Joss Whedon places Shakespeare's language in a contemporary Napa-esque setting, cutting some of the dialogue, but changing it very little. Thus, the originality in this version of the play comes from the direction, blocking and line delivery. Unlike Richard III (1995) I wouldn't say that Whedon uses today's world to put a deep twist on old lines (i.e. "My kingdom for a horse") but by switching fashion, locale and sometimes gender (Riki Lindhome plays Conrade who is romantically involved with her co-conspirator) there are enough creative and different elements to make this 400 year old story new.
Additionally, it's fun to see members of Whedon's repertory theater reunited, not only the big players like Denisof, Fillion and Acker but Tom Lenk too (as Verges, Dogberry's fumbler in crime).
To begin with, the sexism in Much Ado has always bothered me much more than in Taming of the Shrew. I can never fully get over the outrageous treatment of Hero to find much pleasure in the story's high comedic points. What troubles me most is that the callous conclusion to Hero's betrayal is not just a product of its time (1598). When you contrast Hero with the independent Beatrice, you see that female outspokenness and self-respect was not uncommon. Neither Leonato or Antonio (who is not included as a character in this movie) think Beatrice is a horror. Antonio seems quite pleased with his daughter, whether she marries or not and Leonato is an indulgent uncle, who remarks on her sharp tongue and harsh judgments, but never asks her to change. Of course, he hopes his own daughter, Hero, will comply with her father's will, but even when Beatrice advises her to obey only if it pleases her and to say "father it doth not please me," when she objects, Leonato does not argue. And even after Beatrice admits her feelings for Benedick and promises to change so that he will not fear revealing himself to her, in the end her defiant spirit is not altered and it makes her more lovable to Benedick, not less so. I get the feeling that even if the abuse heaped upon Hero was not exceptional for the day, to some, to those who knew and loved her, it should have been (and remained) unacceptable.
The friar, Beatrice and Benedick all believe in Hero and think her wrongly accused, no matter what the proof against her. Of course, Benedick was wooing her cousin, so it's impossible to say how that colored his reactions. If he hadn't been trying to please Beatrice would his feelings have been as charitable? I think so. Because that is what makes Beatrice and Benedick the leads, destined for one another, their wit, yes, but their common wisdom as well. Well, they're wise in all things except one another.
So, I know that Shakespeare could distinguish between good and bad character and that the prejudices of his time did not blind him to misogyny, because Beatrice resists it. That makes the Hero fallout all the more frustrating, because the writer knew the extent to which she was wronged, but glosses over it. That makes the ending of this story feel shameful, rather than happy. Happy would have been if Hero abandoned both Claudio and her father and went to live with her newly-wedded cousin, whose loyalty and love never failed her.
I suppose there are two ways to cast Claudio and Leonato to make their conduct credible. They can be portrayed as either mercenary or stupid. Whedon goes with stupid -- and also makes Leonato a bit of a drunk, to boot. I'm not sure exactly what Shakespeare intended their character flaws to be, if any. Perhaps, the bard meant to present them as people who "sinn'd I not but in mistaking" (as Claudio says). Other than a grievous mistake they are supposed to be received as reasonable and kind, rather than unforgivable. I can't buy that.
The movie makes Claudio, Pedro, Leonato, John and the gang more like politicians than princes and lords. I suppose it's easy enough to imagine Claudio Governor of California (sort of like Jerry Brown) rather than Governor of Messina and perhaps Don Pedro and his attaches (like Claudio and Benedick) are federal powermongers, with whom Claudio hopes to curry favor. At any rate, they all show up at a party wearing suits. They are also professionally photographed by those in their entourage, often posing for the photo opp.
Claudio tells his associates that he wants to marry Hero. As in the original play, I'm not sure why Don Pedro suggests that they have a masquerade party where he pretends to be Claudio and woos Hero himself and then when he has won her over, he will hand her to Claudio. I'm not sure if it's a Cyrano de Bergerac ploy or not. Claudio admits that he is nervous and cannot express himself well, so is Pedro speaking for him, because Claudio is tongue-tied? There's no proof that he's especially shy or stuttering throughout the rest of the play. As far as eloquence goes he and Pedro are pretty equal. So, I don't understand the plot device. It serves to get everyone in disguise, which helps to further the story and, I suppose, it also illuminates something about Claudio.
Later, when due to the manipulations of Pedro's jealous brother, Don John, he is told that Pedro has tricked him and intends to keep Hero as his own fiancee, Claudio readily believes it (but Benedick does too, so his error doesn't prove that Claudio is stupid). Claudio is petulant, but makes no move to demand justice or to win Hero back. He just sulks. It tells me he's passive, that he's easy prey for Don John's tricks and can be quite readily pitted against those he purportedly loves. I appreciate that foreshadowing, but since Claudio is repeatedly proven to be a useless fop, I wish he was treated like one in the end, rather than rewarded.
