Thursday, June 27, 2013

Smooth Shakespeare: movie review of Much Ado About Nothing

In at least one specific way, this is the most interesting movie I've seen in a long time.  It's really, really gratifying to see Shakespeare done with contemporary American accents and setting.  The only similar example I can think of is Men of Respect, which no one besides me seems to have seen, a transplanting of Macbeth into the Mafia.  But in that version the original language was translated into a brilliant but totally different modern American vernacular.  The new Much Ado, on the other hand, proves what should be a tautology, that Elizabethan English works at least as well in modern vernacular robes as in any more formal--all too often forced--guise.  This goes a long way, for me, toward atoning for all the times Hollywood has assumed that a phony, vaguely British accent is the only way to convey grandiosity, whether campy or straight: The Matrix and Thor are two of many examples insisting that everyone in the future or on another planet is somehow too cool to talk like an American.  Leonardo DiCaprio actually made this work in a roundabout way in the recent The Great Gatsby, because Jay Gatsby is supposed to sport a contrived accent.

I also liked the ways in which Much Ado remained a play more than a normal movie--limited scene details or shifts, abrupt cuts between scenes, no clearly identifiable place, time, or culture.  I'm not sure about the choice to film in black and white: I like the way this blurs potentially distracting details, but dislike how self-consciously "artsy" it inevitably seems, whatever the director's intentions.  More pragmatically, it's a lot harder to keep track of who's who when everyone is wearing a "black" suit.

There are some wonderful touches, from Beatrice's and Benedick's pratfalls while eavesdropping to the bumbling police locking the keys in their own car.

There are also some odd touches, like all the men wearing Mafia-esque suits and having a private security detail yet not, apparently, being into organized crime.  Or how everyone is drinking wine (and tequila) all the time, with open bottles and ready glasses perched within easy reach at every corner of the house.

And there's the rub: it's all too easy.  Things do build to a satisfying emotional climax as Hero is falsely condemned, but all those delicious Shakespearean insults--of which Beatrice and Benedick are among the finest commanders--seem almost too natural, too comfortable.  We've lost the doublets and rapiers, but we haven't gained any wrinkles.  We see vivid evidence of Beatrice's promiscuity (including a prior consummation with Benedick!?), yet she and Hero sigh and swoon almost like tweens from Twilight, while Benedick and the other male characters seem almost more concerned about scuffing their shoes than bruising their hearts.  In a sense, I suppose, the modernization has succeeded too well: how can we believe that anyone in the 21st century would appear to have died merely at the accusation of "immodesty"?

There's a certain clownishness missing, and at the same time a lack of palpable suffering.  The director has gotten "comedy" down in the sense of laughable details, but he's missed the older sense of it as a resolution the more happy and cathartic for having come teeteringly close to tragedy.  In fact a good Shakespearean comedy is almost a tragedy "sandwich": light, funny two acts followed by deeply troubling two acts at last resolved in a final happy yet by no means innocent final act.  

Beatrice is very pretty (perhaps too much so, or too delicate), and Benedick is attractive enough in a frat-brother sort of way, but neither wins me over with satirical swagger, as they're supposed to.  I find myself remembering the Kenneth Brannagh version despite myself, in which Emma Thompson really made me care about Beatrice, as both wittier and more woundable, than anyone in this production.

Sadly, the movie fails on another front: my companion, who did not know the play, was totally lost, and I sympathize.  Having read and seen this particular play before, and being something of a "pro" at Shakespeare in general, I didn't have much trouble following the story--after "breaking in" to the incongruities for a few minutes--but if it can't stand on its own even in modern dress and accents, then this version, whatever its merits, will be relegated to predisposed Shakespeare enthusiasts--many of whom likely consider it a "violation."

All that said, one could do a lot worse at the cinema on a summer afternoon.