Sunday, 23 June 2013

Much Ado About Nothing: Joss Whedon's Shakespearean debut.

Fran Kranz as the likable Claudio

I am a huge fan of Much Ado About Nothing - it is my favourite Shakespeare play and I love it both on stage and in the picturesque adaptation by Kenneth Branagh. (1993). I am also a huge fan of Joss Whedon, having watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer on t.v since it was first aired, and then watching and loving Firefly, Serenity, Dollhouse, Angel and the Avengers. And Toy Story, which he co-wrote, and most films he's been involved in.

He is, in my opinion, a wonderful man, who cares about the demographic he writes for. Any interview with him that I've read, watched or listened to, I've gone away feeling jealous of the interviewer and hoping that Joss is busy with his next project. So of course when I read many many months ago that he had secretly filmed Much Ado in his house with all his - and any fan's - favourite actors, I was very very excited.  It made sense to me - I've seen people comment that Shakespeare is out of Joss's depth, despite it now being fairly common knowledge (among Whedonites at least) that he and his friends read Shakespeare for fun at his house on a regular basis - because Beatrice is one of Shakespeare's strongest female characters, second perhaps only to Viola of Twelfth Night.

I am lucky to be living in Cambridge. Not only was it in our local Arts Picturehouse cinema (bit pricey but awesome for Indies) but it was out on the official release date AND it'll be out in the normal Cineworld in July. I can have multiple screenings, yay!  So I went the first opportunity I had - last Sunday.
I was so so excited. And the excitement did not wane, despite the fact I found myself trying to stop critiquing or judging particular scenes and themes.

I'll try to break this down into a few sections so that it doesn't turn into a massive essay.  [Edit: I failed.]

Hero and Don Pedro at
the celebration party for Pedro and his men
Aesthetics, Music, Cast

Joss's house is beautiful. I'll get that out of the way. The cinematography and costumes were wonderful and each scene makes for gorgeous stills. I liked that it was modern but in black and white. It added to the charm, and in a way, separated the story from Miami or wherever Joss lives and placed it Somewhere Else. The story is isolated from the rest of the world, and it worked for me.

The costumes were simple: everybody wore the same one or two outfits throughout the film, and it was all very natural looking. This was a modern, well-to-do middle class family having people stay for a month or so, with free-flowing wine and the time and money to spend partying and being leisurely. And why wouldn't they? Pedro and his men have been at war and have come back victorious. Or at least alive. It's time to celebrate!

The music: ah, the music. After the triumph of Once More With Feeling (I still maintain that Hush is the better of the two, but by gum I still know every single word to OMWF) I knew that Joss's music choice would be appropriate. I loved what he did with Shakespeare's lyrics, creating a nice lounge music-style jazz song (incidentally performed by brother Jed Whedon) which synced wonderfully with the black and white, relaxed, sophisticated, wine-abundant party atmosphere. There is little Joss can't do, it would seem. I will be grabbing the soundtrack as soon as I am able.

The cast is well-chosen. I have heard that Anthony Stewart Head was supposed to play Leonato, but had another commitment - whilst initially I was sad, I thought Clark Gregg was a wise second choice. He played gracious host to Don Pedro and doting yet equally (more, actually) condemning father. Frankly, I hadn't realised before quite what a massive arsehole Leonato is to Hero. Richard Briars, in the '93 Branagh version, is cross, but he comes across more as a grieving father. This could be down to Joss's abridging, or Gregg's interpretation of his lines. Or maybe it's because Briars had such a friendly face.

