The verdict: just because Kenneth Branagh’s “Much Ado About Nothing” was perfect does not mean that Joss Whedon’s is not *also* perfect.
Thanks to Ted’s quick purchasing, last night we got to go to the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival’s hottest, server-crashing ticket of the festival, the premiere of Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” at which the man himself was in attendance.
Because we are great big geeks, we were literally first in line: I arrived to hold a place at around 4pm (before, in fact, they had even got the barricades up for people to line up around). I hung out for a few minutes watching them put the barricades up, then noticed a friend (wearing a Jayne hat!) and waved her down. Of course, I was wearing a Giant Hood against the cold and she had NO IDEA who I was. *laughs* I realized that after a moment and pulled the hood down as I went her way, and so I joined her and the group of ten or so with her, who had been lurking at the pub next door waiting for the queue to be ready to start. So we were at the head of the class. :) The next 90 minutes or so were spent cheerfully geeking out, breaking into renditions of Once More With Feeling, and chattering teeth, as it was pretty chilly out.
At six they let us in. Ted and I broke off from the main party to take seats in the middle of the (ginormously huge) theatre, and Shel & Co went to take the front row, as they wanted to be close to The Man more than we did. (And The Man, upon coming into the packed theatre, said, a little weakly, “Wow. There are sure a lot of you.” *laughs*)
They opened the premiere with the festival president (or someone like him) gave a very funny and clever introductory speech in which he managed to reference every major work that Joss has done (“You have disturbed our Serenity…made little girls put away the Dollhouse…woken the Firefly of delight in our hearts…touched the Angels of our better natures…”), which got huge laughs and applause, and when he was done Joss thanked him for that reading of material by the great poet IMDB. :) They then gave Joss a Volta Award, which is a JDIFF award for people who have contributed in an outstanding fashion to world cinema.
Joss, who apparently didn’t know he was getting an award, stared at it, said, “This is very beautiful. I don’t think I deserve it. I mean, you’re about to watch one third of my contributions to cinema. But it’s got my naaaaaaaaaaaaame on it so I’m keeeeeeeeeping it! …and I hope you don’t want it back two hours from now. I’m very excited about this movie, and I may throw up.”
And with no further, ah, ado, they presented the film.
Spoilers are *rife* behind this cut! (I mean, yes, you all know the story, but the *staging*!) I’ll do the Q&A afterward as a separate writeup, so anybody who doesn’t want to risk film spoilers doesn’t have to scroll for the Q&A stuff.
First off, the cast was littered with Joss’s People, which caused great amusement in general and a show-stopping round of applause and cheers when Nathan Fillion came on screen. To the best of my recollection, we had the following faces that we knew from other Joss stuff:
Dollhouse head of security (Reed Diamond) as the prince, Don Pedro
Dollhouse Topher (Fran Kranz) as young lover Claudio
Firefly Captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) as Dogberry
Firefly doctor Simon Tan (Sean Maher) as the bastard prince, Don John
Buffy regular Andrew (Tom Lenk) as Dogberry’s second in command
Buffy & Angel’s Wesley (Alexis Denisof) as Benedick
Angel’s Fred (Amy Acker) as Beatrice
Avenger’s Clark “Agent Coulson” Gregg as Leonato
I don’t *think* I’ve missed any of the regulars or repeats in there. :)
One thing we all agreed on was that there were moments we had to almost physically wrench ourselves away from what we knew from the Branagh film. It’s utterly impossible not to compare the two, and I won’t try *not* to. But Whedon’s movie really does stand on its own beautifully. I can’t wait to see it a second time, now that I’ve gotten past that first wrench of expectations upended.
Okay, the staging: it’s been filmed in black and white with costuming that nods to the 1940s and 1950s noir films, although it is clearly set in the modern day, as the characters use smartphones and modern surveillance materials and the like. It was also filmed at Joss’s house (in, as is legend already, 12 days), and it’s a beautiful, beautiful house (which his wife designed!), so there were wonderful camera angles and nooks and crannies to peek through that sometimes opened up and sometimes closed down a scene in lovely ways. He said later it was the easiest staging he’d ever done: he’d just walk into a room, tilt his head, and go, “Hmm, yeah, okay!” :)
But the modern setting combined with an unaltered 400 year old play does something very interesting to the context of the story. In Branagh’s period-piece Much Ado, it’s quite clear that Don Pedro, Benedick, Claudio, etc, are the heroes. They’re returning home triumphant from a war, and although the war isn’t specified, one is left with a sense of heroism.
In 2013, with limo-driving besuited men with dark shades and a clear predisposition to living the high life (hoo boy do these people drink a lot!), there is a much more sinister cast to the tale. Ted and I thought there was a real sense that these were not good guys at *all*, not even Leonato, whom Clark Gregg played splendidly.
For me, this sense was enormously compounded by the concern over Hero’s virginity/virtue. In 1600, okay, sure, this was perhaps a matter of serious concern. In 2013, come *on*. Except it *was* important to these people, which…left a very ugly sense about who and what these people were, that a young woman’s virginity still meant so much to the men around her. It put them into a very patriarchal and disturbing place, to my viewing; these were mobsters, or drug runners, or–something that caused them to believe strongly that this was a matter of importance. Controlling the women around them was still that important, and that, just, wow. Seriously different vibe!
