I’m probably not the only one who reacted to the news of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado about Nothing with “Wait, didn’t we just have a version of Much Ado?” Then we all recalibrated our internal clocks and realized that Kenneth Branagh’s iconic adaptation came out a full twenty years ago. That’s still a short time as adaptations of classics go–a full 39 years elapsed between Redford’s and DiCaprio’s Great Gatsbys, for instance–but enough to reasonably conclude that we’re ready for a new one. And whoever said “That’s way too much Shakespearean comedy?”
Admittedly, the other comedies have been neglected, the late comedies like The Twelfth Night and The Tempest almost criminally so. But Much Ado is simply a great play. Its plot stands on its own without needing to be propped up with fairy mischief or identical twins separated at birth and its wit and banter are some of the best Shakespeare ever wrote. Both adaptations are capably made by skillful directors, but how do they stack up against each other? Let’s have a look.
Look and Feel
Although they have the same script, the films feel so different that it’s almost hard to compare them. Branagh’s is set in a vague, but rich and beautiful, Olden Times, filled with vibrant colors and pastoral themes; Whedon’s contemporary setting gains a timeless air from its black-and-white cinematography and gorgeous smooth-jazz soundtrack.
Right off the bat, Whedon has a handicap. Historical movies get the benefit of the doubt that whatever happens in that setting makes sense within that context, but the modern setting immediately raises questions. What is Don Pedro the prince of? What’s this war they’re talking about? And, most importantly, why does everyone care so much about Hero’s virginity? It’s difficult to create sympathy for a modern-day father who wishes his daughter were dead because she cheated on her fiancé. Still, Whedon’s adaptation powers through these problems primarily on the strength of the cast, which we’ll get to later.
Both films are set in Mediterranean-style villas; Branagh uses the set to enhance the pastoral element, placing as many scenes as possible in the sunshine-soaked outdoors. Whedon’s set, which he navigates with clear competence, is so classy-looking that you’ll be asking “Where is that?” within five minutes. And then you’ll be jealous because it’s his actual house.
While both versions have plenty of delightfully funny moments, Whedon’s noir aesthetic has a notably more serious feel. Compare their trailers: Branagh’s emphasizes fun and joie de vivre, while Whedon’s almost looks like a drama.
I don’t think this is necessarily a point against Whedon. Compared to, say, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is fluffy fun from beginning to end, Much Ado actually has a quite dark fourth act. Yes, it’s all based on a misunderstanding, allowing it to be neatly cleared up in the end, but the tensions it reveals between the characters are real and well worth exploring. Playing up the serious aspects of the gender dynamics also helps mitigate the moral dissonance issue.
How you feel about Whedon in general is going to influence what you think of his casting, but in general, both casts are quite strong, approaching the material with ease and a lot of heart. (To keep the casts straight, I’ll be mentioning the Branagh actor first, followed by the Whedon actor.)
We’ve got two silly Benedicks, Branagh’s taking the chatterbox route and Alexis Denisof’s focusing more on slapstick. Doad doesn’t think Branagh is earnest enough to pull it off, but I find Denisof’s clowning a little excessive. But then, I’m not much of a slapstick fan.
While Benedick rightfully gets the spotlight, I’m struck by how much the play hinges on a good Claudio. His material is so much more challenging. There’s the potential for him to come across as a massive dick during the first wedding scene if it’s played too angrily; the actor has to inject a huge amount of emotion into his lines to come across as a heartbroken man who wishes above everything that he didn’t have to say what he’s saying; in the fifth act, he must equally strongly demonstrate how overjoyed he is that the charges against Hero aren’t true. The solution to the morality problem is to render it irrelevant: When Hero confesses “And, surely as I live, I am a maid,” the point shouldn’t be her actual virginity, but rather the importance ascribed to it by both her and Claudio. Robert Sean Leonard and Fran Kranz both handle this task well, but Fran Kranz has the edge. Dollhouse fans will see a little Epitaph One/Two Topher in the captivating way he throws himself headlong into the emotions of each scene.
Moving on to the ladies, I keep thinking that there must be a way to play Hero without being a doormat, but neither actress attempts this. As for Beatrice, were you wondering if Joss Whedon was going to find a broken bird with a tragic past? He doesn’t. But he does draw attention to the fact that Beatrice and Benedick were in a previous relationship. This is a single passage in the play:
Beatrice: Indeed, my lord, he lent it [his heart] me awhile; and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one; marry, once before he won it of me with false dice, therefore your Grace may well say I have lost it.
This line is easily missed in Branagh’s version, but Whedon supplements it with a couple of short flashbacks. Knowing that Beatrice and Benedick were previously involved and that it apparently ended badly suggests a bitter undertone to their constant bantering.
