I think the thing about adapting a classic production like “Much Ado About Nothing” for the sceen is that the audience should walk away feeling like they understand why the director chose that play. It’s a little different in, say, annual summer Shakespeare festivals, where the directors just have to make sure they don’t stage the same plays two years in a row and they get a chance to continually reinterrogate each text; to try out the same words in new ways that expose new truths. (I’m recalling a production of ’12th Night’ on Boston Common one year where Malvolio ended up in yellow PVC bondage trousers. And now that I have left you with that image, we shall move along.) Films, though, are not perennial: the director makes them once and there they are forever, that director’s monument to what she or he thinks the essence of that particular play is, eternal and unchanging.
I walked away from this version of ‘Much Ado’ unsure about why Joss Whedon chose to adapt it to the screen. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, but rather that I didn’t fully understand what this version of the production was supposed to bring us that was new or revealed different aspects of the characters to previous versions.
I suppose in large part this is because I find it hard to accept the relevance of the central theme of this play in a contemporary setting: is it really believable, nowadays, that the suspected infidelity of a woman is a matter to be aired in a public arena, as Claudio does at his very wedding altar? And Claudio’s avowal that his ‘pure’ affection for Hero led him to treat her “as a brother to his sister” is more likely to leave contemporary audiences with the heebie-jeebies than if he were just a thoroughly modern letch toward her. But perhaps in some ways this production gave more weight to the fidelity of the mind, to the importance of building an emotional trust that can sustain a lasting relationship (a trust that might have caused Claudio to behave less recklessly, had it been present) rather than banking all on outward signs of physical fidelity.
Though in truth, in this film anxieties about female infidelity are not a central theme–that is just a plot point that moves the narrative forward rather than being a subtle but constant allusion hovering over the characters’ every actions, as it has been in other productions I’ve seen. This movie is a straight-up love story of reconciliation between Beatrice and Benedick, two souls finally managing to get together despite all the barriers they keep trying to throw in the way. This is shown most obviously in the final shot (SPOILER ALERT: everyone gets married at the end!) when everyone is dancing their socks off at the wedding. Claudio, by the way, dances EXACTLY how I’ve always pictured he would. Everyone, that is, except Beatrice and Benedick, who are the serious counterpoints to all the jollity around them and who only have eyes for each other.
Hero’s mother is cut entirely, which I thought was a pity. But Conrade cast as a woman was quite clever, I thought. That added layers of new and interesting power dynamics to the relationship between her and Don John.
By the way: no one has ever been able to explain to me satisfactorily why Don John is in such a grump. Why? Why does he instigate all this anguish within poor Leonato’s household? Is he just trying to rile his half-brother, Don Pedro? Then why unleash a scheme that can only culminate in most hurting Hero? And yet he seems to have nothing specific against her, for it’s Don John’s underling Borachio who suggests the scheme in the first place. Hero is a mere pawn. What, then? Does he just thrive on drama?
This latter motivation seems all the more plausible with several little touches in this production, notably the selfishly comic gesture he makes while on the way out of the first, failed wedding ceremony. Maybe he does just like drama. Why is he so annoyed with Don Pedro anyway? Did he get passed over for the throne or something? I’ve always felt that backstory could use a little fleshing out.
Most striking in this film, though, was the opulent setting of Whedon’s own California house, complete with boozy masked parties with circus-artiste entertainers in the garden accompanied by a jazzy piano version of The Song while guests dive into the infinity pool in their finery. “Much Ado About Nothing” has always been a story about trouble among the elite, but this film brought the decadence into truly sharp focus. All in all, though, I was still left wondering precisely what it was Whedon was trying to say from his beautiful house and grounds.