For years, you suppressed your unease as film directors set Hamlet in modern New York City and Romeo and Juliet in modern American “Verona Beach.” You didn’t want to be called a philistine, did you? The directors who placed Twelfth Night in the nineteenth century and Coriolanus in the twenty-first couldn’t both have been wrong, could they? For some reason, the modernizing treatment seemed to be limited to Shakespeare: you realized that even if a hapless director decided to redo Casablanca, he would never dream of setting it in present-day Baghdad. But if you were like most moviegoers, you didn’t worry about that inconsistency, any more than you worried about the ludicrousness of a Richard III set in “an England of an alternate timeline, which clearly evokes 1930s fascism,” as Roger Ebert put it. Or if you did, you didn’t voice your worries in respectable company.

Your worries were nevertheless justified, and now you can back them up by citing the problems with a brand-new, otherwise admirable Shakespeare movie set in the present day: Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Joss Whedon and opening in theaters tomorrow. Whedon is one of Hollywood’s most talented directors. His TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, despite its campy name, was a clever, sharply written coming-of-age allegory and ran for seven seasons, garnering a cult following. Another Whedon series, a sci-fi-meets-Western named Firefly, won cultish devotees, too, but not enough to keep the show from getting canceled after just 14 episodes. More recently, Whedon tackled the difficult job of making a comic-book adaptation about four superheroes who had each already been featured in his own film; the result was The Avengers, the third-highest-grossing movie in history. He’s currently producing an Avengers spinoff for TV.

Whedon’s résumé is decidedly skewed toward fantasy and science fiction, not the usual provenance of a Shakespeare director. But anyone familiar with his work would realize that Much Ado should have been the perfect vehicle for Whedon, since he has long danced recklessly along “that microscopically fine line that separates comedy from tragedy,” as theater critic John Simon put it in another context. An essential component of the Whedon method is maintaining an audience’s interest by repeatedly upending its emotional expectations—surprising it with jokes when it had expected pathos and vice versa. Few screenwriters are more devoted to wit and badinage, and few are more enamored of killing off regular characters, which Whedon has done in nearly every one of his enterprises.

Much Ado, though certainly a comedy, is just the kind of play that would appeal to such a director. It is considerably darker than the other comedies, such as Twelfth Night and As You Like It, that Shakespeare was writing as the sixteenth century gave way to the seventeenth, and it points the way toward the slightly later so-called problem plays—particularly All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure, which have comic endings but get there so messily that some critics have hesitated to label them ordinary comedies.

Part of Much Ado’s plot is straightforwardly comic. A group of noblemen, returning victorious from war, visit their friend Leonato, who lives in the Italian city of Messina. One of the noblemen, Claudio, falls in love with Leonato’s daughter Hero and gets engaged to her; his friend Benedick, meanwhile, squabbles with Leonato’s niece Beatrice, whom he can’t stand. Claudio, Hero, and Leonato—led by the noblemen’s general, Don Pedro, the prince of Aragon—play a trick on Benedick and Beatrice, claiming within their hearing that each loves the other. The sparring couple promptly falls in love, just as the schemers intended.

So far, so good. The comedy’s darker side emerges when Don John, the jealous brother of Don Pedro, shows Claudio fabricated evidence that Hero is sleeping with another man. Claudio viciously denounces Hero at their wedding; Leonato joins in the denunciation of his own daughter; Hero faints; and at the advice of the friar who was about to perform the ceremony, it is given out that she is dead. Only when Don John’s plot comes to light does Claudio recant, and all ends happily for both couples. That happy ending has made critics decidedly uncomfortable. Claudio seems to be tricked too easily, to treat his fiancée too harshly, and to behave too cheerfully after Hero’s supposed death. How can we enjoy a comedy that so rewards the “least amiable lover in Shakespeare,” as the scholar Alfred Harbage called him?

