To some, Joss Whedon doing Shakespeare is as random a notion as Michael Bay directing a Chekhov play. Whedon, known for his outstanding work on television shows and films such as Firefly, Dollhouse, The Avengers, and Serenity, seems like one of the last people who would suddenly slip over into the realm of the Bard’s classic repertoire of plays. But, lo and behold, even with his extremely busy schedule on The Avengers, Whedon took 12 days to put together a modernized telling of Much Ado About Nothing, using his own house, a group of friends, a limited budget, and the high hopes that this wouldn’t turn out to be just a silly little home movie.
The story involves a group of soldiers returning from battle led by Don Pedro (Reed Diamond). After his reconciliation with his brother, Don John (Sean Maher), they have decided to stay at the home of a friend, Leonato (Clark Gregg), for a month. In his party is the young Claudio (Fran Kranz), who quickly becomes smitten with Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese). Wanting to help his young friend, Don Pedro takes it upon himself to woo Hero for him, and once done successfully, the two become engaged. However, the mean-spirited Don John has a wicked plan up his sleeve that could spell the end of their relationship just as quickly as it began.
Meanwhile, we also follow the story of another of the Don’s party, Benedick (Alexis Denisof), who is constantly quarreling with Leonato’s niece, Beatrice (Amy Acker). The two have sworn off the opposite sex altogether, giving Don Pedro, Claudio, and Hero the idea of trying to get them together. The two have shown nothing but hatred towards each other as they swap jibe after jibe, but could it be that there is actually something more between them?
As a huge fan of both William Shakespeare and Joss Whedon, I couldn’t have been more delighted when I heard that this project was happening. Sure, Whedon is known for his exploits in fantasy and sci-fi, but who says that his talents in those areas couldn’t be adapted to fit a classic work like Much Ado? If anything, I would hope that one of the major side effects would be that fans of his work, many of whom have probably never read a Shakespeare play in their lives, would give the film a go, and in the process expose themselves to the Bard’s monumental world of poetic language and unforgettable characters.
Some will complain that Shakespeare isn’t exactly the most accessible author, that the language is a little hard to grasp, especially if you’re trying it out for the first time. However, the great thing about Whedon choosing this particular play is that it’s one of the Bard’s more accessible works. There may be a lot of characters to keep track of, but the plot is relatively simple in that you have a villain trying to break up a betrothal, while another group of characters are trying to bring two stubborn people together, so if this happens to be your first encounter with a Shakespeare work, there’s little chance of you getting lost in the story.
With this adaptation, Whedon proves that you don’t need a large budget to produce a fantastic Shakespeare adaptation. True, the BBC already proved that with several of their productions, but they didn’t have the benefit of Whedon’s keen eye for direction. It’s a very simple, straightforward production with little flourish involved, but it doesn’t really need any. Whedon’s purpose is to focus on the characters, one of the many important elements he brings from his work on his other projects. He lets the characters and their stories take over without distraction.
For this purpose, he went about putting together a cast that he knew he could trust, actors that he knew would be capable of doing the difficult work involved in throwing together a Shakespeare movie in 12 days. For fans of Whedon’s other work, many of the names will be familiar to you: Nathan Fillion (Firefly), Sean Maher (Firefly), Amy Acker (Angel, Dollhouse), Alexis Denisof (Angel, Dollhouse), Fran Kranz (Dollhouse, The Cabin in the Woods), and the list goes on.
The genesis of the idea is actually a very interesting one. Apparently Whedon had been taken to holding Shakespeare readings at his house, where he would invite several of these people to participate. It was just a fun little activity that he would do with friends, but finding that these people he had worked with had a strong grasp of the material eventually made him want to do a movie.
It’s a rather impressive cast, particularly Acker and Denisof. Benedick and Beatrice are not easy roles to play. Their sparring matches make for some of the best scenes in the play and they have to be done with precise timing. These two were certainly up to the task, delivering the amusing insults in a very convincing manner. Also to be commended is the great Nathan Fillion, who plays the comical role of Constable Dogberry. As Fillion describes him, Dogberry is stupid without knowing he’s stupid, an aspect of the character that he uses to great effect. There’s also the fascinating juxtaposition of seeing Fillion go from playing Captain Malcolm Reynolds on Firefly, a tough-guy character, to someone as inept as Dogberry, which only adds to the comic effect of the role.
Prior to this adaptation, the main version I was familiar with was Sir Kenneth Branagh’s masterful 1993 production, starring himself, Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, and Kate Beckinsale. While I still hold that version to be the best one yet, Whedon’s is still a fantastic alternative. It even improves upon the one weak link of the 1993 production, that being the terrible miscasting of Keanu Reeves as Don John. Whedon, his cast, and crew have done something incredible here. They’ve successfully contemporized a Shakespeare play, a concept that doesn’t always work particularly well, and made it a complete delight to experience. Hopefully Whedon wouldn’t be opposed to tackling such material again.
Taking a look at the specs, the film is presented in a 1.78:1, 1080p transfer that looks incredible. I probably should have mentioned that the film is in black and white, but that doesn’t stop it from looking crystal clear, nor does the fact that it was shot on a small budget. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is a little low, so you’ll probably have to turn it up a bit, but it too is excellent when played at adjusted volume. It may have been a small movie, but it got fantastic treatment.
Special features on the disc include the following:
- “Much Ado About Making Nothing” Featurette
- “Bus Ado About Nothing” Featurette
- “Sigh No More” Music Video
- Director’s Commentary with Joss Whedon
- Commentary with Cast & Joss Whedon
Starting with the commentary as always, Whedon’s solo track is very informative as he takes you through the different aspects of the film from its beginnings to how everything came together. Very much worth listening to if you’re looking to learn the details of the production. The second track is complete and utter nonsense. I lost count of how many people were involved, but it was a lot. It’s basically everyone trying to talk at the same time and joking around. There’s nothing to be learned from it at all, making it a waste of time, but it doesn’t really matter given that you get the real commentary track with Whedon.
The “Making of” featurette is very informative as well. It runs about 20 minutes and features interviews with cast and crew talking about the production, how it came to be, and what it was like to work on it. The “Bus Ado About Nothing” featurette is a fun look at the cast and crew on a bus ride to the SXSW festival to screen the film. The highlights of it include hilarious videos made by the cast during the trip. It’s worth watching if you’re looking for a good laugh.
Given that this is a small movie, it’s rather impressive that they put together such a good selection of special features. There are a couple that could have been left off (the 2nd commentary, the music video), but the ones that matter only go towards making a great release even better. Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing is one of the best films of the year. Whether you’re a fan of Shakespeare or not, this is one that shouldn’t be missed.
This review is based on a copy of the Blu-Ray that we received for reviewing purposes.