Sunday, December 14, 2014
Much Ado about Nothing
In Renaissance slang, "nothing" was cant for female genitals. The notorious John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, uses the word in that way a couple generations after Shakespeare and, on the basis of the play's content, I suspect a bawdy pun in the comedy's name. Joss Whedon, the director of such things as the meta-textual Cabin in the Woods and Tv shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, adapted the Shakespeare comedy for the screen in 2012 and his version of the play is better than Kenneth Branagh's 1993 film, an elegant, intelligent, and beautifully acted entertainment. Many critics damned the play with faint praise: like a woman preaching or a dog walking on its hind legs, to quote Dr. Johnson, it was not how well the thing was done but that it was accomplished at all. In fact, I think Whedon's Much Ado about Nothing is one of the best adaptations of Shakespeare for the screen that I have seen. Whedon has shortened the play and clarified its plot: in an elegant mansion in the Hollywood hills, some rich and privileged gentlemen and ladies have gathered to celebrate something, perhaps, a military victory -- we see a couple of characters brought to the party with their wrists fettered. Benedick, a confirmed bachelor, loves Beatrice, an affection that she reciprocates; but Benedick and Beatrice are too independent, cynical, witty and intelligent to admit their mutual desire and conceal it within a brittle badinage, the "merry" combat betwixt the two of them. The older, but not wiser, members of the company perceive themselves to be "gods of love" and decide to manipulate Benedict and Beatrice into admitting their love. At the same time, a younger couple becomes engaged with the marriage scheduled for sometime in the next couple days. But the girl is defamed and her fiancée denounces her violently at the wedding, accusing her of being "wanton." (It is all libel advanced for obscure reasons by a traitorous bastard step-brother, a man who has conspired to seize the throne of the Prince of Messina.) The girl seems to perish from grief. Some of Shakespeare's "rude mechanicals," in this case a security agent named Dogberry and his sidekick, discover the truth and expose the plot. Beatrice who is more fierce than any of the men demands that Benedick avenge her kinswoman. Murder and suicide is narrowly averted and the play ends on a sunny note with a double wedding. Of course, the dark and irrational aspects of sexual desire cloud the play's happy ending and the comedy barely escapes becoming a tragedy of jealousy and violent revenge on the order of Othello or the later romance The Winter's Tale. Shakespeare's double plot demonstrates the extreme fragility of love and its dependence on the good will of the community -- the self-styled "gods of love" can immediately trick Benedict and Beatrice into acknowledging their mutual desire...after all, it was there all the time. But, similarly, the deceitful calumniators can also instantaneously change the young fiancée's love for his espoused into hysterical madness and jealous hatred...those passions were always there as well. As in all of Shakespeare's plays, there is a wild, nightmarish and hysterical intensity to the jealousy that his characters experience. And everyone shares the ineluctable conviction that women are fundamentally fickle, untrue, and that their desire is erratic, hair-trigger, and fatally capricious. This note is sounded almost immediately in the play when someone remarks that Hero, the young woman, is Prince Leonato's daughter -- "That," Leonato replies, "is what her mother hath often maintained to me" or words to the effect. No man can reliable know whether the woman he loves is true to him and so the double marriage at the end of the play carries with it the inevitable specter of deceit, jealous rage, and cuckoldry. Whedon shoots the film in an elegant modern house, apparently, his own home in the mountains above Los Angeles and the movie is exquisitely composed and framed. Shot in black and white, the film seems sober, even when it is very funny, and like all Shakespeare's comedies the mirth has a "dying fall" -- the faintly sorrowful aspect of the comedy is expressed perfectly in the film's renunciation of color; the black and white gives the picture the sense of being classic, like Woody Allen's Manhattan, a film that is similarly wise, and melancholy, about sexual love. The movie is mostly impeccable. My only quibble is that the film's best known innovation -- showing that Benedick and Beatrice have earlier "hooked-up" or fallen into bed together -- although clever, and, although making sense of their mutual distrust, is inconsistent with the rigid, and vehemently patriarchal sexual morality to which the character's subscribe and that, even, the brilliant and enlightened Beatrice endorses when her kinswoman is defamed. After all, the film almost climaxes in an "honor killing" of the kind that continue to vex primitive places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. But this criticism aside, I highly recommend this film.