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Review by Joshua Gibbs
“Shakespeare” is a word which likely conjures up an endless string of irrevocably poignant images, though the writer himself was directly responsible for none of them. I think of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet and the battle on the beach, wherein Harold Perrineau’s tragically underestimated interpretation of Mercutio claims “A scratch!” after being mortally stabbed. I think of the comic laughter in the theater after Dicaprio asks, “Will thou leave me so unsatisfied?” is anachronistically interpreted against the pure, uninitiated Claire Danes. I think of Kenneth Branaugh’s vertigo-inducing shots of the steeply-inclined theater seating in Hamlet’s play-within-a-play, wherein the whole audience of his not-entirely fictitious indictment against Claudio seems to dangerously balance on precipice, as though every spectator might suddenly tumble onto the stage of his courtroom. I think of Julie Taymor’s avant-garde exposition to Titus, and the child who makes a mess of a kitchen table as the reality of the play emerges like the first mammalian fish from the primordial soup of a young imagination. And yet what I think of first, and most, upon hearing the word “Shakespeare” is the title of Harold Bloom’s catalogue of the Bard’s plays. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human was published September of 1999, just before the passing of the millennium, as though the great literary critic were finally, desperately squeezing in just one more account, one last take on Will’s great contributions to the Western canon. And what has he given us? If the cover of the book is to be believed, it was Shakespeare who imagined anew what it meant to have thumbs, to stand upright, to smoke, to know the certainty of your own death, to mate for life (if lucky), to be made of clay and breath and thus stand as the icon of the Almighty midst a sphere populated by mere animals.
Bloom's title is more a challenge to filmmakers and stage actors than theologians. A few have risen to the challenge. While Luhrmann’s Romeo comes before the book, the Australian auteur's misunderstanding of the play is glorious. In Shakespearean Tragedy: Its Christian Premises, Anglican prof Roy Battenhouse moves through the tragedies of Shakespeare and reveals the sound theology scattered or buried in each; his treatment on Romeo and Juliet is especially compelling. Romeo takes places over the course of a week and Battenhouse argues that week is an exact inversion of Passion Week, culminating in a false Last Supper, a false estrangement, a false crucifixion, a false resurrection and a false reconciliation between estranged lovers; I should dare you to read the book and discover the truth of the thesis, but suffice to say here, the whole matter is lucidly and intricately argued. Luhrmann’s Romeo is a photonegative of Battenhouse, though, and reads the play as a kind of sincere and accidental hamartia— well-intentioned lovers inadvertently, naively trespasse archaic family prejudices and die senselessly. I say Luhrmann read the play entirely ineptly, and yet I also say the source material is so deep, so mythic as to remain open to brilliant, inspiring misinterpretation. When Luhrmann drops the camera to the ground to gaze up at Dicaprio on his knees, arms outstretched to the heavens and crying, “I defy you stars!” the director nonetheless moves me to tears, despite his backward reading. To say that Shakespeare “invented” the human, as per Bloom, comes close to blasphemy, and yet, the man who has read enough Biblical criticism knows that even a daft interpretation of Scripture often yields gems. Prior to the 19th century Russia, no writer of fiction ever daringly neared fiction which might sustain a quadriga-like unpacking quite like Shakespeare.
This ought to either be a great anxiety or great relief to the contemporary director settling down to adapt a stage play into a screenplay. Were such a director to remark of Twelfth Night, “There’s no way I can screw this up,” I could not entirely blame him, although, “I can’t possibly do this justice” is no less a fair spirit. When tackling Much Ado About Nothing, director Joss Whedon seems to have fallen somewhere between these two dispositions. At times, he ruminates about what it means to be human. At times, he lets the gold in the play fly auto-pilot and settles back to worry over set design.
The film begins with a shot of Benedick and Beatrice’s clothes intermingled on the floor of Beatrice’s apartment. The two have a history with one another in Whedon’s version. Benedick untangles his pants from Beatrice’s bra, dresses silently and closes the door behind himself gently. Beatrice lays half-covered in the bed he has prematurely abandoned. While he believes he is escaping without notice, Beatrice is turned from him, awake, though he doesn’t know it. She lets him get away without a word, and no sooner is the door closed than she rubs her temples uneasily, disappointed in herself, confused, adrift in the ambiguous conclusion of their sexual encounter.
