Much Ado About Nothing

Director: Joss Whedon
Writer: Joss Whedon, William Shakespeare (play)
Year: 2012
Cast: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Fran Kranz

★★★★★

Filmmakers have always had a tendency to take Shakespeare very seriously indeed, diving deep into the texts to develop their own intellectual interpretations or contriving new settings and scenarios to make the plays appear more relevant to modern audiences. This can result in rich, thoughtful pieces of cinema – see Branagh at his best – or wild strokes of genius, like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, but, when done badly, Shakespeare translates awkwardly to screen; there is often some disparity between the language and the action, a fatal flaw that forces you to suspend your disbelief.

Fran Kranz in Much Ado About Nothing

Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is a triumph because it avoids all the usual trappings, taking the text at face value and letting it largely speak for itself. Filmed over 12 days at the director’s Santa Monica home, on a scheduled break from the production of Avengers Assemble, it is a refreshingly straightforward adaptation, modernised due to practical necessity rather than any conceit, dramatic and comedic without ever feeling forced.

Whedon makes excellent use of his surroundings, exploiting the theatricality of the open plan interiors and utilising every layer of the impressive grounds. The film is shot in monochrome, at least partly to ensure greater consistency with limited resources, but this adds an element of noir-ish glamour to the overall look and conceals anything in the environment that might otherwise have been visually distracting. The modernisation is handled deftly, using things like smartphones and electric torches when necessary, without ever making them seem incongruous to the script.

The film plays out like an extended party; the characters are continually drinking wine and engaging in one festivity or another, with Whedon’s own light jazz score providing the soundtrack. It begins as a homecoming, with Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Claudio (Fran Kranz) returning from war, accompanied by the villainous Don John (Sean Maher) and his two associates. Claudio is instantly infatuated with the beautiful, virtuous Hero (Jillian Morgese), while Benedick renews his prickly relationship with her sister, Beatrice (Amy Acker), which Whedon embellishes by revealing in flashback that they once had a passionate one night stand. Claudio quickly wins Hero’s hand in marriage and, along with his friend, Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), and her father, Leonato (Clark Gregg), they vow to play Cupid with Beatrice and Benedick, while their enemies conspire to break up the happy couple.

Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof

Much Ado About Nothing never shies away from turning dark and moody, particularly when the drama reaches its peak, but it will be remembered primarily as one of the funniest Shakespeare adaptations ever committed to film. The exchanges between Benedick and Beatrice are brilliantly timed and accentuate the biting wit of the original dialogue, while the slapstick scenes in which they are allowed to hear of their supposed love for one another are inventive and genuinely hilarious. Nathan Fillion gives an inspired performance as the easily-offended police officer, Dogsberry, playing the clown with relentless sincerity, and the entire cast go about their work in such good humour that it is difficult not to be drawn along with them.

It is a evidently personal project for Whedon and he is working with actors who are behind him every step of the way. The film has a spontaneous, liberated quality, stemming from the natural intimacy between the cast, which helps the audience connect with the language and engage emotionally with the characters. Like no other adaptation of a Shakespeare comedy, it fully understands the playfulness of the dialogue, the sheer foolish joy of the language, without coming close to overstating it. Never seriously putting a foot wrong, Much Ado About Nothing really is a delight.

Rob Dickie

Advertisements

Coriolanus

Director: Ralph Fiennes
Writer: John Logan, William Shakespeare (play)
Year: 2012
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave

★★★☆☆

Ralph Fiennes makes a strong directorial debut and also stars as the title character in this contemporary adaptation of William Shakespeare’s lesser-known tragedy Coriolanus. The bard’s language and Roman names are retained, but the setting and minor characters are given a distinctly eastern European look, while the soldiers are kitted out with modern uniforms, rifles and explosives.

Coriolanus suffers from the idiosyncrasies common to all cinematic modernisations of Shakespearean drama, but the setting gives it a raw edge. The news sequences, showing amateur footage of popular uprisings, are all too familiar, and the tragedy of the proud tyrant is as contemporary as it has ever been. Certain shots feel immediate and real, but they are juxtaposed with the clear archaism of the language. You get the impression that lessons should have been learned. The extent to which Coriolanus captures the aesthetic of the past year is slightly fortunate – it was shot in the first half of 2010, prior to the beginning of the Arab Spring – but the effect is nevertheless powerful.

Coriolanus Ralph Fiennes

The film opens with a march on a grain silo, which is blockaded by Caius Martius (later Coriolanus for those unfamiliar with the play) and his forces of riot police. The march is suppressed violently and Martius confronts the crowd, openly contemptuous of their demands, and leaves them defeated. Shortly afterwards, he is called upon to fight for Rome against a Volscian army and bravely leads a raid on the city of Corioles, which is being held by his old enemy, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). His heroism in battle earns him the position of consul from the senate and, temporarily, from the mercurial populace.

After these loud, gritty action sequences, the film develops into a fascinating character study. Perfidious tribunes manipulate the will of people and Coriolanus reacts explosively against their demands for popular rule. In a sense, he epitomises the kind of uncompromising tyrant that it is currently fashionable to overthrow, but he also possesses integrity in that he refuses to rule by a lie. Fiennes gives a powerful skin-headed performance in a role he knows well, and is supported elegantly by Brian Cox as the objective senator Menenius. Vanessa Redgrave also gives an outstanding performance, with her portrayal of Coriolanus’s domineering mother, Volumnia.

The film loses its way slightly as it goes on, and the personal vendetta appears strangely distant compared with the intensity of the political struggle. Gerard Butler’s Aufidius is a curious character throughout; he is as placid as he is menacing, and his true role remains ambiguous until the very end. The rivalry is talked up but does not effectively fulfil its promise.

Placing Coriolanus in a familiar world was an intelligent move. Regardless of his faults, his bravery and integrity make this a true tragedy and, in that sense, it deviates from the mood of the times. We are given his perspective, and it is he, not the populace, that we sympathise with. The script, for better or for worse, was already written. It feels like it would have been more correct to see the tyrant fall at the hands of the people, although the fact that he doesn’t raises interesting questions and ensures there is no absolute sense of déjà vu. But regardless of any interplay with contemporary events, the strength of the drama makes Coriolanus very much worth seeing.

Rob Dickie

Extended version of a review originally published in The Student on 24 January 2012