Whedon Remakes Shakespeare As A Film Noir

If you’re like me, you were counting down the days to Joss Whedon’s latest release, a stylistic adaptation of the Shakespeare play Much Ado About Nothing. Whedon’s previous works include Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Angel, the cult sci-fi show Firefly (and its movie counterpart Serenity), and most recently The Avengers. His ability to transect genres is only as impressive as the fan base he’s acquired, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that his version of Shakespeare contains the same wit and casual humor as his previous works.

Filmed over the course of 12 days during a hiatus he had while filming The Avengers, Much Ado About Nothing was shot entirely in black and white at his own California residence. Fans of Whedon will recognize the majority of the cast from some of his previous works, including Sean Maher and Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Serenity) and Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof (Buffy, Angel). The difficulty in transposing a play into a film format is easily resolved through Whedon’s characteristically sharp cinematic eye. The acute angles, creative uses of shadow, and the chiaroscuro lighting give a notably noirish feel to the film, which is compounded by an exemplary performance by all the actors.

The plot follows the imminent marriage of two young lovers and the nefarious scheme of Don John (played by Sean Maher) to break it up. But layering this domestic conspiracy is the sharp-tongued witty back-and-forth interplay between the main protagonists, Beatrice and Benedick (Amy and Alexis reprising their romantic affiliations from Angel).

The choice to shoot in black and white is an interesting one considering many films are wary of it. The lack of color means that increased focus has to be put on the composition of each shot, and yet Whedon somehow pulls it off, with all the dramatic irony of the original play intact. The shot where Amy Acker as Beatrice is hiding under a kitchen counter in plain view of the maid and her cousin Hero as they talk about trying to set her up with Benedick is a perfect example – all the tension of the play is retained, and yet we buy the improbability of some of the scenes.

The other risk of adapting Shakespearian plays is to be able to convey it without it sounding overly contrived or poetic. Much Ado About Nothing is one the more prosaic plays Shakespeare wrote, but the iambic pentameter still lends itself to a pleasant cadence, and some of the exchanges between Benedick and Beatrice are both organic and believable.

There is a charm in this adaptation that goes beyond its attempt to stay true to the original play and yet give it a decidedly modern-day setting – the Victorian sentiments regarding love and relationships, although perhaps not as prevalent today, still seem to hold some sway in terms of a social commentary. The superficiality of our definitions, and the games we play, are being ridiculed, and yet also acknowledged for their role in helping us come to terms with how we truly feel. It’s a juxtaposition which feels as true now as it probably did several hundred years ago.

Simon is a writer and content specialist who is addicted to being on the front page of anything. A graduate of Dalhousie University, he specializes in using the em dash too often. Currently, Simon rests his typing hands in Vancouver, Canada. Check out his recent thoughts on gaming.

  

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Friday night movie news dump…

And, for a change, it’s barely even night here on west coast as I begin.

*  We’re seeing some major league “New Moon” girl-power at the box office, already. $26.3 million, to be specific. That’s just for midnight shows.

* Just a few days back I noted the casting of Japanese star Tadanobu Asano as Hogun in Kenneth Branagh’s upcoming “Mighty Thor” flick. As a part of Norse (i.e., Viking) mythology, Asgard is, by definition, a pretty strictly Nordic place, so I thought this casting was interesting.  Visually, the Marvel comics Hogun was based on Charles Bronson, whose face had a definite Asiatic/Mongolian-by-way-of-Lithuania cast, so going with the star of “Mongol” was a stretch worth noting, but maybe not a definite sign of completely race blind nontraditional  casting.

However, Branagh has now cast the very fine African-English actor Idris Elba of “The Wire” and several great episodes of “The Office” in the part of Heimdall, guardian of Asgard. As a commentor at the Heat Vision blog that spread the news mentioned, Branagh did something very similar when he cast Denzel Washington as an Italian warrior-prince in his version of “Much Ado About Nothing.” I’ll quote myself from the Bullz-Eye piece I did on less well known Denzel Washington performances:

As a major production featuring truly race-blind “nontraditional” casting in a key role, “Much Ado About Nothing” is something of an onscreen first. In fact, audiences and critics had no more problem accepting Washington as an Italian prince than they did accepting the extremely British, pasty-faced Branagh as a Mediterranean nobleman.

Especially in films set far away from a realistic context and where the actor has as much authority as both Washington and Elba have, I think we’re sophisticated enough about the nature of movies that this will not be a problem, even for viewers who know a little about mythology. And here’s the best part: it will piss off some white supremacists. I’ve personally heard about young Neo-Nazis who dig the comic book “Mighty Thor” and apparently are too stupid and ignorant to realize that the series was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, a.k.a., Stanley Leiber and Jacob Kurtzberg, two rather brilliant New York Jews. As always, the joke is on the hate fetishists.

Like I said before, this is not your father’s Asgard, and I’m fine with that.

800px-Asgard

* It’s thirty days before the release of “Avatar,” the movie isn’t quite done yet, and some of us insist on going about our business as if life as we have always known it was not about to be forever altered. Quick, send out Sigourney Weaver and Giovanni Ribisi to say nice things about James Cameron!

* He’s brought us everything from “School of Rock” to “Chuck and Buck”, but very talented quirk/comedy writer/actor Mike White’s next film is about Santa war, but I doubt it’ll be very violent. On the other hand, he appeared in the comically mega-violent “Zombieland,” so perhaps his thinking has evolved some. I pretty violently disagreed with his op-ed, but he gets credit for even thinking about stuff like this.

* And, now for something completely different, from OC Weekly restaurant critic Edwin Goei comes his list of the five greatest food movies. I’d steal some of his YouTube clips, but I’m starving and I’m supposed to go to the gym later, dammit. Just go see for yourselves.

  

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