So, I went up to the Toronto International Film Festival today, to see the last screening of Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” and I loved it. I’d recommend it to anybody, whether they be a fan of Joss Whedon, Shakespeare, both, or neither. But I’m going to direct most of what I have to say in this post to anybody who might be in the same boat as I was coming in:
- No familiarity with this specific play. I knew that it was Shakespeare, and I’ve read and seen around a dozen Shakespeare plays, but ‘Much Ado’ wasn’t on the list until today.
- Some familiarity with recent popular television shows and/or blockbuster movies. (I don’t think you’ll have to have seen anything by Joss for this to make sense.)
- Not much familiarity with typical ‘festival films’, as such.
There are a few things that struck me about the movie that I’ll mention by way of introduction. It’s in black and white, and most of the dialog is in the traditional Shakespearean mode, though I suspect there are very small moments where it was updated for clarity. That was very jarring for me at the start, but I found myself getting used to it very quickly.
There was also a kinduv cool dissonance between the medieval/Renaissance aspects of the script, and the modern setting Joss puts it in. The characters are still Italian lords and ladies who have just returned from a war, but they drive around in cars and play music on ipods. (The ipod got a huge laugh from the audience the first time.) To intimidate someone before challenging a duel, Benedick shows a gun in a shoulder holster instead of gesturing to a sword at his hip.
I found it a little hard to keep track of the cast of characters, so for anybody who’s interested, I’ll share a quick rundown, along with hints about where you might have seen these faces before. More or less in order of appearance:
Benedick is a gentleman, soldier, and confirmed bachelor. The movie opens on a wordless scene of Benedick dressing and leaving Beatrice’s room as she sleeps. He vows to never get married or fall in love, and has nothing but scorn for men who do. He’s very witty and is well regarded for his sense of humor, and trades all kinds of verbal jabs and spars with Beatrice whenever they run into each other. He has recently served in a war on the side of Prince Pedro, who he’s close to. Benedick is played by Alexis Denisof, well-known for playing Wesley on ‘Angel’ and Sandy Rivers on ‘How I met your mother.’
Beatrice is a counterpart to Benedick in many ways, especially her dark wit and humor. She doesn’t seem to share his overall attitudes on love and marriage, but looks down on him as a ‘jester’ and expresses the opinion that she will likely never find a man worthy of marrying her. However, she cares deeply for her cousin Hero, and finds joy in the prospect of her marrying happily. She also shows love for her uncle Leonato, in whose house she lives. Beatrice was played by Amy Acker, who was also Alexis’ sometime love interest on Angel, and appeared in Dollhouse and Alias.
Leonato is an older lord, loyal to Prince Pedro. Almost all of the action in the movie takes place at his house, where he’s hosting the Prince and his friends. He dotes on his daughter Hero and his niece Beatrice. Leonato is played by Clark Gregg, best known recently as Agent Coulson in the Avengers series of Marvel movies. He’s also appeared on the New Adventures of Old Christine and the West Wing.
Hero is Leonato’s daughter and Beatrice’s cousin, and seems a bit shy and overshadowed by Beatrice’s charisma at the start, but she’s sweet and clever, with a talent at matchmaking, and she clearly adores Count Claudio. Hero is played by Jillian Morgese, a very fresh face without any other reference on her IMDB page but an uncredited appearance in ‘The Avengers.’
Claudio is a noble in the Prince’s court, and was probably some kind of hero in the war. He idolizes both Prince Pedro and Benedick, is friendly and respectful to Leonato, and totally in love with Hero, whom he got to know (purely and chastely, but not exactly from afar,) a little while before the play started. But he’s self-conscious about his youth and overly eager to please, which makes it easy for others to manipulate him. Claudio is played by Fran Kranz, who was Topher on ‘Dollhouse’; he was also in ‘Cabin in the Woods’ and ‘Welcome to the Captain.’
Prince Pedro is the local big Kahuna and the winner of the recent war. He’s got a trace of royal aloofness but is very friendly with Benedick and Leonato, and also a bit of a player, flirting with Beatrice. He shows a special for Claudio, looking out for him and trying to protect him from the mischief of others, not always successfully. Pedro is played by Reed Diamond, who played a completely different dynamic opposite Fran Kranz on Dollhouse, and has appeared on Bones, 24, and Judging Amy.
John is Pedro’s brother, taken prisoner in the recent war, (so it was some kind of dynastic rivalry?) but left without a guard once he arrives at Leonato’s house for the party. There’s a memorable scene where he’s driven up to a house with zip-ties around his hands, (instead of chains?) and the guards cut them off. John is particularly bitter towards Claudio, who he blames for bringing him down, and sets out to ruin Claudio’s happiness, especially sabotaging his growing romance with Hero. John is played by Sean Maher, well known for his role as Simon Tam on Firefly and Serenity, and appeared on the short-lived show ‘The Playboy Club.’
Conrade is a lackey and lady friend of John’s, who often serves as his confidante so that we can hear what he’s planning. She is brought to the party under guard along with John, though it’s never entirely clear why, and works with Borachio to scheme against Claudio. Conrade is played by Riki Lindhome, who was on ‘Gilmore Girls’ and in ‘My Best Friend’s Girl’ and ‘The Last House on the Left.’ It seems that this might have originally been a male part, Conrad, but I’m not entirely sure about that.
Borachio is another of John’s pet schemers. I’m not quite clear on if he arrived at the same time as John and Conrade or not. He seduces Margaret as part of the plot against Claudio. Borachio is played by Spencer Treat Clark, someone I’m not that familiar with, but he was in Mystic River and Unbreakable.
Margaret is Hero’s servant. She’s played by Ashley Johnson, who’s done a lot of voice acting for cartoons, and was also in ‘The Help’, and did a cameo for The Avengers.
Dogberry is the lazy, foolish local constable. He’s played with incredible panache by Nathan Fillion, and if you’re not familiar with Nathan’s work from Firefly, Buffy, Castle, or Doctor Horrible… what are you even doing on my blog?
Verges is Dogberry’s deputy and sidekick, played by Tom Lenk, who was Andrew on ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, and the intern in ‘Cabin in the Woods’
Francis is the priest, who has a few wise things to say but is mostly a fixture in the wedding scenes. He’s played by Paul Meston, who was in a Discworld movie and the TV series ‘The Bill.’
Okay, so that’s the cast rundown and gives you a bit of a notion what to expect when all of these characters gather at Leonato’s house for a celebration, complete with lots and lots of alcohol. I’ve rambled for more than long enough here, but a few final thoughts:
Joss Whedon uses all kinds of little details about his own house and the terrain near it to incredible effect while shooting.
Both Alexis and Amy do absolutely incredible physical comedy work in a pair of back-to-back scenes where they’re eavesdropping on their respective friends.
I hope you enjoy the movie as much as I did! (Whenever it finally opens in a wide release. )