by how much he loves her, but it’s a good thing too, and the two of them struggle with this feeling they have. I just wanted something a little softer I guess, or more of an emotional resonance, but I feel like Alexis gave us a really cold performance. I didn’t feel much from him or for him. That’s a shame since I truly like him as an actor, I think he’s great, but I’m picky about those roles. Again this was only done in two weeks so I’m not entirely certain they got the chance to really think it through or do the amount of takes it needed to nail a scene. And clearly Joss was going for something a little edgier considering the style and that they slept together first.

End result: I enjoyed it. Outside of my two critiques above, I really enjoyed watching and I thought the vision in it was great. It kind of made me want to see what a modern adaption would be. They’d have to change the slut shaming probably, since it still exists today but not in quite the same way. I think if they focused more on the fact he thought she cheated on him on their wedding night, that was more reasonable than HOW DARE YOU NOT BE A PERFECT VIRGIN. I always suggest people see it on the stage however. Shakespeare was made for the stage. I can’t wait for the DVD though. I bet there’s amazing extras on there.

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