Excellent as Branagh's film is, one of the results of that excellence--as well as the fact that until earlier this year, his was the only version of Much Ado About Nothing available to a wide audience (unless you count the 2005 modern language version, part of the BBC's ShakespeaRe-Told project, starring Damian Lewis, Sarah Parish, and Billie Piper as Hero)--is that for many people my age, and especially those who don't have ready access to theatrical productions of Shakespeare, it has come to seem not only definitive, but like the only "correct" way to stage the play. It certainly helps that unlike Luhrman's irreverent adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, which rubs the audience's face in how unconventional its take on its source material is, Branagh's film strives for a feeling of accuracy. Its setting, like the play's, is a villa in rural Italy, and though its period is deliberately vague, it feels at least roughly contemporary to the play's early 17th century publication date. In addition, as much as Branagh takes advantage of the cinematic medium, with long tracking shots, multiple exterior locations, and an emphasis on period detail, his Much Ado is a very theatrical film--most of the cast play their big speeches to the back benches, and the film has no compunction about letting its actors squarely address the fourth wall, like a stage actor soliloquizing to an audience.
This perception, however, obscures the many choices Branagh made in adapting Much Ado About Nothing, and thus the possibility that other choices might bring out nuances he'd missed or chosen not to emphasize. A quick glance through the play's original text, for example, reveals that as well as cutting the play down to suit his two hour running time, Branagh thinned the text out, removing, in some scenes, every other sentence or half sentence. Take this scene, from early in the play. The bolded lines are the ones that appear in Branagh's version:
Beatrice: I pray you, is Signior Mountanto returned from the wars or no?This has the effect of slowing the pace of the dialogue down, making it easier for the audience to follow along and for the actors to deliver their lines (of the cast, Branagh is nearly the only one who is expected to manage a full Shakespearean gallop). And it leaves room in the film for wordless scenes, such as the long, delightful opening sequence in which Don Pedro's men and the women of Leonato's household bathe and dress before their first meeting, without making its running time unwieldy. It's a perfectly valid choice, and one that pays great dividends in the film, but it is a choice, and the aura that has attached to Branagh's film obscures that fact.
Messenger: I know none of that name, lady: there was none such in the army of any sort.
Leonato: What is he that you ask for, niece?
Hero: My cousin means Signior Benedick of Padua.
Messenger: O, he's returned; and as pleasant as ever he was.
Beatrice: He set up his bills here in Messina and challenged Cupid at the flight; and my uncle's fool, reading the challenge, subscribed for Cupid, and challenged him at the bird-bolt. I pray you, how many hath he killed and eaten in these wars? But how many hath he killed? for indeed I promised to eat all of his killing.
Leonato: Faith, niece, you tax Signior Benedick too much; but he'll be meet with you, I doubt it not.
Messenger: He hath done good service, lady, in these wars.
Beatrice: You had musty victual, and he hath holp to eat it: he is a very valiant trencherman; he hath an excellent stomach.
Messenger: And a good soldier too, lady.
Beatrice: And a good soldier to a lady: but what is he to a lord?
Messenger: A lord to a lord, a man to a man; stuffed with all honourable virtues.
Beatrice: It is so, indeed; he is no less than a stuffed man: but for the stuffing,--well, we are all mortal.
It's easy, therefore, to see how a new film version of Much Ado About Nothing would seem refreshing, even revolutionary, simply for drawing attention to the fact that there are other choices that might be made when adapting the play. All the more so when that version is Joss Whedon's, which seems almost to have been designed as the antithesis of Branagh's film. As has been widely reported, Whedon shot the film in his own house over twelve days, with a cast made up mostly of his friends and favorite actors. But as well as being a modern-day, modern dress production, his Much Ado is an understated affair. Instead of the conscious theatricality of Branagh's version, Whedon reaches for naturalism. His actors deliver the Shakespearean lines as if they were ordinary 21st century dialogue, underplaying the comedy so that it sounds like conversational banter, not a stream of zingers. No one here addresses the screen; when characters soliloquize, they do so while moving in and out of the frame, engaged in some mundane activity, as if to indicate that they are thinking out loud--Benedick (Alexis Denisof), for example, muses about the hurtful words hurled at him by Amy Acker's Beatrice while gathering glasses and empty drink bottles left over from a party. Whedon finds ways to downplay even the biggest, most theatrical moments in these soliloquies. "I will be horribly in love with her!" Benedick shouts, arms outstretched into the air, after he overhears the "news" that Beatrice loves him, but Whedon shoots him from behind and from far away, as if to undermine the grand gesture.
