Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing” {Review}

Some may say that Joss Whedon and Shakespeare, two giants within their own rights, are an unalloyed union of geekery for fans of both. Whether you’re a fan of one or the other, or both, Much Ado About Nothing offers something for everybody. Even a person who isn’t a fan of Shakespeare might find himself surprised, for Joss Whedon makes the original language accessible and, best of all, one can understand what they’re saying. (You don’t just have my word, you have Stephen Colbert’s!) There is no stumbling, no effort or struggle to understand the words. Any of the humour originally derived from the text (wordplay or slang, or cultural reference) that might otherwise be lost on a modern audience is punctuated by each actor’s performance and sometimes even the set itself, such as when Benedick is offering his thoughts on marriage and women while sitting next to a dollhouse with Barbies. (My favourite line, “That a woman conceived me, I thank her; that she brought me up, I likewise give her most humble thanks. [...] And the fine is, for the which I may go the finer, I will live a bachelor.”)

I’ve been looking forward to seeing Much Ado since I caught wind of it (and the marketing lead-up to the movie’s release; the ever-changing Twitter bio instilled much laughter). From the get-go, my impression of Much Ado About Nothing is what an indie movie should be, ideally. (The definition of independent movies is not quite determined, and a discussion for another time.) It also embodies the kind of moviemaking I treasure: friends having a good time, whether it’s an indie movie on a micro budget or a major blockbuster, I always enjoying watching behind the scenes features with the cast and crew having a good time and enjoying themselves, and sharing stories in interviews.

I finally saw the movie on Wednesday, with my sister and aunt and all of us loved it! Brilliant and engaging, we laughed at the lines – most of them by Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof), and Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) – the moments of physical comedy (Alexis Denisof wins again), and cursed the “inevitable betrayal” of Don John (played by Sean Maher, who played Simon Tam in Firefly), who tries to sabotage a marriage before it has even happened. (Side note: I had no idea that he was in this movie! I had a minor crush on him, as his character, in Firefly. I did not like his character at all in Much Ado; he brilliantly and convincingly played the villain, a snake in the grass.)

Prior to seeing it, I borrowed a copy of the play from the library to be familiar with the text but so much of the comedy and humour, as well as the tension arising from Don John’s deceit, came alive from the actors’ performances. While I read the scene in which Don John frames Hero for infidelity with some unease, I was tense (my sister, sitting next to me, stressed out) when watching it happen in the movie and even more so as it led up to the point in which she is framed and publicly humiliated. Likewise, while I might have read humorous, witty lines with amusement with amusement, I laughed out loud while hearing those same lines (particularly Dogberry’s). It has long been argued that Shakespeare is meant to be performed, not read, and I can now attest to that – when done well. Such is the case with Joss Whedon’s adaptation.

I remember when I first studied Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and for one of my assignments it was suggested to me, by my Dad, that the best medium for Shakespeare is film because movies are better able to convey the settings than the stage – I had to “interview” Shakespeare and one of the questions was regarding theatre versus movies – especially for the plays with multiple settings, in regards to the general argument that on must go to the theatre to enjoy Shakespeare. (Partially for this reason was why there was a chorus in Henry V, encouraging the audience to imagine the great battlefields and crossing the English channel as Elizabethan stages did not use scenery).

Much Ado is one of the few plays that takes place in one location, which made it ideal for Joss Whedon to shoot entirely in his home, on a micro budget, in twelve days during a break from filming The Avengers. Because of this, there’s a level of intimacy, coupled with the camaraderie of the cast, most of whom are familiar faces in the Whedon universe. (Jillian Morgese, who plays Hero, and Clark Gregg, who plays Leonato, Hero’s father, are newcomers – she played an extra in The Avengers, her story is amazing, and he played Phil Agent Coulson.) Because there is only one location, there is also not much to distract, such as scenery, from focusing on the words and story, which allows us to better engage in the dialogue and increase our overall enjoyment. (This is also, no doubt, aided by it being shot in black and white.)

Now that I’ve seen it, I want to see it again!

Before I end this review, I must also mention the soundtrack. This is Joss Whedon’s first movie that he composed the music for himself and it is wonderful. You can get the soundtrack on Spotify, iTunes, or Amazon.com. There are two songs in the original play and he sets these two songs to music, both of which are woven into the movie seamlessly and with elegance. It might be tough to imagine but 14th century songs can be catchy.

A few fun and interesting notes on the original play:

  • In Elizabethan English (Early Modern English), “nothing” was a homonym for “noting”. In this sense, noting is rumour and gossip – which fuels most of the play through the different characters’ motivations and manipulation of each other.
  • There is a lot of wordplay in Much Ado, as there is in all of Shakespeare’s plays. Our favourite one was when Beatrice is complaining of a cold and Margaret, Hero’s waiting lady, offers her a distillation of carduus benedictus, otherwise known as holy thistle. While the obvious wordplay is that it has Benedick’s name, carduus (“thistle”) sounds close to cordis, a Latin word meaning “of the heart”.
  • Benedick’s speech, beginning with the line, “That a woman conceived me, I thank her; that she brought me up, I likewise give her most humble thanks,” not only reveals his disdain for marriage but also his dependance on his mother, a woman, for nurture and his fear of depending on a woman again, or being enslaved to her. Much of the men’s dialogue about women are their fears of cuckoldry (and this is the seed for Don John’s villainy).
  • Bonus trivia: Conrad (sometimes spelled Conrade), while a man in the original play, is a woman and Don John’s lover in Joss Whedon’s version. Unlike most gender switches of characters, it was done quietly and without fan fare (no headlines) – I didn’t mind it and it didn’t drastically affect the plot.

I could go on with the bullet points, but then you would be reading my essay notes.

If you’re a fan of Shakespeare, if you’re a fan of Joss Whedon, or just want to see something different from the usual summer blockbuster fare, go see Much Ado About Nothing. I fully recommend it! Check your local theatre listings – the Twitter accounts @MuchAdoFilm (for the US) and @MuchAdoMovieUK are good at keeping up to date and you can also check this page for all the American theatres showing it so far. If it’s not listed in your area, keep an eye out, ask around. I saw it at a small theatre that plays independent, art house, and foreign films.

Last but not least, a photo that my sister took of me after we watched the movie. (I filtered it with and uploaded it to Pressgram.)

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2 thoughts on “Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing” {Review}

  1. I really enjoyed this, a little much to my surprise. I think all those people that stumble when it is in Shakespearean language could easily enjoy this. I even want to see it again!

    • Hi K, I agree! I went in fully looking forward to it, although I did not know how much I’d enjoy it! I’ve seen it (casually) compared to the Kenneth Branagh version but didn’t include it as I have not seen it, so can’t make an opinion at present.

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