Amy Acker and Alexis Denishof, in my opinion, were strong choices for Beatrice and Benedick. I don't think, though, that Amy Acker came across quite "merry" with her war of words as Emma Thompson or other portrayals. I think it works, though, since Joss inserted a backstory to Beatrice and Benedick's relationship. By showing that they'd slept together before he went off to war, leaving both of them embarrassed and angry with each other enriched Beatrice's admission to Pedro that Benedick had lent her his heart a while in the past and provided some reason to their squabbling.  Alexis chose to portray Benedick as a womaniser upset to see his manly crew breaking up because of love - he is a bachelor and he wants to stay one, dammit! And Claudio has betrayed him by falling in love with Hero, the sap.  His lines, again, were perhaps not as sharp or witty as Kenneth Branagh's Benedick, but with the understated cinematography and music, it works. The words are still funny, but the delivery put a fresh spin on it for me - he came across more as a wannabe lad who is too proud and set in his ways to admit that the fling he had had with Beatrice had affected him as much as her stinging words could.  Both Acker and Denishof show the audience that they are skilled too in the art of slapstick, falling, rolling and just generally being silly when each's character is overhearing the "gossip" created by their manipulative friends and family.

Claudio is circled by sharks
Fran Kranz is the first Claudio that hasn't made me wish he'd end up as dead as Romeo. True, Joss's faithfulness to Shakespeare means that Claudio can't woo Hero for himself, he has to have Pedro do it for him, but he is less clawing and drippy than Robert Sean Leonard or any stage actor I've seen. Rather than being wet, he's more dorky and awkward.  There is something endearing about him, and I felt genuine sympathy when he was preyed on by Sean Maher's Don John and his cronies, circling him like sharks in the pool/lake.  There was something tragically comic about Claudio sulking in the pool with a snorkel and what could the nth martini, suddenly joined by the heads of Don Pedro who bites at his doubt and paranoia with knife-like precision.

Which leads me to Sean Maher: it's his first role since he came out as gay, and what's more, his first role as a villain. I could tell that he relished it - he glowered and sulked on camera and voiced his lines with a menacing drawl, dripping with as much disdain, lust and malice as he could muster. That sounds a little as though I thought he wasn't fabulous - I don't think he was a bad Don Pedro. I enjoyed his portrayal. I also enjoyed the gender bend of Conrad. This isn't anything new - I've heard of Conrad being female before, though I've never seen it in action - and it works. It adds to the modernisation of sexual relationships. I do not think that Conrad and John are romantically involved, either, which is cool. I think they are purely using each other to get off - which, as judgey as it could be construed, added to John's self-gratifying nature. His entire purpose in the play is to cause mayhem and havoc because he can not stand others being happy or things going well for others. He is also bored. Conrad does her best to alleviate his displeasure and boredom, but it is Borachio's news of impending nuptials that forces John into taking more malevolent action. (To Conrad's evident disappointment)

Tom Lenk may remind Archer fans of Ray Gillette, but let's
not forget that Fillion is an ass!
The rest of the cast are of course perfectly picked, from the misused Margaret (Ashley Johnson) and Ursula (Emma Bates) to Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) and Verges (Tom Lenk - an under mentioned person in all the hype).  When I heard the flawless Nathan Fillion would be playing Dogberry, I was more intrigued than amused. I couldn't much picture him spewing Shakespeare and in a way, this helped create his character. He is just so daft and playful, and by being one of the last people (by his own admission!) to understand or get Shakespeare the fact that his lines served to highlight stupidity and a poor grasp of language meant he was the ideal choice.  He was like a bumbling version of Castle (his current crime-solving, womanising, murder mystery-writing T.V character)  only instead of the sharp Kate Beckett, his side-kick is Verges, the equally stupid lapdog, beautifully played by Tom Lenk. I really want to see a Dogberry and Verges spin-off! I do. I think they'd have hilarious adventures together, dumbfounding the people around them with their own brand of intellect. Tom Lenk plays a little on his portrayal of Andrew, but it works really well with the idiot version of Castle, creating a dynamic duo of their own.

Much Ado as a Modern Adaptation

The film makes the play accessible to young and modern audiences - I will use my poor boyfriend as an example. He doesn't not understand Shakespeare, but, in his words, he takes a little longer to "translate" the language. However, it did not detract from the enjoy-ability of the film or play. Whilst the language was at times alienating, ("why use 5 words when 20 would do?"), he still enjoyed the film overall.