Pedro quickly corrects Claudio's first mistake by handing Hero over and proving that he won her hand in marriage for Claudio, not himself. Everyone rejoices over the coming nuptials. At the gathering, when Beatrice utters the line "we must follow the leaders," she says it as she joins a weaving conga line, giving the conclusion, "if they lead to any ill, I will leave them at the next turning," a double meaning.
Whedon uses the "hey nonny nonny" lyrical passages from the play as the words to background songs during the party scenes, making it fun to ferret out the Stratford underpinnings of this 2012 world.
But doing the reverse is also very entertaining. My favorite move in the film is the backstory given to Benedick and Beatrice. In the play, we know that they have a history, because Beatrice mentions that she lost her heart to Benedick in the past: "he won it of me with false dice." So, she feels used by Benedick, once burned, twice shy. The play never explains what passed between them, but the screenplay opens with Benedick leaving Beatrice's bed. She's still asleep as she dresses. His countenance is tender, not bent on escape. He wants to stop and say something to her, but hesitates. We see that she is only pretending to be asleep. To me, it looked like she wanted him to go and wanted to avoid conversation. I see her as relieved, rather than hurt, when he does. But I guess if she was willing him to leave silently, it was only because she was afraid of what he might say. Rather than declaring his love after a sexual encounter, maybe he would push her away instead. This reminds me of the scene in Gone With the Wind when Scarlet awakes cooing her affection to Rhett, only to revert to hostility when she finds him cold after their (forced) tryst, not loving. Of course, the audience knows that Rhett is only curt with Scarlet because he assumes she will reject him again. If he'd known she wouldn't, everything would have taken a different turn. So it is (and so it eventually does) with Benedick and Beatrice. Benedrick wouldn't have tipped out of Beatrice's room without waking her, if he'd thought he'd been welcomed with an embrace upon doing so.
I appreciated Whedon giving us this glimpse of their past. Neither is at fault. Fearing they are unrequited they just misunderstood each other. It's in keeping with their exchanges in the play, but also neatly explains why Beatrice thinks Benedick used her (making her feel like a one night stand), but my making him a victim too, not the bad guy that she believes him to be. And Whedon achieves this all in a 2 minute flashback. No words, no exposition needed. Expert.
Of course, the cool facades Beatrice and Benedick present to the other crumble immediately as soon as their friends plot to unite them by falsely telling each that the other has confessed their love. The fact that they are both ready to love back within seconds of hearing the news proves that they were quite besotted all along. Benedick overhearing what he believes is a secret conversation between Claudio and Pedro provides the most hilarious scene in the film. He is clearly visible to all, but thinks his outrageous acrobatics are concealing him completely. His stunts work so well that when Beatrice uses similar tactics to overhear Hero and Margaret discussing Benedick's love for her in the kitchen, her antics feel lackluster and repetitive by comparison, rather than humorous. I wish that Whedon could have invented a way for Beatrice to conceal her presence that was less derivative of Benedick's.
Once confident that they will not be spurned, Beatrice and Benedick admit their love in short order. Meanwhile, Don John plans to throw a wrench into the marriage that his half-brother, Pedro, has arranged by telling Claudio that Hero has been unfaithful. He arranges for Claudio and Pedro to see silhouettes on the shade of Hero's bedroom having sex, so that Claudio will believe Hero has been unfaithful and denounce her. The speed with which he believes the worse is as ludicrous here as it is in the play. In the movie, the house is crowded with guests. They are all rooming together, so why would anyone jump to the conclusion that Hero is one of the lovers that is seen only from a distance. She actually shared a room with Beatrice and it is only after Claudio has already denounced Hero at their wedding ceremony that he bothers to verify that it wasn't Beatrice he saw (she says she had slept with Hero for a year, but not been with her that night). Of course, if he had inquired even further than Beatrice, he would have found the woman he saw was Hero's maid, Margaret. But he didn't. He was so quick to castigate Hero and to do it publicly, so as to cause her permanent ruin that no apologies would have undone the damage he caused. Yet, in the end, he makes few apologies at all and still ends up smelling like a rose, from the story's viewpoint. Certainly not mine.
It's even more maddening to me that Claudio also immediately blames his daughter, all while lamenting that he loved her so much. He couldn't have loved her at all, to turn on her so savagely, so quickly. He wishes her dead and even complains when she arises from a faint, wishing she had died. Whedon tries to mitigate his abuse by having a moaning, delirious Claudio hold Hero, even while he threatens to tear her apart. We're meant to see that he's bark not bite and his angry outburst was just a kneejerk reaction, which did not change his underlying and constant love for the girl. However, a true father's kneejerk reaction would be to attack those who accused his child first and to then verify her innocence later. Claudio sides with those who wrong her at once and never does much to uncover their lies. Instead, she is exonerated by others.
