This review was originally published on September 9, 2012 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.
I come verily from a festival in the North, where recorded playlets are in great number, as is the quaffing of ale and general merriment!
On display, a modernized tale of an oft-recounted comic history, the tale of Beatrice and Benedick, a pair too proud to admit their bounteous love, and Claudio and Hero, who share a bond so pure and true that villainous Don John schemes to separate them. Will this foe murther the children of cupid's arrow? Zounds! Zounds, I say!
Oh, excuse me. I always wind up talking like this for a while after seeing a Shakespeare adaptation. Which is weird because, I don't know about you, whenever I watch one (and I've seen most) for the first twenty minutes or so I am absolutely and completely lost. The actors may as well be speaking Na'vi, but slowly the ear catches the rhythms of the prose and you find yourself chuckling at centuries-old quips like a Lord of the manor.
Luckily, I've seen Kenneth Branagh's version of "Much Ado About Nothing" so I had some familiarity with the plot and wasn't too lost for Joss Whedon's take on the classic, a low budget black-and-white number. Offered up as karmic balance for his billion-dollar superhero enterprise "The Avengers" from this summer, this tiny friends-and-family production has the vibe of a project done on weekends and after school. That's no knock. It is vibrant and bubbly and just clever enough to engage people who wouldn't normally watch a black-and-white micro-budget Shakespeare adaptation without any big movie stars.
That some of these people are little known outside the Whedonverse is a crime. Amy Acker is positively fetching as Beatrice, the feisty and smart woman who matches wits with Alexis Denisof's Benedick. As someone who rarely attends legitimate theater, I can only compare her performance to Emma Thompson's Beatrice in Branagh's "Ado," so she had massive shoes to fill. Acker doesn't approach the role in quite as broad of a manner; she trumpets her zings without getting daffy, assured in her skin but unaware of the destruction left in her wake.
Acker may as well have come straight down from the screen and torn the heart straight from my rib cage. Her conservative dresses, wide eyes and the hint of an overbite are the type of good looks that aren't quite in line with what Hollywood thinks is a 10, but in real life (and, I suppose, the Whedonverse), they are what light up every room and inspire heart attacks in all who come within speaking distance.
Whedon's "Much Ado" pretty much plays it straight. Set in a wealthy suburban home and its well-landscaped back yard, there are only a few anachronistic gags (one involving a cupcake) or updates to the text. Ballads in the original are jazzy piano tunes now, and noble Knight Dogberry is a doofy rent-a-cop here (Nathan Fillion).
High school English teachers can rejoice that they have some new ammunition to get kids into Shakespeare (look! it's Agent Coulson talkin' funny talk!) while elitists can think they're all hip and now by watching a modernized version. And Whedon fans? They'll gush over this like Claudio writing a gooey love sonnet to Hero. I can't wait for the shippers' fan fic.
SCORE: 7.5 / 10