I have resumed progress on Princess of Shadows. I mean it. Really. In the meantime, though, I wanted to share some thoughts on another subject.
A few days back I went to see Joss Whedon’s version of Much Ado About Nothing.
I really looked forward to seeing this– I mean, oh, my God, it’s Joss Whedon! Doing Shakespeare! That’s almost as good as Joss Whedon! Doing X-Men! (ahem). Add to that the fact that Much Ado is one of my favorites of Bill’s plays, and the anticipation level was high.
And I will tell you what I thought of the movie just as soon as I figure out what I thought of the movie.
Actually, that’s stretching it more than a little. I liked the movie; but my initial reaction to it was very odd. This version, filmed on a tiny budget in Whedon’s own home in a few days, in black-and-white, no less, has so many actors Whedon has worked with before– Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Sean Maher, Clark Gregg, etc, etc. It was fun watching all these very good actors together, most of whom I remember from staggeringly great TV and movies, doing something different. Alexis Denisof was good as Benedict, and Amy Acker was a great Beatrice. Of course, I think Amy Acker is one of the most incandescently beautiful women in show business and I would watch her reading government press releases. As Beatrice, she is perhaps the standout actress in the ensemble– by turns funny, sad, fierce and sharp-tongued– and, man, can she do a heroic pratfall.
Another standout is Clark Gregg, who plays Leonato. Gregg is one of those actors who you always see in films as characters but who never seems to draw a lot of attention to himself– except, of course, he is now getting a lot of attention (at least among the fan-folk) for his roles in the Marvel Iron Man, Thor and Avengers movies. He broke everybody’s heart in Avengers in which he had one of the best death scenes in recent comic-book movie history. As Leonato he starts out quiet, until the wedding, when he explodes, torn between shame over Hero and vengeance for the Prince and Claudio’s insult.
And that brings me to my reaction to the movie. Basically, this movie is so very, very low-key that I had trouble at first tracking it– at least, until the wedding. In the first part of the movie, everybody delivers their lines easily and matter-of-factly and the action is easy-going. Beatrice and Benedict do spark off each other, but their repartee is cool and restrained. And that’s where I realized that my perception of Much Ado has probably been distorted by the Kenneth Branagh movie version from 1993. That version is fun, but it’s infamously over the top, especially with that cavalry charge opening sequence.
There’s no cavalry charge in Whedon’s version, and not just because they couldn’t afford horses on their budget (the Prince and his entourage show up at Leonato’s in cars, and not even limos). Whedon’s Much Ado is so laid back that I have to think it’s an intentional directorial choice– a decision to be the anti-Branagh with this material. As such, it’s refreshing– it’s just my own head that needed to be readjusted, because the acting is consistently good and the tension does build.
The first sign of trouble, naturally, is Don John. Sean Maher does a good job with Don John, establishing his malignant intentions, while, at the same time, creating a very different take on his relationship with his henchmen, especially a female Conrade. His scheme to destroy Claudio and Hero’s intended wedding unfolds pretty smoothly, and is played out rather more convincingly than in the Branagh version.
After being so laid back, as well as quite funny, during its first portion, the movie’s tension and conflict suddenly escalate by several orders of magnitude at the wedding, as you might expect. Everybody with speaking parts in this sequence is good, but especially Gregg and Jillian Morgese (Hero). The following sequence between Benedict and Beatrice is wonderful, and fully plays out the admission of mutual love and admiration these two people have for each other, against the backdrop of a disaster. For me this scene has always been the core of the play, the pay-off for all the tension and conflict between Benedict and Beatrice, and Denisof and Acker pull it off and make it look easy. The rest of the movie stays at this high level to the final resolution, relieved by the (again understated, but funny) Nathan Fillion as Dogberry.
Basically, this movie works, and works well, but don’t expect over-the-top. It’s easy-going and filled with humor until sudden disaster strikes, which is probably very close to Bill’s original intention, with a powerful contrast between light-hearted conspiracy and witty “skirmishes of wit” at the beginning and the horrifying catastrophe of false accusation and betrayal in the second part. Just make sure you see it with no preconceptions. Especially about horses.