The friar who was to marry Claudio and Hero smells something fishy and instructs Claudio to pretend that Hero has died of shame, to make Claudio and Pedro deeply regret their calumny. Claudio obeys. Now, if Claudio's grief at Hero's "death" had been expressed, whether or not she died guilty, then I would have suspected he truly loved her underneath all the recriminations. Then, I would know that his harsh words only masked heartache. I think this sorrow from her detractors, even if they'd rightly disparaged her, is what the friar envisioned would occur, when he suggested the death hoax, but Hero's accusers don't seem that sorry to learn she's dead at all. They strug, figuring she deserved it for embarassing them. It's only when those who set her up are apprehended by the local police (Fillion turns in a scene-stealing comic performance as the incompetent, vain -- and portly -- Dogberry) that Hero is cleared. Of course, Dogberry thinks the culprit's greatest felony was in calling him an ass, rather than in debasing the lady.
Proving his love for Beatrice who is the only one rightly angered by what's been done to Hero and the only one who has attended to the girl's wounded heart, Benedick has reluctantly agreed to a duel with his old friend Claudio. I don't think it's fair of Beatrice to make this demand of Benedict and to withhold her love if he should refuse to die or kill his friend for her cousin. It's a fickle and insensitive move on her part and is asked of him in sincerity, not as part of the ongoing banter between them. So, it troubles me, but as a rule, I think the gals in her family have been more sinned against than sinning, so I'll let it slide.
Learning that Hero is innocent, Claudio tells Claudio he doesn't want his life. He wants a public apology from him and his promise to marry Leonato's other niece, sight unseen. Claudio agrees. I know that Leonato was pranking Claudio but I actually think that if Hero really had been dead, he would have been appeased if Claudio had committed to marry anyone else from whose nuptials Leonato could likewise profit. He and Claudio seem to have just wanted marriage of their interests for their own networking sake and not for any reasons having to do with Hero. If this is true, there would be nothing unique about their motives. Marriage was largely a property transaction at that time. But moneygrubbers are usually treated as such in Shakespeare. At the very least they are obvious buffoons. Here, Claudio and Leonato are treated as honorable, but deceived men. In the law, there is something known as gross negligence, where no harm was intended, but the perpetrator acted with such reckless disregard of the probability that his irresponsible conduct would cause harm, that he is still criminally liable for the result. Whether he intended it or not. I'd like to impose this sentence on Claudio, Leonato and Pedro. They may not have intended to hurt an innocent, but all a woman has is her honor and they stripped her of that in such an open and degrading way, without making the slightest inquiry into the truth, that they should pay for her pain somehow. They don't.
Leonato tells Claudio all he has to do is declare Hero's virginity in a public square and then show up the next day to marry his niece and all will be right as rain. Claudio is happy to do it. Of course, like those teeny tiny retractions in the newspaper, Claudio's proclamation of Hero's virtue lasts only 1/10 as long as his humiliating tirades against her did. That's more than good enough for her dear old dad.
He appears at the wedding the next morn and assures Leonato he will wed anyone Leonato wishes, even "were she an Ethiope." I thought Whedon would remove that line, but instead he has Claudio say it while standing in front of a black wedding guest and it's quite humorous. Being that I saw this movie the same week that Paula Deen's deposition testimony felled her cooking empire, Leonato's unthinking words spoken just inches away from someone who would likely be offended by them, didn't even seem at all unlikely.
Claudio learns that Hero's's not dead when he whips up her wedding veil with the words, "and when I liv'd, I was your other wife: and when you lov'd, you were my other husband." I wish she would have added that in her heart her other husband is the one who is now dead and she wants nothing to do with the man Claudio has turned out to be, but once again my hopes are disappointment. The story always ends the same way.
In a contrived turn, Beatrice and Benedick briefly deny their love for each other again, but their friends find the love letters they have both written, establishing the truth and they witness "our own hands against our hearts". They run to the altar eagerly, though both insisting it's only out of pity, because the other loves him/her so desperately that they will surely die if they are not wed.
They kiss as husband and wife and, as someone once said, all's well that ends well.
Whedon's non-verbal enhancements to and interpretations of this play were mostly delightful and the performances of Acker, Denisof and Fillion were charming. I just have to keep reminding myself that Much Ado is, after all, a comedy and find a way to tolerate those who destroyed Hero in that vain.