South Park Self

a skirmish of wit between them

Much-Ado-About-Nothing Branagh Much-Ado-About-Nothing Whedon

We have this rather erratically-implemented movie club thing, where we select two movies with a related theme and watch them back-to-back, with a break for food, traditionally something on rolls. (In this case, chicken prego, and a dashed good thing too). Finding thematic links between films is actually ridiculously easy, on account of (a) humans are pattern-recognising animals, but mostly (b) there is nothing new under the sun, particularly in Hollywood. This time my choice cannot be said to have stretched our comparative ingenuity to the utmost: we watched the Branagh version of Much Ado About Nothing, mostly for nostalgia, kicks and to establish a baseline, followed by the recent Joss Whedon version of same. It was a deeply Shakespearian afternoon, and a fascinating juxtaposition which achieved in spades the kind of enriched viewing through comparison and emphasis which is the whole point of the exercise. (Although, note to self: I possibly need to invest in a hearty supply of toffees for our next movie club, I can't seem to stop myself from commenting out loud while we watch and it has to be maddening to my co-watchers. Gluing my jaws together probably beats an actual gag.)

I adore Shakespeare because of his language, which practically defines the category of "the good shit" for my dodgy getting-high-on-words proclivities. Much Ado is simultaneously one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, because of the hyper-linguistic relationship between Beatrice and Benedick, and one of my least favourite, because that flow of (slightly undergraduate, insult-based) wit isn't ever quite enough to mask the brutality and basic misogyny of the Hero plot. To a greater or lesser extent both the Branagh and the Whedon versions modernise the play, but there's no updating that beastly subtext of women as objects of exchange whose value is in the male perception of their virginity. For a comedy the play is surprisingly cynical about romantic love: Beatrice and Benedick's re-negotiation and rediscovery of each other is drastically undercut by the absolutely superficial nature of the Hero/Claudio relationship, which slides continually in the language of its representation into purely venal images of value and wealth. And that aborted wedding scene is simply brutal.

It feels more brutal in the Branagh version, I think perhaps because it's such an exuberant film and the contrast in tones is thus particularly cruel; Whedon's film is moodier, not just because of the black-and-white, but because of slightly darker undercurrents of unease and unhealth in the relationships, and less emphasis on the spark and snap of the language. If nothing else watching the two films together made me realise how utterly, beautifully trained British actors are - they inhabit and embody the words in a way that even brilliant American actors don't. American mumbling is probably more naturalistic, but I'll take enunciation any day. The tonal contrast is very strong in the different settings as well - the Branagh has that idyllic pastoral thing going and a strong sense of relaxed, exuberant peasantry as backdrop, whereas the Whedon is a tighter, smaller, rather restrained setting, more mannered and less earthy. Whedon's black-and-white format is effective, as is the weirdly unspecific periodicity - it often feels 50s in costume and manners, but there are cellphones and very modern cars. We decided in the end that the hints were towards a sort of Mafia setting, which is a nifty interpretation of the names (Don Pedro etc), but also one of the few modern Western milieus in which that nasty feudal-structure / violence / women-as-objects vibe is realistically present. Also, it has to be said - I covet Joss Whedon's house, which is where the whole thing was filmed. Beautiful spaces. Jealous.

It's very telling, to watch not just two different directors' interpretations back-to-back, but two different sets of actors in the roles. High points: both Beatrices are amazing, with enormous emotional strength which made both Benedicks feel weaker by comparison. On mature reflection I don't think that's entirely to do with the actors, though, Shakespeare's play simply constructs Benedick as a bit of a twit, a resonance which both versions pick up on with rather entertaining slapstick elements. (Although I have to say Amy Acker is also very good at these). I loved Clark Gregg's Leonato, but Whedon's film gives him comparatively less to do (although he was particularly great in the Hero denunciation scene). Nathan Fillion's very funny Dogberry was a far more restrained and nuanced interpretation than that egregiously horrible Michael Keaton one; the security guard schtick was fun, as was the presence of those two lads from Britanick (they do Eagles Are Turning People Into Horses and Trailer For Every Oscar-Winning Movie Ever), who appear to have a mutual fanboy thing going with Joss. Hero doesn't have much of a presence in the play, but Kate Beckinsale's version (wtf? Kate Beckinsale? Good grief, I'd completely forgotten this was her first big role) is far better acted than Jillian Morgese's, which was a complete non-event. Sean Maher's Don John is beautifully, slitheringly evil and makes you realise how utterly dismal poor Keanu was in that role, my peculiar fondness for the match between the character and the actor's tongue-tied physicality notwithstanding. (I also really enjoyed the gender-swapped Conrade).

I love both these movies, enough that my feminist spluttering at its nastier bits doesn't overcome my simple joy both at Shakespeare's language and wit, and at the directors' and actors' enjoyment of same. It was lovely to see all the old Whedonverse favourites trotting out their Shakespeare stuff, it gave the play an intimacy and immediacy which was very effective. But I came away from the watching experience mostly with a sort of nebulous wish for a time machine and a cohort of RADA trainers, to spirit Whedon's cast away for some forcible re-education in diction and emphasis for about a year before they actually filmed. Shakespeare's language is brilliant, but archaic and at times convoluted; you have to spit it, not swallow it, if you want to convey its nuance to a modern audience. Half the time I had to seriously concentrate on making sense of it, to an extent where I wondered sometimes if the actors themselves were making sense of it, and that's not a feeling the Branagh version ever gives you. I fear I'm still a pervy Brit-fondler at heart.

Subject line is obviously Much Ado, Leonato describing the Beatrice/Benedick relationship. Shame on you if you didn't recognise it.