The problem with this choice is that it very quickly comes to seem like a way of avoiding all other choices. Whedon's direction, which often feels like just a bunch of people talking, seems less like an attempt to stage the play as naturalistically as possible, and more as if he hadn't bothered to do any of the actual work of adapting the play and making it his own--as if he doesn't know what he wants his Much Ado About Nothing to be. One gets the impression that he has simply thrown a bunch of talented actors in front of a camera and had them recite their lines in the belief that somehow a coherent work will emerge. The result is a film that is extremely variable, depending on the actors on screen and the emotional tenor of the scene. Dramatic scenes in which the actors pull out all the stops work best--Fran Krantz's Claudio ranting at Hero (Jillian Morgese) about her alleged infidelity, Clark Gregg's Leonato attacking Hero for her disgrace, Beatrice's tirade as she tries to convince Benedick to challenge Claudio to a duel over Hero's honor. The humor, meanwhile, almost invariably falls flat, Whedon having done little work to translate the broad, energetic, consciously artificial comedy of the original play into the more low-key tone of his film (on the rare occasions that he plumps for slapstick, the shift in tone is jarring; when Beatrice overhears Hero and Margaret discussing Benedick's feeling for her, she's so surprised that she falls down a flight of stairs, but the film has been so naturalistic up to this point that this isn't funny so much as scary and unpleasant to watch). Rather than being understated, Whedon's film comes to feel underpowered.
There's a tendency, when talking about Much Ado About Nothing, to concentrate on the warring lovers aspect, the story of two people who fight and fight until they finally realize that they're in love (I did so just a few months ago when I noted the similarities between Benedick and Beatrice and Pride and Prejudice's Darcy and Elizabeth). While that's obviously an important part of the play and a major reason for its enduring appeal, to concentrate on it exclusively (as Whedon does) is to miss out on some of Much Ado's vital components, chief among them the importance of embarrassment to the play's story. Like many Shakespearean comedies, Much Ado About Nothing's plot hinges on miscommunication--both of the couples at the center of its story would never have found themselves at the crisis the play depicts if they'd been willing to talk to each other. And also like many other comedies, the play's story is driven by false identity--Hero is courted by Don Pedro pretending to be Claudio, and undone by Margaret pretending to be Hero; "what a Hero hadst thou been if half thy outward graces had been placed about thy thoughts and counsels of thy heart," Claudio laments at her at their abortive wedding, having been gulled into believing a false persona concocted by Don John, who has previously railed at being made to hide his true identity as "a plain-dealing villain"; the happy ending is achieved when Hero pretends to be her own cousin, and when the truth is revealed she calls Claudio "my other husband."
But what, to my admittedly far from comprehensive knowledge, feels unique to this play is the way that the false identities within it are often something that the characters construct for themselves. Much Ado About Nothing is a play full of people projecting a certain face to the world, obsessed by how the world sees them, and terrified of being found out. Claudio and Don Pedro publicly humiliate Hero because her alleged infidelity shames them--"I stand dishonour'd, that have gone about to link my dear friend to a common stale," is Don Pedro's explanation for standing idly by as Claudio destroys Hero's reputation. Leonato, believing that his daughter has shamed him, imagines having taken in an orphan to raise "Who smirch'd thus and mired with infamy, I might have said 'No part of it is mine; this shame derives itself from unknown loins'." Dogberry is so anxious for his reputation and social standing that even after hearing the full litany of Borachio's crimes, the crime he fixates on is Conrad calling him an ass.
The characters who most embody this terror of embarrassment, however, are Benedick and Beatrice. Both perform roles on the very margin of acceptable behavior (where acceptable means, among other things, acceptable for their gender). Benedick is a jokester, but if people started laughing at him instead of with him, he'd be a clown; Beatrice is a wit, but all it takes is a few too-tart jokes for her to be branded a shrew. They are thus both frantically aware of the danger posed to them by embarrassment, of losing control of the face they present to the world and being seen not as they would like to be seen--cool, detached, unfussed by silly emotions--but as they secretly fear they really are. Their masked encounter at the revel leaves them both (Benedick in particular) so rattled because in it they hear the things they fear most from the person they secretly want.
