One of the reasons William Shakespeare’s work is so enduring is that it’s perceived to be timeless. Romeo and Juliet are stand-ins for every teenage couple that perceives themselves to be or actually is pulled apart by family or other societal forces. Hamlet is every son with a dead father and an uncertain sense of himself. Bands of brothers will continue to charge into battle from this day to the ending of the world, and they and we will need to believe they do so for a greater cause to enable them to keep doing it. But while many of Shakespeare’s psychological insights may feel unmoored from time, in the same way Lizzy Bennet and Mr. Darcy could have met, sparred, and found each other in almost any time period, with adjustments along the way, the means by which Shakespeare delivered those insights vary widely in how tightly they’re tied to particular historical circumstnaces and mores, and in how much structres from the past have reinvented themselves for new eras. This poses enormous challenges for the success of a contemporary Shakespeare adaptation: it’s easy to turn the Capulet and Montagues’ relatively amorphous family fued into a gang rivalry or a spat between business empires, but rather harder to come up with a modern equivalent of the Salic Law that will get audiences juiced.
I say all of this as a roundabout way of approaching Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, a play that’s a perfect example of a relatively modern relationship that’s brought together under difficult-to-translate circumstances. Beatrice and Benedick, two wits who have each other as their favorite targets, are brought together in a horribly traumatic moment that’s difficult to imagine today: Beatrice’s cousin has her chastity impugned at the altar on her wedding day, is left at the altar, and her family pretends that she’s died of shame in order to build time to restore her reputation. The process by which Hero’s wedding is ruined is essentially a timeless one—she’s framed for cheating with another man on the night before her marriage to Claudio—but the reaction to this news is not. Claudio isn’t just disgusted by the idea that Hero has cheated on him: the fact that she has sexual experience at all is at the root of Claudio’s complaint to Hero’s father at the altar:
Sweet prince, you learn me noble thankfulness.
There, Leonato, take her back again:
Give not this rotten orange to your friend;
She’s but the sign and semblance of her honour.
Behold how like a maid she blushes here!
O, what authority and show of truth
Can cunning sin cover itself withal!
Comes not that blood as modest evidence
To witness simple virtue? Would you not swear,
All you that see her, that she were a maid,
By these exterior shows? But she is none:
She knows the heat of a luxurious bed;
Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty.
I wrote on Friday that this is a scenario that’s exceedingly hard to move into the modern era, and I thought the success of Much Ado About Nothing would depend on the ability of the movie to find a contemporary scenario into which this conflict fit without seeming jarringly anachronistic, making it easier to suspend disbelief about the characters’ reactions. While there’s no question that cheating on your wedding night is a big deal in modern society, we’re—fortunately—not a society where it would be a reasonable test of your lover’s affections to ask him to kill his best friend for besmirching your cousin’s sexual reputation. There are options here, of course. I would have been curious to see a slightly larger social context where Hero and her family are Christian, and the film took seriously the idea that her honor is valuable to her because she’s been taught it’s the most important thing about her. And even more interesting could have been a setup where Claudio’s reaction seems to come more from a sense of anxiety about the revelation that his bride has more sexual experience than he does than from the idea that Don Leonato has offended him by pretending to honor him but offering him “this rotten orange” as a sign of that honor.”
So it’s an interesting choice for Whedon that he does add one significant bit of modern context to Much Ado. But it’s meant to flesh out the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick, the part of the play that transitions most smoothly into a modern setting, rather than to render less jarring the conflict that lets them end the “merry war of words” between them. In the scene that opens the film, it’s revealed that Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof) slept together before he went off to the wars, and for reasons unclear, they’re both embarrassed and angry with each other about the encounter. It’s a decision that works surprisingly well for all its lack of necessity, giving new meaning to Beatrice’s barb that Benedick is “a good soldier to a lady,” or her insistence that “I know you of old” after he slips out of their conversation with “a jade’s trick,” just as he slept out of her bed early in the morning to avoid awkward conversation. When the Prince tells Beatrice at the party that “You have lost the heart of Senor Benedick,” Beatrice’s reply that “He lent it to me for a while” has a new and lovely melancholy.
But the dynamic between Beatrice and Benedick has larger problems. Denisof, a veteran of How I Met Your Mother plays Benedick like womanizer Barney Stinson, rather than as a man who’s hesitant to see the military unit that’s given his life meaning and companionship broken up by marriage—this is bro-hood, not brotherhood. In his readings of lines like “I hope you have no intent to turn husband,” or Benedick’s declaration that the woman he marries must be “Virtuous, or I’ll never cheapen her,” I could almost see MacLaren’s Pub breaking through the background as if conjured for another realm. Acker’s performance as Beatrice is better, a melancholy rather than merry read on the character, which wisely means she’s competing less with Emma Thompson than Denisof is with Kenneth Branagh, even to the extent of stealing his voice concealment schitck during the garden party, and she suffers less by comparison as a result. But the new backstory between her and Benedick would have required slightly more context to explain why an independent woman in a contemproray setting who has repeatedly rejected the idea of marriage would be so wounded by a one-night stand. Explaining that reaction might have provided a set of norms that would have clarified the Claudio-Hero story, and given more context for Beatrice and Benedick’s reactions when Hero is falsely accused, and Benedick takes her side rather than standing with his friends, giving him more reason than simply wanting to impress Beatrice.
The real problem is with what happens after Hero is accused and pretends to have died. Fran Kranz and Jillian Morgese do very nice work with the most fundamentally boring parts in the play, and in particular, someone should really cast Kranz in an indie romantic comedy already. But watching Beatrice demand that Claudio be killed for the sin of falsely accusing Hero, or watching Denisof flash a pistol at Claudio in the tastefully-appointed library in Joss Whedon’s real-life house just feels silly and histrionic. Rather than Shakespeare’s words giving us the gravity we’ve scrambled after in contemporary life, something that worked so well with contemporary war in Ralph Fiennes’ excellent 2011 adaptation of Coriolanus, here, his scenario just feels ludicrous, diminishing everyone involved, and making the challenges of contemporary romance feel histrionic rather than blesssed with a vocabulary that can express their proper gravity. That’s not to say there are no pleasures to be had here, particularly the channeling of Nathan Fillion’s spectacular gift for pomposity into Dogberry, a performance that would do Michael Keaton proud, and the lovely use of Clark Gregg’s decency as Don Leonato in perhaps the most deft and subtle casting in the movie. But Whedon’s interpretation ultimately makes the much ado about nothing in the title seem like a negative reflection on his characters rather than a charming reflection of the inherent nonsense and complication of true love.