*. The setting for Shakespeare’s play is a playground of the idle rich. Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film captured this perfectly, with its rustic Tuscan villa (standing in for Messina) populated by courtiers who don’t have much to do but lie around, drink, throw parties, write poetry, and play games. They have to make much ado about nothing because there’s nothing else to make ado about.
*. Now if you were going to update this play to the twenty-first century where would you set it? Hm. How about the luxurious home of a successful Hollywood director, filled with his visiting movie star friends?
*. I’m not being facetious. The updated setting is an obvious choice and I think it works. It’s a home movie (shot in Joss Whedon’s house), with a “casual flavour” that feels appropriate. Branagh’s film was all fanfare. Whedon’s is lounge music, hors d’oeuvres and cocktails. Welcome to a laid-back, Cali-Arden. Laid way back.
*. But it takes a lot of money to be this comfortable. That view out the back looks expensive. The men’s haircuts look expensive. The catering bill for such a party, complete with Cirque du Soleil trapeze dancers . . . one can only imagine. And this helps too with the somewhat mercenary attitudes of Benedict and Claudio. It matters that Hero is Leonato’s only heir. I mean . . . that house!
*. I don’t like the opening scene in the bedroom, with Benedict leaving Beatrice after what seems to have been a bout of intimacy. There is some support for this in the play (we even get some flashbacks underlining the connection as Beatrice talks about Benedict having leant her his heart a while), but I think it should have been left out. Because if Beatrice and Benedict have been in a relationship already, what is there to look forward to? There’s a difference between getting together and getting back together (even if this time it’s with feeling).
*. I do like the black-and-white photography. Along with the camerawork it gives the film a European/Italian art house feel, like we’re watching someone “doing” Fellini or Antonioni. This was something Whedon had in mind. On the commentary track he also mentions film noir as an influence but I don’t see that at all.
*. Another highlight is Dogberry (Nathan Fillion), Verges, and the rest of the night-watch. Fillion is one of my favourite Dogberries, and it’s because of that same laid-back way he’s played. Too often the character is drawn as slapstick, with the emphasis placed on his mangling of the language and bombastic self-importance. My own sense is that Dogberry is more of an idler or slacker. Placed in his historical-cultural context, I think he’d be a pure dogfucker: just too damn lazy to be dangerous. His advice to the constables is to not do anything on their watch. They take his cue and decide they’ll get a good night’s sleep. I like what they did here, and think they could have gone even further in this direction and it might have worked.
*. This is an odd production of the play because while it does a lot of difficult stuff well and makes some great creative decisions (emphasizing and distinguishing the roles of Conrade and Borachio, for example), it muffs the easy stuff.
*. I think for as long as it’s been staged the high point of the play has been the twin gulling scenes. These are a lot of fun and great theatre. Here, however, they’re overplayed, which isn’t bad in itself but is out of keeping with the rest of the film’s casual-contemporary tone.
*. Whedon says that he thought Shakespeare meant these scenes to be played over-the-top but I’m not sure such broad body humour is what he meant. The hammy overreaching doesn’t work here, seeming out of place with the rest of play.
*. I thought Branagh was wise to leave out most of the cuckolding stuff from his adaptation. Whedon unwisely puts it back in. Do modern audiences even understand what a “cuckold” even is? Where the word comes from? What the sign of horns means? I don’t think there are many people, even among those who have studied Shakespeare, who could translate a line like Benedict’s “But that I will have a recheat winded in my forehead or hang my bugle in an invisible baldrick, all women shall pardon me.” Without looking at your footnotes: What is a recheat? Why would it be winded in his forehead, and what does that mean? What is a baldrick and why should it be invisible? This is a fine Shakespearean line with multiple meanings, but to a modern audience it must be totally baffling.
*. Whedon apparently went directly from The Avengers to this. In fact I think he was still working on The Avengers in post-production while he was making this film. I guess a break is as good as a rest.
*. I can’t say I’m a big fan of Whedon’s. Frankly, this is the only thing of his I’ve seen that I like. But I like it a lot and admire him for making it the way he did. It’s a personal, stylish film that perfectly captures the play’s en plein air atmosphere of wealth and comfort, as well as the long-established rules of the game. One feels like a fly on the wall, or reality-TV camera, witnessing the birth of pastoral.