A classic story of love, intrigue and betrayal, Elizabethan prose, edgy black & white images, and remarkably beautiful actors in ‘skinny suits’; what’s not to love? I can’t think of a thing. Unless one is among the most rigid of Shakespeare purists, Joss Whedon’s film version of Much Ado About Nothing is worth seeing.
One of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, the play was first performed about 1599 and is a mainstay for theater companies, universities and festivals. I’ve seen stage productions, both good and not-so-good, several times. A standout for me is a wonderful 1998 production at Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival where the central lovers, Beatrice & Benedick were played by actors ‘of a certain age’. The BBC has produced it for television twice (1984 & 2005). Two operas have been adapted from the play.
Whedon’s is the third film presentation of MAAN, following a 1913 silent version and Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film. The fine Branagh film presents the material in a more traditional setting. It feels warmer and more celebratory. The humor is lighter and more accessible. By contrast, the Whedon film, due, in large part, to the ‘film noir’ feel created by the black & white images, feels more sinister; the humor more cynical.
For Joss Whedon fans this film may feel both familiar and foreign. It is dark and witty but it is not ‘Buffy the Bard Slayer’. Neither is it ‘The Avengers Do Messina’. All the actors have worked with Whedon before on one or more projects. The film was shot in 12 days in 2011 at Whedon’s home so I suspect it felt like a reunion. The film premiered at the 2012 Toronto Film Festival but only received wide distribution in the US begining in June of 2013.Whedon’s adaptation feels true to the play. While seeing the film, I only noticed three significant departures from my expectations. In leafing through the play afterward, I realize there are others; minor characters that are eliminated or combined, but none of these changes affected my enjoyment of the movie.
Of the three variances I noticed, two were wonderful and the third was confusing but intriguing. The film opens with a flashback scene that is not in the play though it is alluded to later in the text. I loved that. There is a song in the play that is usually performed on stage. In the film, it is updated with a hip arrangement and included in the film score. This is both effective and funny.
The change that I find confusing and intriguing was the casting of female actor Riki Lindhome in the role of Conrade; a henchman of the villain Don John. In the play, Conrade is a male character. In the film, the role is played by a female actor and their most significant scene is set in bed together. The sexual context is blatant. The change did not strike me as odd until I realized that, throughout the play, no concessions were made in the text to Conrade’s revised gender. The pronouns used in talking to or about her are still masculine.
In interviews, Whedon has discussed wanting to heighten the sexuality in the play. Indeed, a contemporary telling of a story of political betrayal and intrigue is well served by some heavy breathing. There is no reason Conrade couldn’t be a female character. But then why not adapt the text to recognize that? At the same time, in a modern-era setting, the Conrade character could be male AND still have a roll in the hay with his bastard boss. Making the character female is not a requirement to add a little lust, especially in an ‘art house’ film. It might have jeopardized the PG-13 rating, however. It is not unheard of to cast a female actor in a male role, of course, but to cross-cast the role AND add the bedroom romp seems to be saying something…I’m just not sure what.