Monday, 15 April 2013

Much Ado About Nothing (12A)

Shakespeare fans can be a funny bunch. While some welcome his works being re-imagined, others - and I've seen this happen - have been known to throw hissy fits and ask for a refund if there's so much as a hat that's not from the Elizabethan period.

Equally, movie fans can be a funny bunch. Known for a certain style or genre, not all directors are able to stretch out and do what the hell they like just for the fun of it. Especially not when said director's previous film made enough money to bail out the Eurozone.

And vanity projects, ideas a filmmaker has that are fueled by their own passions, can come a cropper. For every Inception (only 'allowed' off the back of Nolan's success with the Caped Crusader), there are 15 re-edits of Blade Runner.

So, a modern-day, black and white version of Much Ado About Nothing (sticking to the original dialogue) filmed in his own house and garden in 12 days by the man who gave us The Avengers - what could go wrong, eh?

Absolutely nothing. That's what. And that's just one of the reasons why I left Bradford's Pictureville cinema wrapped in that warm, satisfied feeling one gets when you've been in the company of a bunch of people having more fun than anyone has a right to when they should be working.

And that's not the beer talking (one of the many great things about the Bradford International Film Festival, who were showing a preview screening of Much Ado - they're serving Black Sheep beer. And you can take a pint in with you. More cinemas should be doing this).

For those who haven't had the pleasure of seeing a version of Much Ado before, a quick recap - boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy uses friend to tell girl and girl's father how he feels, true love gets sabotaged by a miserable git-wizard, hilarity ensues, all set against the back-drop of a warring couple who refuse to admit they love each other meaning their friends have to concoct tales to give cupid's bow a few nudges. Got that? Good.

It is easily one of Shakespeare's most popular plays, meaning Joss had to get this right. As mentioned, Bard fanatics can be unforgiving. Still, at least he didn't do anything like adapt, direct and produce the whole thing himself, write the music and cast his mates. At least he played it safe...

Fear not. Joss clearly knew what he was doing.

 In the sublime Alexis Denisof (of Angel/Buffy fame) and the wonderful Amy Acker (Angel/Dollhouse) Joss has the perfect Benedick and Beatrice. Laughs played to the max, slapstick moments a sheer delight, yet balanced against the more passionate, angry moments that litter this play. In picking his lead pair, Joss nailed it.

But this is an ensemble piece, and without fellow Whedon alumni Clark Gregg (aka Agent Coulson in, well, nearly all of the recent Marvel films), Nathan Fillion (Buffy, Firefly/Serenity), Fran Kanz (Dollhouse, Cabin In The Woods), Tom Lenk (Buffy, Cabin In The Woods) among the cast, this could have easily struggled. But everyone is clearly having fun, and delivering their A-game, meaning every scene flows and sings.

And over-seeing the whole shebang is the now famous Whedon. Now, we know he can do horror, we know he can do sci-fi, and we know he can do mega-budget comic hero epics. But a black and white Shakespeare play in his back garden? Yup, turns out the talented sod can do that too.

Throughout, this film looks wonderful. It's got a great pace, with the problems of changing sets and scenery usually found on the stage easily dodged as people run about his house and garden. The party scenes make sense, rather than being a mess as can often happen (Spring Breakers, I'm looking at you), the group scenes fizz with each character being given the necessary chance to shine, but it's the soliloquies that seal the deal.

When Benedick is coming to terms with how he thinks Beatrice feels about him, he holds the screen perfectly, helped by Joss's framing and editing. Not for this version the worthy, five minutes of talking at the world. Here, the audience feels as much a part of the experience as the actors, with perfectly chosen close-ups being used to round things off beautifully.

One of the things that really struck me is how, given his young-ish fanbase, Joss has kept to the Shakespearian conceit of not bothering to explain who anyone is. Instead of pandering to a generation that seemingly has a short attention span (a broad generalisation I know, but hey - prove me wrong) and adding back-story, he's stayed true to the source material and trusted his telling of the story to explain who you're watching as things unfold.

And it works. It's a measure of how few film makers today are either allowed to, or dare to, use this device that it came as a shock to find characters turning up with no pre-amble as to who they were and what they were doing (Fillion and Lenk's cracking double act as officers of the law being a fine example). It just goes to show that, done well, an audience doesn't need to be spoon-fed.

As I may have intimated at the start of this review, this film had so many pitfalls in its path, it was like a family of moles had taken a ton of coke and set about the lawn. But all fears are dispelled from the off.

The love and enjoyment Joss and the cast have had making this film flows off the screen in waves. You're wrapped up in the story, you're falling about as Benedick listens in on conversations, or Beatrice is falling down a flight of steps (or banging her head as she hides under a work surface, causing the woman sitting near me to audibly wince), or the police are being inept, you're heartbroken as others find the path of true love does not indeed run smooth.

You feel you are among friends, and as such you share in everything they experience. And when the party is over, you find yourself not wanting to leave.

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