The great thing about Shakespeare is that there are countless versions of his plays. The bad thing about Shakespeare is that there are countless versions of his plays.
Joss Whedon, the brainchild behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the director of the mega-hit The Avengers, brought all of his talents to a very low budget production of Much Ado About Nothing. Shakespeare is so rich that no one performance can mine all of its beauty. So it is a joy to watch other people examine his work from a different point of view.
But the problem of comparison is almost unavoidable.
For those unfamiliar, the story involves a Prince Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) has just returned from wars with his bastard brother John (Sean Maher). The prince is also accompanied by two of his captains: the lothario Benedick (Alexis Denisoff) and the young Claudio (Fran Kanz). The group decides to stay at the home of Leonato (Clark Gregg) who has a beautiful daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese) and his niece Beatrice (Amy Acker). Claudio is in love with Hero. John wants to hurt Don Pedro. Benedick and Beatrice are ex-lovers who hate each other. Don John plans to trick the two into falling in love.
The movie is set in modern times and is filmed entirely on location in Joss Whedon's beautiful house. It is also shot in glorious black and white, making the texture of the performances really pop. For such a limited location, Whedon makes the most out of every angle, every camera movement, to make each scene feel fresh, even if a dozen earlier ones had occurred in the same space. This is no easy feat.
The biggest negative that the film has going for it is that the first half is overshadowed by Branagh's Much Ado. And while there are some wonderful laughs to be had in that first half, Branagh was better able to elicit the humor from Shakespeare's ancient diction.
But what Whedon does better than Branagh is hooking you with the drama of the story. Much Ado About Nothing actually goes to some fairly dark and tragic places. Whedon captures exquisitely the anguish and intensity of our heroes. He shows us well how thin the line is between the agony and ecstasy of love. And it is during this time that the performances are best.
Acker is fantastic as Beatrice. She is the heart and the brains of this film. The first scene in the movie automatically draws our sympathy to her and her quick wit easily win us over. Acker goes from hilarious to heartbreaking with amazing ease. Her counterpart, Denisoff, also does a good job, but feels a bit more flat when playing the rogue instead of the gravitas he has when playing dramatic. But the chemistry between Acker and Denisoff was fantastic and fun. Gregg's Leonato also shows much more edge and depth than I expected from that character.
But besides Acker, one other actor steals the show: Nathan Fillion. Here, he plays the character Dogberry as a leader of Leanoto's security. He is, in short, an idiot. But he tries to cover his mental shortcomings by using intelligent words. Sadly, he does not seem to know what those words mean and he comes off as even dumber. Fillion plays Dogberry with such utter sincerity, that we like him as we laugh at him. His putting on aires is simply a cover to the child-like vulnerability that we see in Dogberry. And Fillion delivers his lines with conviction and confusion with perfect comic timing. I laughed at nearly everything he said.
By the end of the movie, I found myself rooting for the heroes, even though I knew how it was all going to end. Whedon hooked me. He made me care because he made Shakespeare's characters come alive.
4 out of 5 stars.