To help us enjoy it, Whedon dials down Claudio’s callousness, deleting the jokes that the unamiable lover cracks while he still believes Hero dead. Whedon also dials up the evil of the play’s villain in characteristic fashion. The most comically Whedonesque moment in the movie arrives at the moment of its greatest horror, as Don Pedro, Don John, and Claudio are leaving the wedding site where Hero is still in a dead faint. As they walk away, Don John, without breaking stride, nabs a cupcake from a carefully arranged pyramid nearby, eliciting a laugh from an audience still shocked by Claudio’s behavior. Moments like that make you understand why this director is so well suited to this peculiar comedy.

For the most part, Whedon also interprets Shakespeare’s dialogue gracefully and intelligently. A stellar example comes early on, as Benedick delivers a short monologue about his hatred of Beatrice—a speech that, as Whedon understands, actually conveys Benedick’s suppressed interest in her. So when Benedick announces, “I would not marry her, though she were endowed with all that Adam had left him before he transgressed,” the other characters raise their eyebrows at each other, signifying that, as nobody has heretofore said anything about Benedick’s marrying Beatrice, he must have been contemplating the possibility himself. A long silence follows; then Benedick cries, “Come, talk not of her!”—and since nobody has been talking of Beatrice, the line is once again comical, further evidence that Benedick can’t stop thinking about his nemesis. The line might easily have been delivered without the pause, as though Benedick were simply asking the others not to talk about someone he despised; by adding the long silence, Whedon conveys an important (and humorous) detail about his protagonist’s state of mind.

The actors, nearly all veterans of previous Whedon projects, acquit themselves beautifully. If you’ve been shaking your head ever since watching Keanu Reeves as Don John in Kenneth Branagh’s otherwise enjoyable Much Ado film of 1993, rest assured that there are American actors who can pull off Shakespeare. Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof are fully up to the parts of Beatrice and Benedick. Clark Gregg, as Leonato, enunciates as crisply and expressively as any stage actor you’ll see, though most viewers will know him primarily as Agent Coulson in The Avengers and its predecessors. Nathan Fillion plays the malapropistic constable Dogberry with spectacular seriousness, never betraying the character’s inanity by so much as a twinkle in the eye. Sean Maher, Fillion’s fellow-actor from Firefly, deserves special mention as a splendidly sinister Don John.

Whedon does make an unconscionable decision in turning Conrade, one of Don John’s henchmen, into a woman. Such unfortunate conversions are trendy these days: a recent Tempest cast Helen Mirren as “Prospera,” and that New York–set Hamlet turned Marcellus into “Marcella.” Here, Whedon seems to make the change simply so that he can add a sex scene between Don John and Conrade—or perhaps it was the closest that this homicidal director dared come to killing off one of Shakespeare’s characters. Whedon should have been above such petty temptations, especially since this one requires one of Shakespeare’s lines to be slightly rewritten, with “him” changed to “her”—a piece of heresy that no director should commit, and certainly not for so slight a reason.

Still, when a director can interpret Shakespeare so well and select actors who handle early modern English so superbly, the outcome should be a movie for the ages. What interferes with the film’s prospects is Whedon’s exceedingly strange choice of setting. Not only does he set the play in our own day; he also sets it in his own house—a handsome suburban house, but a far cry from the mansion where one pictures a wealthy Italian citizen’s entertaining a Spanish prince. The results are frequently bizarre. The noblemen Benedick and Claudio share a child’s bedroom strewn with stuffed animals and a dollhouse. The morning after a party, Benedick cleans up empty beer bottles. To these incongruities of place, add the usual problems of time that crop up when Shakespearean dialogue is shoehorned into our own century: Benedick mentions his sword, though he is carrying an automatic pistol; Hero refers to Benedick approvingly as “the only man of Italy,” though both appear to be Americans in a well-off American suburb.