This version of the story opens with Benedick and Beatrice in what is clearly the morning after a one night stand. This also markedly changed the vibe of the story, and the delivery of some of the lines! OMG! Completely different! Amy Acker brought considerable bitterness to the role, and it was wonderful.
Also, she did the best prat fall I have ever seen on film.
After the movie Ted said, “God, I wish Alexis Denisof could get more leading man roles,” and I absolutely agree, because he can carry his heart in his gaze like few others. I think he’s too classic-looking to be a really successful modern leading man, but the black and white suited him beautifully. And–I think his Benedick was played with regret to Acker’s bitterness, which worked extremely well.
Also, he was utterly unafraid to make a fool of himself in one of the movie’s funniest scenes.
The young woman playing Hero (Jillian Morgese, who, hah! has an uncredited role in Avengers, guess we know where Joss found her!) was…really *nice*. I mean, she made me like Hero quite a lot, because she seemed like such a sweetheart. She has a more interesting rather than strictly pretty or beautiful face, which is probably to the wise, because I’ve heard Kate Beckinsale described by someone who went to college with her as “so beautiful it was difficult to look directly at her,” and it’s not exactly easy to live up to that. So finding a lovely young woman who was not classically beautiful was probably a good call. It also suited the casting of Fran Kranz as Claudio, as he is also not nearly as beautiful as Robert Sean Leonard.
There was a moment of her performance in the repudiation scene that really struck me, but it wasn’t–couldn’t be–allowed to play out, given the strictures of the text. It, though, and a couple of other moments early in the film, make me hope she gets some regular work and we get to see what she can do.
To touch on some of the other regulars:
- I thought Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry actually bordered on tragic. His presentation, completely different from Michael Keaton’s, made it easier for me to understand/catch some of the malapropisms and translate them to the words they were intended to be, and I had the hint with Fillion’s characterization that possibly there was just enough spark of wit in there for this man to nearly understand that he was a fool. I mean, he didn’t play him tragically–he was, indeed, very funny–but I just had that sense, and it made me feel a little badly for him.
- Tom Lenk was an excellent straight man to Fillion’s Dogberry. The physical difference in their sizes is a sight gag all by itself, and Whedon knew when to play it up. I’m not certain the role (aside from the language) was significantly different from Andrew, so it didn’t stretch Lenk’s talents, but it was certainly well-enough cast.
- Sean Maher’s Don John had the same kind of stiffness to him that Simon Tan (and for that matter, Keanu Reeves’s Don John) has, so again, not really stretching his talents. OTOH, he had hands-down the hottest scene in the film, which sort left us sitting there fanning ourselves and going “oh my.”
- I was exceedingly dubious about Fran Kranz as Claudio, because I think of him as geeky Topher, but he was considerably better than I expected. Joss said they just wanted to play Claudio as a big slightly dumb jock, and they pulled that off pretty well. He also has a couple of great moments, one of which is entirely creepy and the other of which sets up the best reaction shot in the film.
- Clark Gregg is, I mean, okay, he’s Agent Coulson, right? He’s an unpreposing Good Guy. And generally, Leonato is a good guy. I mean, whatever it is these people *do*, they’re all still quite normal and funny people going on with their lives outside of going off to brutally murder people in the drug cartels or whatever. Anyway, so mostly Gregg is going along as a Shakespearian version of Coulson, and then Hero is undone and Jesus Christ what the hell, Leonato suddenly shows an evil side. Not just betrayed by his daughter’s reputed misbehavior, not just saddened and hurt, but the rage in him was this shocking black murderous thing that didn’t seem histrionics so much as inexorable threat. It was *great*!
- I really *like* Reed Diamond, who played Don Pedro. I think he’s very attractive. I also think in some ways he might have had the hardest part in this film, because very few people can hold a candle to Denzel Washington, and it’s bloody unfair to have to try. He did a very good job, though, and played the character with enough originality to break out of most of the inevitable comparison. I also think he was perhaps the least well-served by the black and white filmography, as his silver hair and blue eyes made him seem rather washed out.
That, actually, was something we ended up discussing after the film, too. Ted said he’d missed the graininess of *real* black and white film, while I’d missed the depth of contrast from real black and white film–and also from, I expect, lighting techniques which were not used while filming IN THE HOUSE. There was a lot of natural light, or what read to my eye as natural light, and I thought a great deal of the film would have been more flattered by greater saturation.
There are so many wonderful *moments* in this film, things where the direction and the modern physical setting did something very funny or surprising with the text I already knew. Mostly I don’t want to delineate them, because that would be too spoilery, but one of those things was casting one of Don John’s entourage as a woman. It brought something to the part, and caused me to read in a bunch of other stuff which I concluded probably wasn’t actually there, but it was great to be drawn down those lines.
Oh, and the music. Hey Nonny Nonny is brought up as a background piece and it’s one of the most beautiful arrangements of music I’ve heard, so I was utterly eager to find out who’d *done* it, and paid intent attention to the credits.
Joss had written it. *wry headdesk* He wrote the music for two of the three pieces in the film, and his brother did the arrangements for them, and wrote the third. Later Joss said he had in fact written the pieces back when they were doing Shakespeare Sundays at his house during Buffy (Alexis and Amy had read Benedick and Beatrice), as a surprise for the actors. So that’s awesome. And sort of disgusting, in an I’m-so-envious way. :)
So! An enormous success, overall. We’re utterly thrilled that we went, and I really, really want to see it again on the big screen. Well done, Joss! :)