On this blog, I don’t get to talk much about my love for Joss Whedon. He’s not British, and he generally hires Americans to play Brits in his shows (Spike, Wesley). But, finally, I get a chance to write about a Joss project. Okay, this adaptation of the Shakespeare play is made with American actors and was filmed in America, but Joss kept the original Shakespearean dialect. And a Shakespeare remake without the writing is…well, let me use an SAT analogy. Shakespeare : all other dialogue as bacon : veggie bacon. And I say that as a vegetarian.
The film came out with limited release a few weeks ago, and I have been patiently waiting for it to arrive somewhere within 100 miles of me. I went to see it at an independent theater in a small town near me. A good portion of the crowd looked like they were alive when the original play was performed in the late 16th century, but they were lively, entertained, and very emotive during the show. A lot of them seemed unfamiliar with the plot, judging by their gasps of shock at certain parts. This surprised me, but if you need an easy breakdown of the story, look no further.
Don Pedro, a prince, goes to stay at the home of his friend Leonato, the governor of ‘Messina’ at his castle (in this case, Whedon’s actual home was used for filming over a paltry 1-2 weeks). Leonato brings his friends, Claudio and Benedick, and his villainous brother Don John. As in all Shakespearean Dramatis Personae, there are a number of servants and each nobleman/woman has an entourage.
They are greeted and welcomed by Leonato, his daughter Hero, and his niece Beatrice.
Beatrice and Benedick go way back, and ‘there is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her; they never meet but there is a skirmish of wit between them’.
Claudio and Hero fall swiftly in love and are soon betrothed. Everyone plans to trick Beatrice and Benedick into loving each other through several rounds of deception. It all goes awry with Don John’s help, as one should probably expect when bringing a villainous brother along to a party. But, since it is a Shakespearean comedy, we know it ends with a wedding. I won’t give anything more away.
Whedon did a few things to change the play to make the movie. Obvious changes are making the setting thoroughly modern, with cell phones and guns instead of messengers and swords. Every Shakespeare company has done an anachronistic retelling of one of the plays, so this isn’t new, but I think it’s remarkable how well and how easily it’s believable. I also think the black and white helps to deal with the cognitive dissonance; like we’re in another world that lacks color, has princes, values chastity, and where everyone speaks in iambic pentameter.
The actors all do an amazing job. Ah-mazing. Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof, who I loved together in Angel, are perfect for this pair. Their wit and banter is fast, but spot on. They both make the Shakespearean dialogue so easy to understand, so emotive. Every time I see Shakespeare performed, I remember that this is its true home. Why on earth do we start out reading it, rather than watching it?
Seriously, they are spectacular. They are comedic, both in wit and physical comedy, and they handle the serious and difficult middle section of the play with real emotion and anger and resolve. A++
Fran Kranz, from Dollhouse and Cabin in the Woods, makes a very good Claudio. He is naively loving at first, and then turns on a dime into a truly scary being. Leonato, played by Clark Gregg (the Avengers), is similar. A loving father one minute, a vengeful, despicable patriarch the next.
The other actors had less to work with; less rounded dramatic characters. But there were notables. Hero is a notoriously boring character, a stand-in for pure female virtue with almost zero personality, but Jillian Morgese does what she can to make her believable and real and she is certainly pitiable. Nathan Fillian makes a brief but pitch perfect appearance as Dogberry, the single dumbest constable to ever grace the night watch.
He spends all of scenes smirking and making funny slips of the tongue. He is clearly giving an homage to David Caruso (and his sunglasses) in CSI: Miami. It’s very funny; a woman in my theater was laughing so loudly I’m afraid I missed half his lines. Bonus: his second in command is Tom Lenk, of Buffy fame.
I’m not an expert on acting, so I don’t have anything technical or brilliant to say about what they did or how they did it. I try not to comment most of the time because I just don’t have the vocabulary to describe good acting. Still, everyone can tell when the acting is bad, even with the easiest material in the world. This was difficult material in a short time span on a small budget, and they all did a wonderful job. It makes it obvious to me how much people love to work for Joss, and I envy them a bit in being around and involved in such a pure creative process. With such excellent results!
I really enjoyed the movie. I just have one bone to pick. Joss does one thing to alter the movie from the play that irks me. The movie begins with a (wordless) scene of Benedick leaving Beatrice’s bed after a one-night stand. She pretends to be asleep; he hesitates, but leaves without a word or note. This is presumed to be the start of hostilities between them. Now, the play implies a history and maybe a brief infatuation, but no sex. Beatrice is a virtuous woman, and therefore a ‘maid’. At first, I thought it was just an effort to modernize the text. After all, I don’t know a lot of virtuous maids in the 21st century. Times have changed, etc., etc.
But this logic only works until the middle of the movie, when Hero’s virginity is called into question. The horrendous, painful, awful response of absolutely everyone (her father included) to the mere idea that she may not be ‘chaste’ completely contradicts what Joss added with B & B. After all, if Beatrice is not chaste, is she worthless to men? Should she die, as Leonato suggests his own daughter do? Beatrice is horrified by what is being done to her cousin, but she does not in any way acknowledge that she is actually guilty of the sin Hero is accused of. And she can’t, because Shakespeare didn’t write that. It creates a schism in my head when I think on it too long, and it bothered me more and more. It’s so uncomfortable and awful to think of women being treated this way; but it still happens in so many places. The UN estimates that there are 5000 honor killings per year. This play, and this movie, are absolutely talking about the same issues, and maybe Joss could have used the movie to make a bit of a statement about it. At least to shine a mirror on it. To add that frivolous one-night stand in there is…it makes no sense to me. It changes who Beatrice’s character is, from a virtuous woman to (by her society’s rules) to a non-virtuous one. It doesn’t mesh with who she is, and it bothers me a lot.
That being said, I enjoyed the movie immensely. Shakespearean comedies make you feel so much emotion. It’s sometimes hard to see and experience the horrors of the middle and then celebrate the joys of the end. It’s hard to forgive some of the characters their wrongs, even though you’re meant to. I can’t forgive Claudio, or the Prince, or Leonato for what they did. I can’t celebrate their happiness at the end. But Beatrice and Benedick are lovely throughout, and Joss’ adaptation makes them as lovely and charming and funny as I’ve ever seen them.