Much Ado is filled with banter, particularly that resulting from the collision of the witty and strong-headed Beatrice and Benedick, who fight a “merry war”. Perhaps it is not surprising that, under Whedon’s direction, this lighter, funnier plotline shines. The physical comedy of it is orchestrated brilliantly with the house the movie is shot in – Whedon’s own – giving up its spaces to become a sort of playground as well as a stage.
With Benedick and Beatrice the film is at its most confident, and although in the play neither this plotline nor that given to Hero and Claudio are given more emphasis, it is this lighter arc that the movie focuses upon. The playful dialogue and almost proto-feminist character of Beatrice lend themselves to Whedon’s strengths, as well as to modernisation.
The other plotline in the play concerns Hero being publicly and falsely accused of having lost her virginity, more difficult to convincingly update for the modern setting. Hero is given little attention in the play and is more or less left as an outline with little to say. Whedon, to his credit, strengthens the character with non-verbal scenes of her interacting with her fiancé Claudio, with her father and with Beatrice.
Nevertheless the plotline remains outdated, even if one reads fidelity in the place of chastity.
Although Whedon’s version has more charm than most, this plotline is less engaging. Yet it is still the more serious, and the film suffers from this conflict being given less attention than the lighter and more romantic plotlines. As a result, the conclusion remains unsatisfying.
Other less focal aspects lend themselves to the modernisation better. The play’s themes of over-seeing and over-hearing become a commentary on surveillance with scenes shot from odd, askant angles, implicating the audience as voyeurs in a way that stage adaptations cannot.
The military presence in the play lends itself flawlessly to this, with the implication made that the soldiers are returning from Afghanistan. Don John, the villain, arrives hand-cuffed, and is, perhaps, a war criminal. The bumbling police need hardly anything to update them, this being an eternal theme very quickly understood.
The film, then, is as political and engaging now – with its commentaries on how the military affects our personal lives – as the play was in its age with its subversion of gender roles. But this isn’t one hundred and seven minutes of musings in black and white.
These serious themes are delivered always with a comic turn or a witty line, and Whedon does not divide the funny from the profound. This unlikely partnership is most surprising for how well it works.
Much Ado About Nothing is out now, directed by Joss Whedon