Contractually obligated to take time out after filming the “The Avengers”, Joss Whedon made this adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy. Filmed in just 12 days , a black and white picture set entirely in his own home, it promised a low-budget but quirky piece of cinema.
Shakespeare’s plays have proved timeless, not because of abstract place and time, but rather because despite specific scenarios fabricated within each adaptation, the emotional journeys of the characters are universally relatable. Whedon has taken a different approach: he removes any discernible time and place in his exposition, with the unfortunate effect of removing any character depth, and actually any coherence whatsoever.
Unresolved issues, anachronisms, and layers of inconsistency abound: the status of the characters is unclear and never explained; perhaps they’re government figures, or Hollywood tycoons (whichever it is, it does not account for thirty-something men in suits wrestling in a children’s bedroom). There is talk of war, but no further information as to which war we are to believe this is, or how these characters played a role in it. Don John (Sean Maher) arrives with his wrists bound, with no explanation and no such binding in any subsequent scene. Characters are nothing without context; nor is a story. Is this a modern adaptation? Is it meant to be? I couldn’t tell you.
The momentum of the story lies in the sharp back-and- forth between Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker). The dialogue does much of the work here- it would take some butchery not to prompt a laugh, and indeed it is probably one of the highlights of the film. That is, despite the wit being blunted in the portrayal of Benedick as a clownish buffoon, lunging and tumbling across the screen; an incoherent juxtaposition to his suited, slick-haired, and high-status persona. The rest of the slapstick also falls flat. The only justification for the prevalence of dyspraxic tendencies in this group of friends is the motif of alcohol consumption (probably the only consistency in the film).
It is a racy adaptation, perhaps also due to the booze, but this sits at odds with the text. Shakespeare was decidedly suggestive but rarely explicit. You can’t have sex strewn across the house like potpourri (the opening scene has a lover skulking out of Beatrice’s bed and the housekeeper is stacking up more men than dishes) and then have a father, of the very same house, wish death for his daughter to avoid enduring the slander of pre-marital relations.
Whedon followers will likely find much to revel in; this release offers a sought after peek through the keyhole into his ‘Shakespeare evenings’ hosted among friends in his home; and to move from the $220m budget of The Avengers to a film shot in your back-garden is certainly something; whether indicative of modesty or self-indulgence is less clear. There is a palpable enjoyment and playfulness between the actors, and Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) the hapless police investigator, although incongruous, is certainly comical. And if it means that Shakespeare is brought to a new, and perhaps otherwise reluctant, audience then Whedon has been successful; especially given his loyalty to the original text.
I’d like to describe this as a film for a rainy day, but I think I’d rather stand in the rain.