By Cara Nash

Having wrapped production on what would become one of the biggest superhero films ever with 2012’s game-changing The Avengers, one would think that filmmaker and fan favourite, Joss Whedon, would have earned the right to kick back for a couple of weeks. In fact, he was contractually obliged to take a week off work in between the production and edit of the Marvel blockbuster. But the self-confessed workaholic – the creator of the much loved television series, Buffy, Firefly and Dollhouse – delighted fans when he announced that he had instead spent that spare time shooting another film in secret at his house with a handful of his regular acting cohorts.

That film was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, of which the most definitive adaptation was Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 version. And while one may assume that a superhero blockbuster and a black-and-white micro-budget adaptation of The Bard are as different as two features can get, they’re both examples of a filmmaker working with stories and characters that he obviously adores and knows inside-out. And while his army of followers were always going to be a soft touch, Much Ado About Nothing indeed proves a funny, smart and deftly made adaptation, even if you aren’t – gasp! – a devoted Whedon fan.

For the uninitiated, this famous comedy opens with the arrival of Don Pedro (Dollhouse’s Reed Diamond) at the home of Leonato (Agents Of SHIELD’s Clark Gregg). His right-hand man, Claudio (The Cabin In The Woods’ Fran Kranz), is head over heels in love with Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese). Also arriving home as part of the entourage is Benedick (Angel’s Alexis Denisof), who spends most of the time verbally sparring with Leonato’s feisty niece, Beatrice (Angel’s Amy Acker), while their colleagues around them smirk and scheme to push the two together. On the sidelines, Don John (Firefly’s Sean Maher) plots to split up Hero and Claudio, with the plan being to fabricate and expose the former’s infidelity.

Given that the best thing about watching a Joss Whedon production is the wry and witty dialogue, one may assume that the director’s greatest strength has been stripped from him with this adaptation, which uses Shakespeare’s original text. But instead, Whedon’s ear for dialogue and comic timing magically enhances this material; he knows what to keep and what to exclude, so the best lines make it in, and the lesser gags are jettisoned or even gently mocked. In fact, many of the biggest laughs come from the purely visual gags (a highlight is Benedick’s hilarious attempt to eavesdrop on a conversation that was intended for him).

Of course, props need to be given to the uniformly superb cast that Whedon has assembled, who can be enjoyed even if one’s not familiar with the director’s productions. The showstopper is Amy Acker, who finds the perfect balance between poetry and casualness, and laces Beatrice with a steeliness that’s both alluring and understandable. But sure to score the biggest laughs is Nathan Fillion as the incompetent constable Dogberry, with the Firefly actor playing his character with a child-like mentality that proves hilarious and touching.

Despite the fact that Whedon plays this for the romantic comedy that it is, the director doesn’t shy away from digging into the darker turns that the story takes, and plays them faithfully. But sometimes, given the film’s modern context, it feels a little silly in its translation. When Hero’s alleged infidelity is exposed on her wedding day, her father violently disowns her, and the whole community – with the exception of Beatrice and Benedick – shuns her. Such a traditional take on events seems slightly absurd given that the story’s playing against a backdrop of characters texting one another on iPhones and arriving in limousines.

Perhaps what saves this aspect of the film is that Whedon doesn’t play up the modern context too much. In any case, he succeeds in revealing the timelessness of Shakespeare’s themes, revealing the way that we still play with one another’s emotions, only to be surprised and hurt by the results. There is also something to be said about the fact that women are still scorned for infidelity in a way that men aren’t. In one of the film’s best dramatic moments, Whedon (who has always written strong and empathetic female characters) poignantly zeroes in on how powerless Beatrice is to protect her cousin, and thus surrenders to Benedick if he agrees to kill Claudio, which plays up both the absurdity and tragedy inherent in Shakespeare’s writing.

The DIY ethos behind this production shines through, but its rough edges only add to its charm. Unintentionally, Whedon’s film is something of an equaliser, revealing that entertaining cinema doesn’t need to be made on a multi-million-dollar budget (or involve superheroes). And the fact that this is proven by the director behind one of the biggest superhero flicks ever seems truly fitting.


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