If there’s one role where Branagh’s adaptation has the advantage, it has to be Don Pedro. This underappreciated role ties the whole story together and Denzel Washington radiates affability. Reed Diamond has great screen presence, but doesn’t fall into the easygoing role quite as naturally.
The comedians are Branagh’s first major stumble. The malaprop-prone Dogberry, as written, is already silly bordering on lame, so adaptations should properly mitigate that silliness; Michael Keaton instead magnifies it. Many of his scenes are more puzzling than funny. In contrast, Nathan Fillion, playing Dogberry with a Captain Hammer-like self-importance, threatens to steal the show. But then, given his popularity, he’d steal it no matter what he did.
This brings us to the part of Branagh’s film we all wish we could just forget: Don John. Being a comedy, Much Ado‘s villain is almost cursory. “Think not on him till tomorrow,” Benedick famously orders, underlining that comedic theme: Evil is defeated when it’s rendered impotent and irrelevant. The role can easily be pulled off by a moderately competent actor. But neither film goes this route.
Keanu Reeves is terrible. Unbelievably terrible. The man fails to muster a single facial expression in the entire film and manages to avoid infusing any emotion into his lines even when he’s yelling (which is an accomplishment itself). He kills every scene he’s in and only manages to avoid killing the film outright by being in mercifully few.
I wasn’t expecting much out of Sean Maher’s Don John simply because I didn’t think there was much to do with it, but Maher proved me wrong. No yelling for him: He delivers each line in quiet measured tones full of the intensity of a caged animal. Suddenly, instead of Reeves’ guy who messes with people for no apparent reason, we have a failed conspirator stewing in his own defeat, full of barely-contained anger that he’s ready to unleash against anyone and anything that he perceives as an enemy. This is a villain you actually want to watch. He also gets the best visual joke in the movie.
Script and Direction
The script differences are small, but interesting. Both films run about the same time. Branagh seems aware of his version’s weaknesses and pares down the parts of Dogberry and especially Don John, bolstering the latter’s scenes with music and even stupid lightning in an attempt to evoke the right emotional tone. Instead he focuses on the simply enjoyable parts, like the pageant. Whedon zeroes in on the drama, such as Beatrice and Benedick’s troubled past and Don John’s situation as a captive of Don Pedro. We get the full exchange where Don John tells the prince and Claudio that Hero is cheating, while Branagh quickly cuts away to the scene at the window. Whedon also gives Dogberry plenty of well-deserved screen time.
A difficulty every Shakespeare director, especially film director, must address is how to begin the dialog. While Shakespeare’s writing is great, it’s unfamiliar to the modern ear, so jumping straight into it can be jarring (although the viewer will forget in five minutes). Here Branagh’s adaptation wins handily: The opening recitation of “Sigh No More” slides the viewer neatly into an Elizabethan mindset. Whedon, on the other hand, crashes straight into this problem. That said, his sung version of “Sigh No More” is better and more smoothly integrated. (I’m happy that both versions included songs, usually the first thing to get the ax.)
Whedon deserves props for resisting a temptation that doesn’t apply to Branagh’s version: The temptation to cut and paste to add new material that will make his movie fit his setting better. So nobody takes drugs or refers to guns as “swords” (although a flashlight gets referred to as a “lantern”), there’s no weird focus on bicycles or gramophones, and there aren’t any long sequences where nobody can talk because the scene has nothing to do with the actual play.
Some Whedon fans were reticent about him adapting an existing script, since that gives him no chance to use his trademark dialog. What about this adaptation is Whedony? Naturally, the cast of two alumni from Firefly, three from Dollhouse, two from Buffy, and one from The Avengers. The actors used to meet up and do Shakespeare readings at Whedon’s house*. When one of them came up with something he liked, he would work it into the show, until he finally decided that they ought to just film some Shakespeare. So, in a way, this is the most Whedony work you’ll ever see.
Both of these adaptations were labors of love: Branagh devoting his entire career to Shakespeare and Whedon wanting to make something out of the fun he and his actors have on their own. Inevitably, this results in subjectivity: You’re going to prefer the director who feels more like you do about Shakespeare. Happily, both of them not only like Shakespeare but understand him, so both adaptations are successful.
There’s a lot of interesting nuance to be explored, but in the end, I have to conclude what I would have said at the beginning: Whedon’s version is better because it doesn’t have Keanu Reeves.
*While the image of a cast of talented friends relaxing with some Shakespeare is, I think, appealing to almost anyone, it resonates with me for completely sentimental readings. My college friends used to do Shakespeare readings during the summer. Doad and I fell in love somewhere between Troilus and Cressida and The Tempest.