Shakespeare on film: Joss Whedon’s Much Ado

Image from Much Ado

Image from Much Ado

It is I suppose possible that you won’t have heard about the latest Shakespeare film to be released in the US that is due to be screened in the UK from 14 June 2013. Its director is Joss Whedon, best known for directing TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and, for the big screen, the recently-released blockbuster The Avengers.

His version of Much Ado About Nothing was filmed immediately after he’s finished Avengers, was shot over just two weeks in his own house in Los Angeles, in black and white, with a group of actors he’d worked with before. The filming was kept secret from the media until it was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival late 2012, since when there has been a great deal of media excitement and anticipation. Now it’s been released in the US to amazing reviews, especially considering that it cost almost nothing to make. This is the UK trailer.

Here are links to one of the reviews, and a couple of pieces that have been sparked off by it looking at other great Shakespeare films, here, and here.   And here‘s a nice piece on the film and how it relates to Shakespeare’s play

The most surprising thing to me about this is that films of Much Ado About Nothing are such a rarity. Shakespeare fans will know that it’s one of his best comedies, attracting some of the best actors to play the parts of the sparring lovers Beatrice and Benedick on stage: Simon Russell Beale and Zoe Wanamaker, David Tennant and Catherine Tate, Judi Dench and Donald Sinden, Roger Allam and Susan Fleetwood to name just a few. The screwball comedy where the wisecracking hero and heroine begin hating each other but end up in love is hardly unfamiliar to Hollywood. Whedon, accepting that his film is being acclaimed as one of the most successful of the year so far, gives the credit to Shakespeare: “[Shakespeare is] basically pulling apart the idea of the rom-com…which he is inventing…That, to me, is impressive.”

Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh in the film of Much Ado

Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh in the film of Much Ado

But the only film version people are likely to be able to compare Whedon’s to is Kenneth Branagh’s  lush version from 1993. Gorgeously set in sun-drenched Tuscany the film boasted an ideal Benedick and Beatrice (Branagh himself and his then-wife Emma Thompson) and an audience-grabbing line-up of American stars including Keanu Reeves and Michael Keaton. The mixture of styles didn’t really work, but the film’s good humour won over critics and audiences alike. The Financial Times encouraged its readers to “get mugged by its magic”. It was a smash hit, grossing $22 million in the US alone, where it was the most successful UK film of the year. Let’s hope that it won’t be so long before someone else has a go at filming this great comic masterpiece.

Juliet and Romeo from the 2013 film

Juliet and Romeo from the 2013 film

More frequently filmed is the great tragic masterpiece of romantic love, Romeo and Juliet. The last major film version of this play was Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, released in 1996, but there are a number of earlier versions that are still rated including West Side Story from 1961 and Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film, also made in Italy.  This year a new version is coming out. You can see a clip and get the info here

I can’t leave the subject of Shakespeare on screen without referring to the latest post on the Screenplays blog in which John Wyver comments on a little-known version of another play very much favoured by film-makers, Henry V.

Still from the 1957 Henry V

Still from the 1957 Henry V

Everyone knows the Olivier version, the Branagh version, and the 2012 The Hollow Crown. But in the blog he draws attention to a TV version made in 1957 which may have sparked off the fashion for Shakespeare’s histories on TV. First there was the history cycle An Age of Kings in 1960 with Robert Hardy as Henry, followed by the RSC’s history trilogy The Wars of the Roses, filmed in 1965. The 1957 film starred John Neville, at the time alongside Richard Burton one of the up and coming stars of the English stage, with Neville playing Hamlet at the Old Vic in the same year.

For any of you interested in the minutiae of Shakespeare on screen (including TV and live performances filmed for the archives rather than broadcast), you will find much to enjoy in browsing the British Universities Film and Video Council’s wonderful database which includes a whole section on Shakespeare.

This entry was posted in Legacy, Plays and Poems and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Shakespeare on film: Joss Whedon’s Much Ado

  1. Karin Brown says:

    For those interested in studying Shakespeare on film, the Shakespeare Institute Library holds a fantastic collection of archive material and unpublished film scripts, including: Branagh’s Henry V, Much Ado, As You Like It, Hamlet, Love’s Labours, etc. (basically, all Branagh’s stuff), as well as Luhrmann’s R+J, Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, Brook’s Lear, etc. We’ll be trying to add the scripts from these recent releases to our collections – production companies allowing…

    There is also an fascinating tradition of Shakespeare for TV broadcast in the States. I know that Prof. Russell Jackson is currently working on book examining some absolute gems starring top UK and American actors.

    …and, don’t get me started on Kurosawa!!

    Hope you don’t mind the plug for the Library, Sylvia!

  2. Rinaldo says:

    Many thanks for the nice article, the background perspective, and the links, especially the mention of the Neville Henry V, which I hadn’t known about (there’s too little of him on film, particularly from this period when he was the darling of the Old Vic). I do have to be pedantic and mention that Joss’s surname is Whedon.

Comments are closed.