It’s an incredibly brave – or incredibly foolish – person that tries to film a Shakespeare play in under two weeks while officially on leave from work. That Joss Whedon felt he was up to the job should come as no surprise; this is a man who for years has thrived on similar challenges, be it directing a film version of an all-too-quickly cancelled TV series (Firefly) or creating a musical episode for a hit primetime show (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). As a low budget take on a familiar play, it’s an entertaining enough diversion: the low-key approach adds to much to the overall charm. But the flip side of that is there is a slimness to the end product which prevents it from being more fun that it might have been.
Updated to something like the present day, but with Shakespeare’s dialogue intact, the film presents a faithful retelling of the unconventional courtship between Beatrice (Amy Acker), the daughter of Leonato (Clark Gregg), and Benedick (Alexis Denisof), a guest at Leonato’s house. Also present are Benedick’s commander, Don Pedro (Reed Diamond); fellow officer Claudio (Fran Kranz); and prisoner Don John (Sean Maher), who attempts to upset the budding romance between Claudio and Hero, Leonato’s other daughter. Convoluted plot machinations ensue on the road to (spoiler!) a happy ending.
The film is as lean and elegant as an actor’s silk tights
Tellingly, this adaptation was the result of Whedon taking a break from the stresses and strains of filming last year’s billion dollar Marvel blockbuster THE AVENGERS, and it’s about as far from that film as it is possible to get. Shot in black and white on a single location (Whedon’s Californian home), accompanied by a minimalist soundtrack and populated with a cast normally found on US television, the film is as lean and elegant as an actor’s silk tights. The new setting doesn’t make a great deal of sense – which West Coast war are Don Pedro’s men supposed to be returning from? – but it’s not terribly important.
With little in the way of visual razzle dazzle it’s down to the dialogue to provide the fireworks, and it is clear why Whedon gravitated towards this play in particular. He is never more comfortable than when bringing humour to the fore, and such is the case here. The constant boozing and light, open interiors allow the action to flow as freely and naturally as the wordplay. Indeed, Nathan Fillion’s chief of security threatens to steal the entire film away from the rest of the cast, as good as they are. Beyond that though, the film rarely rises above being breezy fun. Perhaps Whedon was too fatigued to set about tackling the play in a more adventurous manner, but a little more gusto would have lifted the film to another level. As it is, it’s perfectly enjoyable but rarely memorable.