Bard And Breakfast: Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing (2012) – Blu-ray review
The decision to ‘do’ Shakespeare in the style of a house party sounds terrible, but the unusual location makes for a strangely compelling stage.
Much Ado About Nothing
(Joss Whedon, 2012)
Life’s a stage – especially if you live there. The central gimmick of Joss Whedon’s Shakespeare adaptation is that he shot the entire thing, in a mere 12 days, in and around his own home. In lesser hands, this would be the height of self-indulgence: a Hollywood millionaire getting his mates around to spout iambic pentameter. But Whedon has long had an interest in cinematic form since his dialogue-free and musical episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and Much Ado About Nothing works on the same basis.
See, most Shakespeare films go out of their way to stress their use of the big-screen, from Kurosawa’s samurai versions of Macbeth and King Lear to Forbidden Planet taking The Tempest into space. When Kenneth Branagh directed Much Ado About Nothing, he blew the budget on taking a bunch of British thesps and Hollywood A-listers to Italy for an al fresco holiday. Yet Whedon’s location imposes unusual limits: he has to work with what he has, allowing the movement of characters from room to room to achieve a similar unity to that which takes place in a theatre production.
The result is a best-of-breed: naturalistic but also brazenly stylised, as Whedon uses his in-depth knowledge of the ‘set’ to frame the action from unusual angles. This is a play where very few people tell the truth, and it would be easy to use the sleight-of-hand of editing to convey that. But what he does is cleverer; it all comes from the mise en scene. There are a lot of mirrors and windows at work here, or voyeuristic views from loft spaces, or using the marble top of a kitchen work surface to cut off characters’eye-lines from each other.
The sense of the film as a house party also helps Whedon to achieve an amiable, amused tone that punctures ye olde image of Shakespearian verse by treating it as off-the-cuff and conversational. Whedon characters from Buffy onwards have always been arch-ironists, and he instructs his actors to speak the Bard’s language sounds with the same barbed, pithy inflections as his own screenplay’s hipster Valley speak. Not that he’s above more direct means of getting the meaning across: in the film’s central sequences of Benedict and Beatrice’s friends pushing together this odd couple via overheard lies, Whedon coaxes outrageous acts of slapstick from Alexis Denisoff and Amy Acker, the latter’s spindly, Olive Oyl-esque frame making her particularly adept at becoming a human cartoon.
In the grand scheme of things, the title has it right: this is an incredibly frivolous film, and Whedon courts exasperation in its over-studied, gin-advert party scenes. But mostly, it is excellent precisely because it is frivolous. Whedon’s entire career game plan has been to smuggle an affectionately everyday, humanistic worldview onto the screen via genre, and Shakespearian rom-com is just another vehicle for that. You’ll likely leave the film in love with love, not to mention seething envy for what a nice house Whedon lives in.
Much Ado About Nothing is released on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 7th October. Extras include a Whedon commentary.