This is the Joss Whedon I have missed for so long. The Whedon who knows how to set a stage so perfectly for a duel of wits before physicality enters the frame. It makes perfect sense that his return to form would be a palette cleanser between his big budget productions. Similarly, that he returns to his own sparkling tongue by adapting the words of Shakespeare, the one true peerless wordsmith of dialogue, gives Whedon's frame a vitality that is all at once familiar and excitingly new.
Whedon gathered a large portion of his most frequent collaborators to bring Much Ado About Nothing to the screen in his own way. The chief performers of Beatrice and Benedick are played by Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof. For those familiar with both past works by Shakespeare and the roles Acker and Denisof have played in the past the fact that they are in a romance that is destined to succeed is a hilarious counterpoint to their doomed romance on the small screen. But their comfort with each other, both in dueling barbs and lines dripping with saccharine, will be such a joy to those discovering the two for the first time.
Beatrice and Benedick, once lovers, find themselves in the midst of a plot of love found and soon to be foiled. He is the companion of Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), recently returned from quelling an attempted uprising by his brother Don John (Sean Maher). They stop at the home of Leonato (Clark Gregg), father of the beautiful Hero (Jillian Morgese), and uncle to Beatrice. Pedro's young lackey, Claudio (Fran Kranz), has taken to Hero quite badly and pledges to marry her as soon as time will allow. In the meantime, sensing that the hostility between Beatrice and Benedick still yields some attraction, Pedro and his men as well as Hero and her attendant conspire to get the two back together. Independent of all this, Don John has decided to grasp what little power he can by tearing Hero and Claudio apart through treachery of his own kind.
The twisty tale sets a stage for a litany of wonderfully delivered lines that the cast is so game for it's almost embarrassing. I doubt we are going to see a better acted movie this year. Whedon keeps the background mostly silent, save for the creaks of the home and natural sounds of the summer breeze, so that we can relish on every utterance of the cast. First among equals would have to be Clark Gregg, a welcome addition to the Whedon staple. He glides through the large home, dancing to the tune of his own happiness, blissfully drunk on both the joy of his daughter and the wine glass he always seems to find refreshed. When called upon he is able to unleash a surprising reservoir of rage, suspicion, and grief, making his performance as unpredictable as it is strong.
Everyone else does such a stellar job that I have to make room for each. Acker and Denisof crackle with each line tossed between them and both find time to show delightful examples of physical comedy. Maher is terrifyingly curt as the plotting Don John, a wonderful counterpoint to the earnest feelings of the always high-pitched Kranz. Kranz's performance, in particular, shows how he could headline his own romantic comedy and by starting with Shakespeare as produced by Whedon has given him the greatest display of range.
But all the great dialogue in the world means nothing if the visual presentation is not at least passable. Whedon, with his staging of the play in the lazy summer air drifting through this wonderful home, marks the first of many perfect choices. I love films that feel like summer and the soundtrack, drifting jazz and light arrangements of songs Shakespeare had with the original production, give the film that sort of optimistic, drifting touch that is elusive to all seasons save the warmest.
His decision to film in black and white is a correct one because reproducing Shakespeare with the original dialogue intact is automatically going to give the production an unusual hurdle. But since he embraces the anachronism partly through the photography it becomes all at one a classic studio romance (I could see Clark Gable charming his way through the stage) and a memory of love shared but never forgotten. The way each room of the house is laid out also recalls thoughts you forgot you could have. Denisof embraces his giddy child among stuffed dolls and frills, Maher lurks about the upper level with the rafters catching the shadows on his face, and Acker sits strong in her dark dress with the white fashion of her cousin's closet.
Light as it all is, Whedon still finds a way to give some bite. A crucial change, and an important dialogue focus, shows how the women of this noble household are forced into a role and ostracized if not. The role of Conrade, a henchman of Don John, is usually played by a man but this time played by the talented Riki Lindhome of Garfunkel and Oats. She exists as Don John's plaything more than a trusted aide, and this desire to make the women of the household the same echoes in the suspicions of Leonato and Claudio to poor Hero. Beatrice stands so differently outside the other women because she understands the situation she is in. For as much dialogue was excised from this adaptation Beatrice's angry analysis of what she could do "that I were a man!" lays intact.
The breezy nature of the film remains, but it is not without teeth. Even with that sudden aggression Much Ado About Nothing doesn't miss a step. If anything, it remembers that, no matter the story, the stakes are greater than love, as delightful and pleasing a thing it can be. So great is this film that I can go the review and not talk about fluffy Nathan Fillion as a bumbling investigator trying to fit into a tiny coat. There are so many wonderful details that, with so many others, still ranks among the least in this tremendous achievement.