This week Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing came to DVD. Now I didn’t cover this film when it first came out in the theaters (despite seeing it twice) because I realized that so few theaters were playing it that the odds you would be able to see it were very low. But now it is on DVD and you can see it in all its glory.
Oh I can hear the complaints now. (And I’m going to save the most obvious for last)
Let’s first deal with the weakest of the complaints, “it’s an art film and all of those are boring.” Perhaps you already forgot the first paragraph: Joss Whedon. This is the man who gave us not just action and humor in Buffy but wit and depth. This is the man who in half a season created one of the greatest sci-fi stories, one of the greatest Westerns, and one of the greatest pro-libertarian tales of all time (and that’s just one show). This is the man who turned a bunch of 2nd rate Marvel characters from films of varying quality into The Avengers. Do you think suddenly now he would disappoint? No. He does for this tale what I have not seen done before. Every other great Shakespeare film from Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet to the entire oeuvre of Kenneth Branagh have all been the stage play filmed with better backdrops and costumes…but they have been stage plays being films. Whedon does what I have never seen done before, he made a movie with Shakespeare writing. He paces the dialogue in a way for movie goers not theater goers, he give us shots and flashback and close-up facial expressions to help with understanding of lines. And he does this with the best of Shakespeare’s comedies, which makes it all the better. It may be the art of Shakespeare’s line, but it is a Whedon film that stands right next to all of Whedon’s other accomplishments.
(Beatrice and Benedict)
Next objection, “It’s not a good story, you just like it because it’s a classic.” Oh no. Besides the great comedy it is a great story of love and betrayal. The story of Beatrice and Benedict (played by Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker…Wesley and Fred for Angel Fans), two former lovers who have become estranged because of their own fears to commit and keep each other at a distance with a barrage of jests, insults, and witty jibes. In some ways I wish their hatred for each other would go longer as each gives as good as they get in their ripostes of acrimony. The story of naïve young lovers Claudio and Hero and how they are nearly torn apart due the treachery of one Don John (the bastard). All of this wrapped up with great acting from actors I would never have imagined to be this good at Shakespeare…but they bring something I seldom see in a Shakespeare film, humanity. There has always been a depth of humanity in the lines of Shakespeare, but after seeing this version of Much Ado it became clear that even great actors always become stiff when delivering the Bard—but not here. All the little flourishes of facial expressions and gestures are not hindered in a way they might usually be in a typical Shakespeare rendition.
(Just remember Nathan Fillion is an ass)
And of course the last, and most obvious objection, “I don’t like Shakespeare, I don’t get it.” For this I blame the hoards of terrible English teachers that like a plague of locust destroy great literature year after year for our nation’s students. If you’re a teacher reading this take note. You probably were inflicted with one of the more dense works (Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Hamlet) and then your teacher had you read it in class one line at a time, tediously going over what all the words mean and what all the metaphors mean, and even if you got a whole speech read then you would stop just when you could possibly get back into the flow of it. If this terrible way of teaching Shakespeare was inflicted on you, I am so sorry. That’s not the way to handle Shakespeare. They’re plays, they’re meant to be SEEN not just read. A good teacher should have first taught you a little of how to understand the language (not all of it but a little) then you should have watched a film and only then should you start going over it line by line, when you have already experienced it. Trust me, Shakespeare is enjoyable if you let it be, you don’t need to understand every line on the first viewing, the story and the action tell it to you without understanding every line (especially in this version by Whedon) and you’ll get more if you watch it more than once. Each viewing you pick up more and more (which was the intent), but if you just forget all the terrible torture inflicted on you by inept hacks who arrogantly thought themselves English teachers, and come at it with a fresh eye, I promise you will enjoy what Whedon and Shakespeare have for you.
Finally a last point…isn’t this a conservative blog? Isn’t Shakespeare the writer for elite liberals? The answer is no. An emphatic no. Even with just Much Ado, you have a very clear point to understand that there are people out there who wish to hurt others for no other motive than jealousy and hate, and they need to be dealt with. But in a larger sense, if you really look at Shakespeare as a whole it is nearly the antithesis of liberalism. Not only was Shakespeare a good conservative who structured his holdings as to avoid unjust taxes (yeah there were basically tax shelters back then too) but when you dig deeper you find a common theme behind all Shakespeare. If you have the time I would greatly recommend the book Shadowplay by Clare Asquith which points out that the theme under every single play of Shakespeare is a call for the freedom to practice his Catholic faith in the face of a tyrannical government, or if that doesn’t work maybe a little uprising to show that religious freedom is something that should be valued in a supposedly free nation…why does that sound so familiar and recent? Maybe we should all pick up a little more Shakespeare and remember that leaders who refuse to negotiate because they are as constant as the Northern star should be challenged and removed from power.
This movie gets an A+. Go rent it.