When Don Pedro hatches his plan to make Benedick and Beatrice fall in love with each other, he uses these very fears to pierce their defenses, and paints a picture in which both are terrified of embarrassment but eager to inflict it on others. Benedick, he announces, "would make but a sport of it and torment the poor lady worse" if he found out about Beatrice's feelings for him, and Hero and Ursula, coached by him, agree that "it were not good [Beatrice] knew [Benedick's] love, lest she make sport at it." Though he speaks as if he expects Benedick and Beatrice to be so ruled by their fear of embarrassment that it will override all other desires ("I measure him," he quotes the fictional Beatrice, "by my own spirit; for I should flout him, if he writ to me; yea, though I love him, I should") Don Pedro clearly expects the "revelation" that Benedick and Beatrice love each other to soothe the sting of his words, and so it does. Knowing that they are loved, for all their foibles and weaknesses, gives Benedick and Beatrice the courage to be vulnerable--"I do love nothing in the world so well as you; is not that strange?" is Benedick's bewildered, self-deprecating declaration to Beatrice--and to put aside the masks with which they've staved off embarrassment, letting themselves be seen.
"Lady Beatrice, have you wept all this while?" Benedick asks before he and Beatrice confess their love. "All this while" can be taken to mean the duration of Claudio's refusal and accusation of Hero, which immediately precedes this scene (Whedon, meanwhile, takes the question literally, and inserts a gap of time between the two scenes for Beatrice to have wept in). But I prefer to think that the question is more symbolic, that it represents Benedick's realization that Beatrice is more than just "Lady Disdain," but a person, who is sometimes sad. And though Benedick's love doesn't magically make that sadness disappear, it does give Beatrice a safe space to be sad in, as when she admits, in her next meeting with Benedick, to being "very ill" over Hero's misfortune.
Even after they learn how to be honest with one another, however, the play doesn't let up on subjecting Benedick and Beatrice to embarrassment. It is almost astonishing, reading the original text, how often and at what wildly inappropriate times Don Pedro and Claudio tease Benedick about his romance with Beatrice--immediately after they learn of Hero's "death," or just before Claudio's punishment marriage to, as he believes, Leonato's niece. And though they can admit their love to one another in private, it takes some prodding for Benedick and Beatrice to admit it in public in the play's final scene (in fact they never entirely do--their final word on the matter is that they are getting married out of mutual pity), and its conclusion seems to be less that the two of them can hold their heads up high, and more that in the end, embarrassment doesn't matter--"a college of wit-crackers cannot flout me out of my humour. Dost thou think I care for a satire or an epigram?" is Benedick's response to Don Pedro's final jab at him. In the end, Much Ado About Nothing is a play about people who are terrified of being seen for the weak, silly people they really are, only to discover that it's actually wonderful.
With a few minor (and not very successful) exceptions, embarrassment is almost absent from the main storyline of Whedon's Much Ado. One doesn't get the sense that its characters are particularly frantic for their image, nor is it ever in much danger--as if the characters' desperation to be cool had rubbed off on their director (I'm almost inclined to suggest that the reason Whedon's Much Ado isn't funny is that he can't bear for his characters to be laughed at). One sees this especially in the case of Benedick. In Branagh's film, Benedick is deliberately emasculated. Branagh's performance is shouty and high-strung, his voice frequently rising to a high pitch. The other male characters treat him with indulgence and bemusement--when Beatrice observes that "nobody marks [Benedick]" it's after we've seen him desperately trying to hold Don Pedro's attention with one more joke. In Whedon's film, it's Benedick who gets to be indulgent and bemused. Denisof plays him as smug and sarcastic, blithely drawling his pronouncements about the silliness of everyone around him from a position of utmost confidence and security (one hardly knows where to look when this self-satisfied Benedick describes himself as "merry"--it's hard to imagine a more joyless version of the character).
It's a choice that robs the audience of the shock (and satisfaction) of seeing the clownish Benedick show his mettle when he castigates Claudio and Don Pedro for humiliating Hero, but it also robs the character of much of his depth--this Benedick starts the play a cool guy, and ends it a cool guy with a wife. In Whedon's version of the story, Benedick is a player who can't commit, a point Whedon drives home with a wordless prequel scene in which we see Benedick slipping out of a sleeping Beatrice's bedroom after a one-night stand. This is not an unreasonable interpretation--it has some grounding in Benedick's speeches against marriage at the beginning of the play. But it's not a very original or, to my mind, interesting one, and it isn't served well by the film and its modern-day setting. While a modern-day Benedick can love 'em and leave 'em, the text's Benedick can't (or at least, not women of Beatrice's class), and indeed the Benedick of the play isn't just anti-marriage, but anti-love and even anti-women. The film does little to resolve this incongruity, or indeed to sell Benedick's swift turnaround on love and marriage as soon as he hears that Beatrice loves him. It is as if we were expected to employ romantic comedy logic--obviously the commitment-phobic man will pop the question by the final scene--without wondering whether either the text or the adaptation support it.