The problem with this, as with so many modern settings of Shakespeare, is that it keeps you from fully suspending your disbelief as you watch. Rather than entering the world of the story, you remain solidly outside it, in the movie theater, where you as twenty-first-century movie-watcher register each incongruity—or ponder each trick that the director employs to evade that incongruity. Take the aforementioned Romeo and Juliet, in which onscreen titles inform us that the character who used to be the prince of Verona is now CAPTAIN PRINCE, CHIEF OF POLICE, so that the characters can plausibly call him “Prince” when they utter Shakespeare’s lines. In the same movie, we see a pistol labeled SWORD 9 MM SERIES S—again, so that Benvolio’s line “Put up your swords” will make some sense. Those who feel compelled to show that they understand what’s happening will invariably laugh at such supposed cleverness; the rest of us will be distracted by it for the first few minutes and bored by it thereafter. When that modern New York Hamlet opens with titles proclaiming that THE KING AND C.E.O. OF DENMARK CORPORATION IS DEAD, we know that we are in for a long two hours.

Because the publicity materials for Much Ado boast that Whedon shot the movie in between other projects and in just 12 days, we might charitably interpret his choice of setting as necessity rather than preference. Finding a suitably Italianate villa, building sets, and designing costumes would take far more time and money than setting the movie in the director’s own house and in modern dress. Stage directors of Shakespeare have long saved money by constructing minimal sets and dressing their actors in jeans and T-shirts. But there the effect is less unsettling, since theatrical convention bows to the impossibility of true realism on a 20-foot-wide stage. Take a platform with no scenery at all, dress two actors in Levi’s, hand them sticks, and you’ve got Macbeth and Banquo voyaging through a Scottish moor. Your audience will generously fill in the gaps; indeed, your audience knew when it entered the theater that it would have to. Shakespeare himself made the point magnificently in the famous prologue to Henry V:

Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt? . . .
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts.
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance.
Think when we talk of horses that you see them
Printing their proud hooves i’th’receiving earth,
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there . . .

But the film director, unlike his theatrical colleague, doesn’t enjoy the luxury of a generous audience to piece out his imperfections—partly because the medium itself has fewer imperfections, at least in the matter of realistic scenery. Where a stage renders impossible the task of portraying an Italian villa or a Scottish moor in detail, a film practically demands it. At the very least, the film has to have some setting—the blank walls of a black-box theater would never do. Likewise, the director has to provide costumes and props. And his audience will interpret all those elements straightforwardly, refusing to see an Italian villa in what is plainly a suburban American house.

One can’t help suspecting that Whedon’s choice of setting isn’t merely a way of saving money. He has always been a highly original mind; he was nominated for an Emmy in 2000 for writing an episode of Buffy that contained almost no dialogue, and two years later, he set another episode to music, Broadway-style. During the screenwriters’ strike of 2007–08, he created a three-part online musical miniseries, Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, a comic-book parody that finally won him an Emmy. Even when taking a more conventional course, Whedon has always been a careful, conscious director, the kind who painstakingly picks just the right camera lens for a scene and then explains in a special DVD feature why he picked it. So it’s possible that he has set Much Ado in his own house for artistic reasons—a theory that seems to be confirmed by the unorthodox technical choices that he makes. He shoots much of the film with a handheld camera, so that the frame is never quite still. The soundtrack is limited, and the sound in general, edited lightly, often echoes unpleasantly through the house. Most striking is that the film is shot in black and white. All these effects make his Much Ado feel almost like a home movie, as though we had picked up a camcorder and set about filming a sequence of events occurring in our own house.

