The first time I came across a Shakespeare comedy was a school trip to see A Comedy of Errors in my teens. I remember being surprised at how many fart jokes there were, but otherwise found the play boring and unfunny.
This modern dress film adaptation of his comedy Much Ado about Nothing, blows away the impression that his comedies are boring.
This is genuinely, laugh out loud funny. This isn’t down to some trick by director Joss Whedon, best known for his TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
But his lightness of touch allows Shakespeare’s words to shine through.
The film plays like a screwball comedy from the 1940s and is shot in black and white.
The witty banter between Beatrice and Benedick, the major of the two couples around which the plot revolves, is sharp and relevant.
They begin as cynics who swear they will never marry and who save their most cutting remarks for each other.
You can probably guess how they end up.
The dialogue is delivered confidently by familiar faces from Whedon’s TV projects—Buffy, Angel and Firefly.
And there are a couple of visual jokes thrown in for the fans. The humour is also physical, with many fallings down stairs.
The plot turns on deception and misunderstanding—on choosing to accept the appearance of things instead of looking beneath the surface.
So at a masked ball Don Pedro woos the chaste, saintly—and passive and practically mute—Hero on behalf of his friend, Claudio.
Beatrice and Benedick are each tricked into believing that the other has declared their love for them.
The story takes a darker turn when Claudio is tricked into believing that Hero has been with another man the night before their wedding.
When he publicly denounces her at the ceremony, her father, Leonato, cries out that she would be better off dead than dishonoured.
They are too quick to doubt Hero. But the overall tone of the film is light and joyous. The darker characters—the evil plotter Don John, the misogynists Leonato and Claudio, and the submissive Hero—seem like relics from another place and time.
Though the play was written in the 1590s, worries about honour and position are shown to be folly.
The stupidest characters are the ones who reveal the truth in the end. And the heroes are those whose true love overcomes doubt and disguise.
This is a very successful adaptation and proves that Shakespeare is funny.