Just about the only character whom the film is genuinely happy to see embarrassed is Dogberry, which is why Nathan Fillion's performance in the role is a rare instance in which the film's understatedness doesn't rob it of all power. Especially in contrast to Michael Keaton's cartoonish take on the role in Branagh's film, Fillion's performance is sedate, and yet he manages to make Dogberry both ridiculous and moving. He plays Dogberry like someone aping the tough-as-nails, unflappable cops he's seen on TV, but every time the script in his head is interrupted by reality, we can see how thin his skin really is. His reading of "Does thou not suspect my place? dost thou not suspect my years?" in response to Conrad calling him an ass is both a tiny masterclass in wringing a laugh out of understatement and genuinely heartbreaking for what it tells us about how Dogberry wishes to be seen. But it only works because unlike the rest of the cast, Dogberry's self-importance is allowed to seem ridiculous and unjustified.
Part of the reason that I'm so down on Whedon's film, and unimpressed by the way it questions the assumptions of Branagh's version, is that by the time I got around to watching it I had already seen the National Theater's 2011 production of the play. Directed by Josie Rourke and starring David Tennant and Catherine Tate, this production not only showed me a way to stage the play that is completely distinct from Branagh's, but managed to make the play its own in a way that Whedon never did. (I wasn't able to see the play live, but a recording is available from Digital Theatre.) Rourke has some advantages over Branagh and Whedon--unlike them, she isn't bound by a feature-length running time, and she doesn't need to make excuses for (or eliminate) theatrical devices like the actors addressing the audience. Most importantly, she has a cast who can handle the Shakespearean language in full, without resorting to Branagh's cuts. In Whedon's film, being able to nonchalantly rattle off a mouthful of Shakespeare is an accomplishment in itself, but Rourke's cast act the lines, which can sometimes mean not behaving as if this archaic language is no big thing, but stressing and even shouting it. Rourke modernizes the language not by underplaying, as Whedon does, but by pouring the characters' modern emotions through it, and allowing her actors to play with their lines to suit their conception of their characters. "Love me! Why, it must be requited," Benedick announces in the original text when he hears about Beatrice's feelings for him, but Tennant, who plays Benedick as even more of a clown than Branagh did, changes the emphasis. "Love me?!" he exclaims; then, softly, bewildered: "Why?"
But if Rourke has certain advantages in staging Much Ado About Nothing, she also sets herself a greater challenge. Where Branagh and Whedon split the play's tone between its comedic and dramatic scenes, Rourke reaches for both reactions at once. That's not to say that her Much Ado can't be purely funny--the twin revelation scenes, in which Benedick and Beatrice learn of each other's feelings, are breathtakingly hilarious. But Rourke knows that embarrassment is both terrible and funny, and so she frequently injects humor into the play's most serious scenes, and tragedy into its funniest. Benedick and Beatrice's sniping has a real edge in this version, often teetering just on the brink of genuine nastiness. Later, when they confess their love to each other, they can't keep a straight face, breaking out in hysterical laughter at what they're saying. Don John, a character whose thinness Branagh and Whedon both try, unsuccessfully, to counteract by portraying him as suave and smooth-talking, is brought to life by Rourke's decision to make him a sniveling weirdo, whose awkwardness would be pitiable if it didn't conceal such relentless cruelty. In an early scene, flush with confidence over Borachio and Conrad's promise to aid in his mischief-making, an almost-giggling Don John (Elliot Levey) announces (in a line that Branagh and Whedon both omit): "Would the cook were of my mind!" Rourke has her actors hold for a moment on Don John's conviction that he has made a clever joke, and Borachio and Conrad's disgust and exasperation with him.
The bulk of this tonal ambiguity, however, falls on Tate's shoulders, and she has what it arguably the production's most difficult, occasionally thankless task. If I'm underwhelmed by the always-excellent Acker as Whedon's Beatrice, it's because Tate's performance has helped me see how much easier (certainly for an actress of Acker's range and abilities) Whedon's complimentary take on Beatrice, as someone who runs the gamut from brittle wit to righteous indignation, is when compared to Tate's frequently unattractive turn. She plays Beatrice as someone who can be strident and unkind as often as she is funny and morally trenchant. In a scene before the masked revel (again, drastically reduced in both film versions) Beatrice and Leonato trade barbs about her unwillingness to marry while Hero and her mother listen, and as Beatrice warms to her subject her family goes from amused to indulgent to sullen, wordlessly conveying that this is an old, familiar argument. Though we may sympathize with Beatrice's clear-sighted take on the marriage market that her cousin is being launched into, it's easy to see how her harping on the subject could easily become aggravating.
