There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her: they never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them.
— Leonato (Clark Gregg)
Much Ado About Nothing, the black-and-white film version by Joss Whedon, opens in a bedroom. It’s here that you might imagine both the ado and the nothing begin and end, as the camera observes a scene familiar from all sorts of other films: it is the morning after a night shared by Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker), and, in a series of close-ups, you see him rise, dress, and sneak out of the room, hoping not to wake his lady friend. As he exits, the shot reveals her eye, open, and so you know: she knows.
The silent scene sets up a film filled with talk, delivering much of Shakespeare’s language straight up. In this, Beatrice and Benedick are observed and abetted by her cousin the governor, Leonato (Clark Gregg) and his well-intentioned and mightily manipulative co-conspirators Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon (Reed Diamond), and the young soldier Claudio (Fran Kranz). This games-playing is the less unpleasant version of such activity here, the other being a more brutal sport, wherein Don Pedro’s bad brother, Don John (Sean Maher), determines to destroy Claudio’s romance with and imminent marriage to the governor’s daughter and Beatrice’s much adored mentee, Hero (Jillian Morgese).
As the title announces, these games are more or less nothing. What becomes something, even as it is a lie, is the besmirching of Hero to the point that she appears to deserve, in this man’s world, all manner of outcasting, even unto death. A story of bad social media without the media, this seems reason enough that Whedon would take up the project, what with his longstanding and mostly admirable interest in how women contend with men’s eternal slowness in matters interpersonal and political, moral and emotional. No matter The Avengers, the film that might have permitted this teensy project’s existence (as everyone knows by now, it was shot in 12 days at Whedon’s own house, with a cast of his players, that is the great and wonderful performers who have consistently done great and wonderful work on Angel and Buffy and Firefly), is a boys’ comic book and movie studio’s fantasy. The new film answers that moneymaker with a more politically progressive inflection.
Here that inflection addresses directly the damage done by sex and rumor, and especially the damage they do to women. As self-aware, self-confident, and brilliant as Beatrice may be, and as independent as she means to stay (“I thank God and my cold blood,” she declares, “I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me”), she will of course fall for a man who’s near her equal. This eventual coming together is not so much preordained by the added silent bedroom scene at the film’s start as it is complicated and questioned.
That the film imagines this scene before all the talk begins, restages their skirmish of wit as one between lovers, determined however briefly and however secretly, which not only alters their dynamic but also your understanding of the many lies and secrets and misunderstandings that drive the plot. That is, the scene makes visible at least one mechanism that’s left unseen, if remarked, in the play (“You always end with a jade’s trick: I know you of old,” Beatrice tells Benedick in the first act), and so sets you up with a knowledge beyond that of the conspirators who would bring the couple together.
Why might this matter, what you see and what others may or may not know? It draws attention to the artifice of Much Ado‘s romance, the competition and the social ordering it perpetuates, the fictions that structure “true love.” Even if Beatrice and Benedick are a decent match, the best either might hope for amid the slower wits who surround them, the film makes clear the essential goofiness of their process, in Denisof’s pratfalls outside bay windows and Acker’s sublime and subtle gestures (is there another performer on the planet who can convey so much with an arm crossed over her chest or a shifting glance?). They’re adorable and smart, and as such, they don’t insult your intelligence as the romantic comedians you’re used to seeing in recent movies.
That this lilting but also acutely rendered relationship is set alongside the violence afflicting Hero in her relationship makes clear the pain of the fictions of true love. If the engineers of her abuse are monsters, she is equally poorly served by her so-called suitor Claudio, her uncle and her father, and all the men who presume to judge her because a man says so. It’s to Benedick’s immense credit that he believes Beatrice’s reading of the situation right off, trusting her before his supposed fellows.
And as he agrees to right the wrong she perceives, by being the man she both is and cannot be (“Manhood is melted into courtesies, valour into compliment, and men are only turned into tongue, and trim ones too: he is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie and swears it. I cannot be a man with wishing, therefore I will die a woman with grieving”), Benedick earns your respect too: “Enough, I am engaged.” That the other men only come around when forced to confront evidence by the nonsensical clown of the piece, Constable Dogberry (Nathan Fillion), only underscores the case that these men are putzes.
But even as you might feel inclined to fret over poor Hero, stuck with Claudio in the end, you might be hopeful that she’s linked forever to Beatrice, her magnificent, manipulative, and most effective defender.