I will just mention the first problem with Shakespeare as a modern adaptation: character's names. The only names that are mentioned clearly are Leonato's, John's, Hero's, Beatrice's, Claudio's, Benedick's and the maid's. Verges's and Dogberry's are not mentioned at all, perhaps because of how utterly unrealistic their names are. Leonato and Hero's at least can be attributed to pretentious middle-class backgrounds. Conrad's name is used as a surname (since he is now a woman) but I can not remember a clear reference to Borachio or Don Pedro's names. If they were, it wasn't overly highlighted and only done once. The only problem with this was that my boyfriend couldn't quite keep up with who the minor characters were - he knew the play from GCSE, but he is one of those people that needs it to be absolutely clear when a character's introduced as to which names apply to which person.

Beatrice and Hero listen to the accusations with disbelief.
It is very difficult to translate Shakespeare into a modern adaptation and keep the original language at the same time. Particularly if you are well-known for being a feminist. I imagine Joss wanted to get rid of the old-age message of virginal purity and to deal with things from a "did she or didn't she have sex with someone else" angle instead. At least, that is what I thought, from the film. So, if that was his intention, he succeeded.  The problem with the original play being translated into the modern world is of course that values have changed. Nobody, outside of the zealously religious communities in America or more "third world" countries actually give a damn whether you're a virgin at marriage. Which is why the almost sex scene between John and Conrad and the sex scene flashbacks of Beatrice and Benedick serve to get around the fact that Shakespeare goes on about virginity and purity. In the case of this adaptation, the emphasis was less on whether Hero was a virgin but on her fidelity and honesty. It was implied that she had a crush on Claudio from before the wars, and Claudio had noticed her, but it wasn't until the war was over that he thought about her seriously at all. I therefore took it to mean that upon their acknowledging the truth of their mutual affection, Hero had given the impression she had waited for him - after all why else would Claudio be hurt at the idea that she had been sleeping with someone the past 12 months as well as for the duration of their engagement? In such a modern setting where sex is freely given before marriage, whilst it's upsetting to know that she'd loved someone else once (or had fun with someone else once), he can't exactly claim betrayal because she'd slept with someone when they weren't an exclusive couple.  So that is how that particular part of the dramatic storyline was dealt with.

Instead, the fuss around Hero's virginity is changed to a fuss around the fact that she was a cheating whore, playing on the modern culture of slut-shaming, beautifully. This was further amplified by (a brilliantly delivered) monologue of Beatrice, where she be cries her womanhood and that her womanhood is what is standing between her defense of Hero's honour and her being believed. If she were a man, she said, she would be able to properly put Claudio and Hero's accusers in their place, and, (between the lines) what's more, they would listen to her and further feel the force of her hate and abuse. If she were a man, she'd have much more power against their slut-shaming, misogynistic ways than if she were a woman.
Hasn’t he proven himself to be a great villain—slandering, scorning, and dishonoring my cousin? Oh, I wish I were a man! He pretended that everything was fine until the moment they were exchanging vows, and then—with public accusation, blatant slander, pure hatred—Oh God, if only I were a man! I would rip his heart out in public and eat it.
They have spread rumors about Hero. They did it in the most horrific way (if a woman were to jilt a man this way, she'd be hated by the groom's family, not believed so willingly) possible: at the alter and in front of family and friends. They have essentially called her a whore and outed her as someone who sleeps around and cheats. Cheating or not, no matter what feminists and sex-positive people say and do, women are still vilified if they have had more than one or two sexual partners, particularly at a young age, whilst men who have had "only" one or two sexual partners are mocked. It is a gross double standard that fits well with her speech, and resonates with the modern audience.  Personally, despite the fact that there's no way to avoid mentioning the word "virgin", this aspect of the called off wedding and scandal has worked well in a modern setting.