The same might be said of the strong slapstick component of Tate's performance, the gurning and braying familiar from her work on Doctor Who, which might put some viewers off. But again, Rourke uses this as much for pathos as for humor. When Don Pedro proposes to Beatrice in Branagh's film, it's a sweet, tender moment of connection. Rourke, using Tate's comedy, turns it into a tiny tragedy--Don Pedro's (Adam James) proposal is genuine, a brief moment of vulnerability from a character who spends the rest of the play acting blithely superior to everyone around him. But a distracted Beatrice takes it as a joke, and answers with a broad laugh, mortifying the prince and, when she realizes what she's done, herself. To try to salvage the situation, she retreats further into broad comedy, trying to pretend that she and Don Pedro were just joshing around, but the awkwardness of her delivery, and Don Pedro's difficulty in getting over his disappointment and joining in, make the scene heartbreaking.
In this scene and several others in Rourke's production, Don Pedro emerges as a person in his own right, not just someone who moves the plot along. James gives him flaws--when the truth about Hero's false accusation comes out, he distances himself from Claudio in disgust as if he had nothing to do with humiliating her--but also a haunting undertone of loneliness which the play, of course, leaves unsolved (in both Rourke and Branagh's versions, Don John ends the play standing apart from the rest of the cast's dancing). In fact, for all that Tennant and Tate are both wonderful, perhaps the most astonishing thing about Rourke's production is that it doesn't allow Benedick and Beatrice to dominate the play, and makes complex people out of all of the major characters--this is the only version of the play I've seen that makes Claudio's penance of being made to marry Leonato's niece seem like an actual punishment, with Tom Bateman conveying his grief at what should have been a joyous occasion being made into something bitter, a lifelong reminder of his greatest mistake.
Aside from Don Pedro, the character who most benefits from this generosity is Hero (Sarah Macrae). Branagh and Whedon both portray Hero as childlike, someone who is acted upon but who seems to have little personality of her own (it certainly doesn't help that they both cut the bulk of Hero's lines). But Hero the person, not the object of others' affections and schemes, has an important role in the play. She is the only person in it who presents herself to the world as she is, and doesn't try to tailor anyone's perception of her (which does her no good when a false face is imposed on her). When Claudio charges her by her name to answer truthfully his "when did you stop beating your wife"-style question about the identity of the man she slept with, she answers "Is it not Hero? Who can blot that name with any just reproach?" That strength and self-knowledge are missing from Branagh and Whedon's Heros, but Rourke restores them, first by casting the tall, athletic-looking Macrae (necessitating a change in Benedick's description of Hero, which is here "Leonato's long daughter"), and then by having her play Hero as confident and self-possessed. In the wedding scene, in which both Morgese and Kate Beckinsale dissolve into sobs, Macrae is tearful but defiant. It is she who argues with her father over her innocence, demanding that he recognize it rather than waiting in despair for him to bestow his compassion. It's a performance that does a great deal to make Hero's forgiveness of (and marriage to) Claudio at the end of the play seem like a genuine choice, rather than a lack of options. (Another important choice is a wordless scene of reconciliation between Hero and Margaret after the truth has come out, reminding us that their friendship has also been damaged along with Hero and Claudio's relationship.)
In praising Rourke's production so highly, I'm aware that I'm in danger of falling into the same trap that I decried where Branagh's film was concerned, of treating one version of the play as definitive, and being over-prescriptive about how the play ought to be staged. One of the reasons that Shakespeare's work has survived for so long is its versatility, the way that different adapters over the centuries that separate us from him have taken his words and stories and poured them into new molds (as a perfect metaphor for this, one need only look at the very different melodies to which Branagh, Whedon and Rourke's composers have set the play's central song, "Sigh No More"). The fact that I take embarrassment to be the most important aspect of Much Ado About Nothing's story doesn't mean that someone else couldn't find an equal, and equally resonant, reading of the play that is completely different (for that matter, the strong feminist component of Rourke's production is surely not, or at least not entirely, something that she found waiting for her in the play). A good adaptation isn't (or shouldn't be) one that conforms to your expectations, but one that can convince of its take on the play. Rourke's adaptation of Much Ado is sublime because it opened the play up for me, and taught me to enjoy it in a new and delightful way. Whedon's, meanwhile, leaves me dubious that he even has a concrete idea of what the play is. The value in Whedon's Much Ado, it seems to me, is that it will remind people who, like myself, don't have regular access to production of Shakespeare's plays that there is more than one way of staging him. But I hope that some of those people will keep looking, and find productions like Rourke's, which also have something to say.