Much Ado About Nothing Review
So what do you do when you're between projects and find that you've a couple of weeks to spare before your next film? Well, if you're Joss Whedon and have just finished a year's work on Marvel's Avengers Assemble blockbuster, it seems that your way of unwinding is to gather your regular cast of actors back at your home, get them to act some Shakespeare and make it into a film. Shot digitally in black-and-white on a very limited budget, Much Ado About Nothing is produced, adapted, directed and edited by Whedon. Oh, and he writes all the music for the film as well. It sounds a bit like a vanity project then, but it's actually proves to be a very funny, astute and accessible version of the play, mainly on account of some subtle and witty performances from the superb cast.
Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing has a contemporary setting, mainly because it costs next to nothing to use your own house as a set and have the actors wear their own suits and dresses. Obviously a present-day setting makes no sense of the introductory scenes, where Don Pedro and his forces are returning from war in Messina dressed in smart suits and ties where they are welcomed in the kitchen of Joss Whedon's elegant suburban mansion in the US for a small dinner party. Aside from the introduction however, the period and the setting is of no real consequence. Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing is principally a romantic comedy - perhaps the original ye olde romantic comedy - and it's one of the best of the genre.
Whedon's version is also one of the best accounts of the work you'll see. This is cool, smart, sophisticated and sexy Shakespeare that will appeal to a wide audience - certainly, there has never been a more erotically charged relationship between Don John and Conrade as there is here with the casting of Riki Lindhome as Conrade - but it also respects Shakespeare's verse and Whedon even has a distinctive approach to the work in the way that he adapts it to the screen. The low-budget and the location precludes any real opening out of the drama, but Whedon finds a variety of ways to bring some deeper personality and character to bear on the film, if not always engender any realism in some of the more outrageous coincidences and melodramatic happenings.
The fact that there's some consideration for setting a realistic foundation for the central couple of Beatrice and Benedick is brilliantly covered in a short flashback sequence before the actual drama starts. The love/hate nature of the relationship is the cornerstone of any romantic comedy and it's essential to get it right and make it credible. Whedon establishes from this opening sequence, where Benedick creeps guiltily out of a bedroom where Beatrice is pretending to be asleep, indicating that the "merry war" between the couple stretches back to an earlier encounter that both regret and are embarrassed to acknowledge that it might amount to more than just a one-night stand.
The director notes (in the commentary) that there is justification for this interpretation in Beatrice's "I know you of old" comment, but she does also confess later to Don Pedro when he observes that she has "lost the heart of Signior Benedick" that "Indeed my lord, he lent it me awhile and I gave him use for it". This fits perfectly then with the personality of Benedick, who professes to love no woman, a self-proclaimed "tyrant of their sex" who is determined to remain a bachelor, has said so often enough and couldn't possibly go back on his word. It also chimes perfectly with Beatrice as the woman scorned, showing her contempt for Benedick's at every opportunity while secretly pained at his rejection and his ridiculous posturing.
Playing with the words and giving them context is one thing, but it requires skilled actors who can bring these sentiments to life and in that respect the casting of Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof is just superb, both for the subtle nuance that they can each bring to the characters - Acker in particular displaying a remarkable range of expression that can hint at underlying sentiments that can even contradict her actual words - and for the way that they are able to work together as a bickering duo through their verbal sparring and their physical comedy. There's no need for subtlety in the latter, since it's necessary to touch on a wide range of sentiments on every level in this drama - even to extremes - and both manage that superbly.
That wide range of sentiments in Much Ado About Nothing however extends far beyond the romantic comedy of Beatrice and Benedick, taking in the tragic romantic melodrama of Claudio and Hero as a counterpoint to the comedy, involving the political machinations of Don John and Borachio, and bringing in the outrageous comic antics of the pompous Dogberry (a hilarious Nathan Fillon) and the Watch. There's something here to marvel over in every scene and Whedon demonstrates mastery over every single aspect and situation, the actors clearly well-rehearsed and well-versed in all aspects of their characters' personalities, but all of them working in common accord with the tone and meaning that Whedon wants to establish for the drama.
Interestingly, and most significantly in as far as it shows a distinctive approach to the work in adaptation to the screen, Whedon recognises (or manufactures) a film noir character to the drama. This is much more of a stretch than setting the work in the present-day and it takes more than just shooting in black-and-white to achieve that. I'm not convinced he carries this off - I wasn't even aware of it until I heard the director mention it in the commentary track - but there is certainly a thread to follow in Don John's machinations and crimes, in the high melodrama of the plot and even in some of the dark comedy situations.
What is evident however is Whedon's careful framing and use of light, placing characters in backgrounds and watching them through doorways, and in the inventiveness of many of those directorial decisions. To name but one seemingly throwaway moment, during the "masked ball" sequence Beatrice announces that "we must follow the leaders" just as she gets up to join a conga line. In that, and in many moments like it, you have all the spirit, the wit, humour, inventiveness and the lightness of touch that Whedon brings to this account of Much Ado About Nothing.
Much Ado About Nothing is released on DVD and BD by Kaleidoscope. The Blu-ray is a single-layer BD25, the disc is AVC encoded with a 1080/24p transfer and audio tracks in PCM Stereo/48kHz and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1/48kHz.
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and, presumably shot on HD cameras, it consequently transfers well to High Definition. The black-and-white tones are well spread across the middle of the greyscale, with no glaring whites or impenetrable blacks. I had the impression that the contrast was stronger when I saw this theatrically, but I wouldn't swear to it. Detail is reasonably good, the image veering towards softness rather than over clinical sharpness. There are no significant issues with the technical aspect of the transfer, the image is stable without flicker, lines remaining solid, tones well-defined.
The audio tracks are reasonably clear, but again not exactly crystal clear or overly-polished. It's possibly a little rough-and-ready due to the nature of the low-budget filming. You wouldn't expect a dialogue-heavy film to be showy, just that speech remains audible and discernible, and that's certainly the case. The post-production elements, such as the music, show a better range and dynamic to the mixes. There's not much call for the surround aspect of the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 track, the film working just as well with the PCM stereo option.
The sound and the actual delivery of the performances are good enough to work without you needing access to the subtitles, but English subtitles are included should you want to follow the beauty of Shakespeare's verse. They are optional, in a bold white font - perhaps a little on the large side - and of the hard-of-hearing variety, which means you get the occasional mention when there are off-screen noises and who is speaking when the person is off-screen. An Audio Description track is also included.
There's not a lot in the way of extra features as most of them haven't come over from the US release. Most importantly though the UK release has the Commentary from Joss Whedon which covers just about anything you might be wondering about the making of the film and the intentions behind it, and he makes many entertaining observations. The film's Trailer is also included.
Shakespeare can be a difficult proposition for the filmmaker and the audience, but Joss Whedon and his cast of regular actors make light work of Much Ado About Nothing. Ideally, a production of this drama should touch on a variety of tones, from comedy to tragedy, from quickness of wit to profundity of sentiments, from light romance to dark intrigue. The trick is to make them all work together and to be able to skip lightly from one tone to the other with delicacy and charm. Whedon finds the right flow, the actors' delivery is rapier sharp and quick, but there's time allowed to consider and bring human warmth to the subject and considerable character. You can't ask for more from a performance of a great Shakespeare work than that, and you get it all in Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing.