Dear friends and readers,
This is heartily to recommend seeing Josh Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. It makes sense of Shakespeare’s play. All the disparate groups of characters are filmed using the same mood of intense eroticism and sinister insinuation, so that the evil guys (Don John and his entourage of violent crooks, seducers and sluts); good but dumb clown-policemen who act as spies (Dogberry and Verges) for a larger power (a silent but effective policewoman); witty antagonistic lovers (Beatrice and Benedict) and sensual yet earnestly chaste ones (Hero and Claudio); not to omit servants, friends, hangers-on, all belong to one world. ‘
Just about every other MAAN I’ve ever seen did not know what to do about the villains; here they are central because if their insinuation, spying, seethingness, menace pervades all the couples. For the villains it’s on behalf of hurting others (of ruthless sex, solopistic drug-taking) as opposed to everyone else who are there on behalf of love, pleasure, friendship, just wandering about the large multi-level beautiful landscaped grounds of Mr Whedon, eating, dancing, drinking, protecting as police-watchers. But this distrustful feel, combativeness, sense of inexplicable alienation is everywhere. It’s aided by the black-and-white or grey colors.
An air of mystery is worked up — and fits. It is inexplicable why all the characters approach each other in these indirect spying ways. Why do Beatrice and Benedict have to be deceived into recognizing they love one another and admitting it? It’s inexplicable really why Hero’s father forgives Claudio for publicly humiliating his daughter at the wedding ceremony.
It makes no sense that Claudio should be forgiven, or that he should have believed Hero sexually promiscuous on such slight evidence he didn’t bother to investigate. Dogberry and Verger make no sense at all — they stumble into revealing the villains. Shakespeare’s play has many problems. The way to get past them is to present them to us in our faces: everyone is wandering about in rooms that sometimes just feel wrong (like a bedroom with stuffed dolls in it). Everybody is drinking away (champagne, tall goblet glasses of wines).
Most productions of MAAN, don’t blend together all the seemingly disparate groups of characters and their moods, into one. The same holds true of Twelfth Night. Whedon’s production of MAAN reminded me of a production of Twelfth Night, I saw as A Play of the Week when I was 13 or 14 on the older NYC Channel 13 (predecessor to PBS): it too blended all the character types and moods of the play into one – how so? by refusing to make simple merriment anywhere, by making the comedy feel saturnine, bleak, more than melancholy, it was downright bitter. And it was not false for all the words came from Twelfth Night and were not belied. The perspective was that of Jacques, and everything fell into place. So here for MAAN, the perspective is eventually that of Benedict (wary), Beatrice (anti-marriage) and after them, the disillusioned Don Pedro, Claudio’s friend (Reed Diamond) whose line when Pedro learns how Hero has been shamed and killed remains in the memory once you’ve read it or heard it say resonatingly aloud:
Runs not this speech like iron through your blood?
In the production of MAAN with Sam Waterson in the later 1970s in Central Park, the previous good version of MAAN I’ve seen, the above line seemed not to fit: there the play was set in the 1920s (rah, rah, rah, a college atmosphere), all innocents, a sort of escapees from Booth Tarkington’s Penrod. The famous 1990s movie MAAN (in color be it said) with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson I’ve thought one of their rare poor efforts: they make the mistake of trying to be swashbuckling, downplaying the Hero story and end up with something shallow.
It is better for the viewer to have read the play as the lines are pronounced in quick-style naturalism, just like talk and yet there are throw-away profound at moments — oddly bitter, and then again whacky, desperate, prideful. If not read the play, at least read about it. If you do, you are in for an aesthetic treat. It’s allusive, self-reflexive of Whedon’s other films, and makes fun of iconic scenes.
All the actors are very good, they seem up to the lines — understand what the lines mean and the situation. They are dressed in a old-fashioned way: the men are all in suits, long-sleeved shirts for the most part, ties. Shiny shoes. It’s something out of the 1950s. Or maybe we were to think of Clark Gable and his era or Cary Grant and his.
Or it’s they have holsters with guns as in 1930s “gangster” films:
The women are in dresses that when I was young most women wore to work in the US, and plain high heels, pumps not too high: a slightly dressed up style, the kind you could once buy in Lerner Shops, or if you were disposed to spend more money in a good department store (Macy’s, Orbach’s). This evokes another time and place, a sense of pastness without specifying which past. The feel though is one of elegance. Departures include a very sexy outfit for the actress playing Conrade (Riki Lindhomme) who is in modern style tights, very brief skin-tight skirt, boots, low cut top, hair in extreme page-boy (very blonde): she goes to bed with anyone and everyone of the Don John group; she is side-kick to Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark) who differs from the others by having (it seems) taken his suit jacket off and left it somewhere.
There are servants everywhere, the women, e.g., Margaret (Ashley Johnson) in maid’s outfits (think The Philadelphia Story), and the men in waiters’ duds — rather like the servants of the 1930s US movie. I can’t find any stills of them, but here is a typical scene where we can see the costumes in the kitchen.
The play has good slapstick scenes, hiding scenes, emotional violence and (in this version) strongly erotic moments too. Nathan Fillion did stand out as a very funny Dogberry and yet the snobbery of the original was done away with. There is a problem with the demand for virginity from Hero (and use of a veiled bride as punishment for Claudio) but that’s a central given in the play and not to be done away with.
And in case you were wondering, Whedon’s has a very large and beautiful house, with lots of staircases, and grounds. Exquisite furniture. Gorgeous trees and bushes, all picturesquely arranged. And curiously shot sometimes in a highly stylized manner:
Whedon is a very rich man, with many servants and (natch) many friends …
One might think about how a movie said to be “no budget” just reeks of money and why.