Director: Joss Whedon Writers: William Shakespeare (play); Joss Whedon (screenplay) Starring: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion, Fran Kranz, Jillian Morgese, Sean Maher, Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond Runtime: 107 minutes TIFF 2012 Programme: Special Presentation
If the pandemonium that ensued when Joss Whedon burst onto the stage earlier this afternoon for the world premiere of Much Ado About Nothing is any indication, we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of the filmmaker’s cult status. This wasn’t just one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world anymore; all of the sudden, it was a party.
And by god, the man has certainly earned that party. Coming off of a pair of critical hits earlier this summer (the long-awaited Cabin in the Woods, which he co-wrote, not to mention a little something known as The Avengers, which recently passed $1.5 billion dollars worldwide at the box office), Whedon somehow found the time to squeeze in another little project: this contemporary retelling of William Shakespeare’s comedic masterpiece, Much Ado About Nothing. Shot charmingly in black-and-white for almost no money and packed to the brim with recognizable faces from the Whedon canon, the film is yet another triumph for the director who first made a name for himself on television in the ’90s with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You can officially chalk it up: that’s three he’s knocked out of the park this year alone. Welcome to the era of Joss.
The film – which perfectly retains the play’s script while taking some dramatic liberties with the interpretation (as many good contemporary performances of plays do) – is a hypnotizing smorgasbord of comic sensibilities, somehow managing to balance styles of humor that range from Elizabethan puns to slapstick and meta-commentary into one perfectly hilarious romp. If there is anything that must immediately be recognized about Whedon’s Shakespearean offering, it’s just how natural his admittedly diverse sensibilities mesh with Shakespeare’s own comedic style: graceful asides become fuel for sight gags, extended monologues become a playground for thematically and contextually relevant body humor and the entire play comes to life on the screen as if it was always meant to be seen in the medium. The ways in which Whedon finds the humor between the lines and behind the text suggests a deep reverence and understanding of the material, and it elevates a traditional masterpiece into something both unique and refreshing.
The cinematography, which is understandably muted and minimalistic, serves the story as effectively as something that came together as quickly as a project like this could. After all, this is Shakespeare we’re talking about here; cinematographer Jay Hunter needn’t do anything more than point and shoot at the actors to make his camerawork effective, keeping as much out of the way of the performances as possible. But Hunter and Whedon don’t do that, to their credit – they recognize the uniqueness of the medium and utilize it efficiently, often finding a way to integrate the camera with the humor. There are some impressively hilarious compositions in this film which serve to expand on the performances, rather than to allow them to exist in a vacuum; Whedon never forgets that film as a medium can lend a unique perspective to a theatrical adaptation, something which other directors have forgotten in the past. He uses every tool in the medium’s toolbox, and to great effect.
The casting is wonderful. Though these may not be the most accomplished set of Thespians the world has to offer, I doubt that I have ever seen a troupe of actors have this much fun with Shakespeare’s material. Every one of them brings a self-aware attitude to their performance which serves to wildly enrich the originality of the piece. No one does this more so than Nathan Fillion, whose role as Dogberry is so serenely perfect and timeless that it’s hard to believe that the actor had some trepidations about accepting the role. His work as the bumbling officer seems to exist neither here nor there, balancing all of the best comedic sensibilities of Shakespeare’s latter-day text with Fillion’s contemporary, metaphysical absurdity. He’s not the only one, either: the entire cast seems to have found some invisible through-line between the past and present eras, and the laughs that come out of Whedon’s between-the-lines additions to the text land as hard – often harder – than the ones that come out of the play itself.
All-in-all, Whedon’s interpretation of Much Ado About Nothing is the kind of reinterpretation that could just get stubborn, modernist youths interested in Shakespeare’s works again. It does this not by betraying the spirit of the original text, but rather by embracing it – then finding the ways in which that spirit exists in a contemporary aesthetic. And that’s something everybody should get on board with.