Sean Maher as the mastermind behind the scandal
The second problematic plot device is of course Hero's "death". The point is, she is not dead, but it is the guilt of causing her death that forces Claudio to marry "someone else" in penance. Now-a-days alarm bells would go off immediately - that a girl would fake her own death to get back at someone, and worse, force him to marry her after all, would be seen in any other context as stuff of nightmare and lunatic asylum material. (One of the few times the internet misogynist's "bitch be crazy" response is appropriate)
I mean, in fairness to Joss, how can one possibly portray this storyline in a modern setting well? It's just absurd and ill-advised. I did, however, love that it was the PRIEST, not Leonato's brother, that came up with the scheme! In fact, the priest was more forgiving and willing to believe Hero than her own father was. (Something I will come back to later).
The fact is, that without changing the plot slightly, it's impossible (in my opinion) to translate Hero's non-death into a modern adaptation. However they did make the deception more believable: Hero faints/goes unconscious in front of her accusers, so in all the mayhem it is quite possible that her heart really did give out. Claudio, Pedro and John never see Hero come to, which plays in her favour.

A happy end for our favourite sharp-tongued couple
The boring scenes before the fake wedding are handled well, I think. Amy Acker's speech, "If I were a Man" and her request for Benedick to prove himself by killing Claudio at first felt as iffy in a modern setting as the fake death idea, but then if Benedick is a soldier and has more virtue than Claudio appears to have, killing his friend for the sake of another's honour plays fairly well. It's not entirely convincing, but then he never has to go beyond showing he has a gun on him in the first place, something that was bitterly comic as a scene.  I felt that after the jilting of Hero the film, aside from the public declaration of affection between Benedick and Beatrice, highlights the darker side of the play in a modern setting.

Not all are happy in the end: of course there's the arrest of Conrad, Borachio and John, but Pedro, I felt, also loses in this play. He is quite clearly the third wheel in the story, the wingman. He has seen his two friends get married - what was feared by Benedick initially has come to pass for Pedro. He is the only one without a lover.

Leonato has been exposed as a benevolent patriarch, which works well with the title in its new setting. The title is another of Shakespeare's play on words: nothing, in Shakespearean, is "vagina". There was much ado about Hero's vagina and whether or not it was in tact. In this case, there was still much ado about her vagina - whether it has been faithful. Leonato demonstrates that he is a perfectly loving and doting father so long as his daughter is behaving as he would expect a good woman to - faithful, true and pure for one man only. As soon as this is thrown into doubt, he venomously spits at her that he wishes she were dead rather than have the humiliation that his only daughter is a skanky ho. (Paraphrasing, obviously).  I also, despite the fact that it's a happily ever after situation, feel a bit sorry for Hero: she is in love with someone who believes a man with a shady past (he enters the film with his hands bound for Christ's sake!) over the love of his life where her sex life is concerned, and although he might well have learned from this ordeal, he only ends up at the alter a second time because a) he's guilty and b) he thinks she's someone else who looks like her. He humilated and slandered her in front of everybody! He's a nasty piece of work if you think about it. I also feel a tad sorry for Claudio in that he's been manipulated into a marriage this way, but maybe then they deserve each other? She didn't exactly tell her father to stuff that idea or stand up for herself much. It is for this reason that I feel that this blogger's final argument is not a negative point:

Whedon’s interpretation ultimately makes the much ado about nothing in the title seem like a negative reflection on his characters rather than a charming reflection of the inherent nonsense and complication of true love.

I feel this is an accurate summary, really, but it's not a bad thing. Joss Whedon's comedy relies on the ups and downs of human nature and life. He successfully tugs at heart strings because he can be dark, touching, moving or dramatic when required. He also makes light of life and events. He has a knack for displaying every human emotion on screen whether it is supposed to be a light-hearted show or not.  I feel this interpretation of Whedon's version of Much Ado does him credit: he has once again been able to highlight the darker side of humans.

So: my overall argument or tl;dr?  It's a good film. It's a good adaptation. It might not 'wow' you, necessarily, but I think it is a worthy take on one of Shakespeare's funniest plays.  You will enjoy it, even if you do not think it does not deserve the hype that Whedonites everywhere have been giving it.

I am sure that it will be used for the study of Much Ado at high school/GCSE and Alevel.

I rate this film an 7.5/10, and my amazon pre-order was made days ago.

[UK cinema release listings | US/International cinema listings]

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