As a consequence, the movie strikes us as even more modern, more immediate to our own experience, than most Shakespeare adaptations set in the present day. But that immediacy makes its anachronisms all the more glaring and uncomfortable, and in one important case renders almost meaningless a crucial scene that, understood properly, helps resolve the long controversy over Claudio’s callousness. Hero has just been humiliated and abandoned. Beatrice is in tears. Benedick confesses his love to her: “I do love nothing in the world so well as you—is not that strange?” Beatrice reciprocates. “Come, bid me do anything for thee,” Benedick says, and his new lover quickly responds: “Kill Claudio!” Benedick refuses at first. But then Beatrice, the first and best in the long line of critics disgusted by Claudio, pours out a thrillingly scornful and furious condemnation:

Is a not approved in the height a villain, that hath slandered, scorned, dishonoured my kinswoman? O that I were a man! What, bear her in hand until they come to take hands, and then with public accusation, uncovered slander, unmitigated rancour—O God that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place. . . . Sweet Hero! She is wronged, she is slandered, she is undone.

Benedick asks: “Think you in your soul the Count Claudio hath wronged Hero?” And Beatrice responds: “Yea, as sure as I have thought, or a soul”—at which point he accedes to her demand and agrees to challenge Claudio to a duel.

This is the crux of the play, a scene in which one character shows her superior moral judgment—Beatrice knows that Hero is innocent—and another character finds that he so admires that judgment that he is willing to duel his friend on its basis. In short, the scene defines love as what we might call moral trust. Only now do we truly want these two characters to marry, only now are we cheering for them, because only now do we see that the hero’s love for the heroine is based on the attraction of good moral judgment, rather than on the attractions of wealth and beauty that underlay, for example, Claudio’s love of Hero. (The situation finds a close parallel, by the way, in Pride and Prejudice, which Austen almost certainly wrote with Much Ado in mind.) And what cements our enjoyment is that both hero and heroine stand together above the characters who have amply demonstrated their own moral flaws: Don Pedro, who has too readily believed his brother’s lies; Leonato, who immediately believes Claudio’s accusation of his daughter; and of course Claudio himself. We finally start to see why Claudio has to be so repellent: Shakespeare wants no competition in the limelight for his chosen two.

Whedon understands some of this, particularly the way Beatrice and Benedick must stand apart from the other characters. In fact, his movie closes with their standing apart physically, gazing into each other’s eyes, as the rest of the characters dance gaily—perhaps a little too gaily—in the background. But his setting the movie in the modern day diminishes much of the power of the crucial scene in which Benedick agrees to challenge Claudio. The scene depends, for one thing, on a convention that is obsolete and unfamiliar today: the duel. When Beatrice in her cocktail dress asks Benedick in his business suit to challenge Claudio, we start to hear the same little voice in our heads that objected to Benedick’s invisible sword. The scene also depends on a particular requirement of the duel: that it could be fought only by men, as Beatrice says repeatedly. Without that very un-modern requirement, Beatrice would have no need of Benedick to fight her battles. So to the incongruity of fighting a duel in twenty-first-century America, we can add the incongruity of a twenty-first-century American woman’s asking her lover to do it for her.

One begins to realize that the problem with modern settings is their very familiarity. We may not know our own time and place as well as we might, but we know them well enough to realize when they have been invaded by something foreign. So setting Much Ado in the eighteenth century, say, would still have been wrong, but it would have struck us as less wrong than setting it today, because dueling was still in vogue then. Changing Shakespeare’s settings will usually be a mistake, but the mistake to avoid above all is setting his plays in our own time. The film director should properly set Julius Caesar in ancient Rome; but better to set it on Mars in the twenty-eighth century than in Los Angeles in the early twenty-first.

If we wanted, again, to be charitable, we might conjecture that Whedon was aiming for something like a radical version of Shakespeare’s Henry V prologue, an approach to storytelling that emphasizes its own artificiality and asks its audience explicitly to fill in the gaps between its own staging and its script. But those gaps are too broad to fill in while simultaneously enjoying an otherwise fine movie. One hopes that Whedon will continue to direct Shakespeare; the strengths of this Much Ado suggest that he could excel at it. But one also hopes that this original director will realize that modern settings are, not a novel originality, but an increasingly strained convention.


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