The film skews in two possible directions from such a prologue; we may view Beatrice and Benedick as married persons from the start who ultimately enjoy a great reconciliation, a renewal, a marriage salvaged from the gaping maw of divorce, or we may look at much of the dialog about either character owning “virtue” as a befuddled, ignorant attempt by a writer/director to borrow old moral convictions and an ethical vocabulary which he lacks the knowledge to grant a palpable reality. As much as I want it to be the former, Benedick is, on the page, simply too much a romantic novice and a sexual naïf to really allow the first view much tenability. “The world must be peopled!” he says after hearing Beatrice loves him, as though the purpose of marriage were merely the multiplication of divinely-appropriated bodies. The line plays like a toast at a bachelor’s party attended entirely by bachelors.
Much Ado was last committed to screen by Kenneth Branagh back in 1993, and Whedon seems to pick up where Branagh left off, so to speak. While Branagh’s piece seemed to be set in 19th century Italy, Whedon sets his play in the Hollywood Hills of 1993, perhaps in the same digs where Branagh planned his own version. Benedick wears a mock turtleneck tucked into swishy black slacks. Hero tucks her hair long behind her ears. The entertainment at the masked ball is provided by two rogues from Cirque du Soleil, and while everyone is drinking wine, in their hearts, they’re drinking Zima. The entertainment at the party is the precise variation of adult contemporary which gave birth to the Rembrandts, “Friends,” the party scenes in Pollack’s remake of Sabrina, Sting schmaltz, Seal, Madonna’s “Take A Bow” video, CK One commercials… As an aesthetic choice, it’s an amusing one, a wink, although I found it difficult to make sense of it beyond this.
Whedon’s version of Much Ado is just as much a parody of the Man’s World as the original text offers. We’re given more a Boy’s Club— Benedick and Don Pedro and Claudio, who imagine they run the show, call the shots. The Woman’s Club is located in the kitchen, the bedroom and the halls which connect the two, wherein the discontent and easily heartsick whine about real men, the lack thereof, or the easy access thereof. The two clubs seem quite isolated from one another, and only in disguise can the two intermingle comfortably. Much Ado hangs about a cosmos wherein men and women are naturally estranged from one another; luck does the real work of matchmaking, although Lady Fortuna allows mortals to imagine they have some great hand in the project. When affairs are overly commanded by men, the plot teeters dangerously close to tragedy. After Claudio mistakes Hero for a redlight and rebuffs her abruptly amid their nuptials, Beatrice asks Benedick to kill the fellow that their own romance might continue unabated. In any play slightly to the left, Benedick would have simply done so and the third act would have been painted red. Nowhere else does Shakespeare so casually suggest the boundaries between comedy and tragedy are quite so permeable, vaporous, arbitrary. At times, the grand movements of the third act seem drawn by lot.
In a different setting, all the talk of Beatrice’s “virtue” in Benedick’s monologue might have been moving, even persuasive in proving his interest in her were more than passing lust. In Whedon’s account, though, he’s already had her, and so any “virtue” she yet possesses seems pure fantasy. She’s sharp-tongued and quick-witted, which is great and all, but all that might be lost after a swift hoof to the head following a fall from a horse. Shakespeare, on the other hand, makes Beatrice’s virtue and high standard for male companionship a kind of challenge to the long-unengaged Benedick, who might “settle” for the woman, but only after some unspoken realization she, too, is settling for him. At its most enjoyable, I think Much Ado is a story about a man and a women just beyond their prime who aptly assess themselves.
Were we to read Whedon’s account of B and B as a reconciliation between jilted lovers, or an old married couple, the story is not much improved. Her complaints against him are typical of ignorance— he’s showy and braggy and all the sins which are most easily identifiable. She’s mildly shrewish and stuck up— again, obvious sins. I could have stomached Whedon’s version of the play as a grand reconciliation were the heroes twenty years older, and were their gripes against one another representative of more deeply reflective complaints. As it is, Amy Acker as Beatrice and the slightly older Alexis Denisof as Benedick are happy in their roles, but tinker with them very little. In the the older version, Kenneth Branagh has a sanguine look— a cheery, snappy, snide, trickster disposition— and he looks like a fun accompaniment to the local watering hole; he has always had a knack for pouring the extremes of his temperament into his roles, but plays a middling man very poorly (he was abysmal in Dead Again and entirely forgettable in My Week With Marilyn, but absolutely soared as Woody Allen in Celebrity). Denisof certainly tries to catch a bit of Branagh’s magic in the role here, although Whedon’s work has always been outside my interest, I have nothing invested in the fellow, and so Denisof seems here nothing more than the most interesting face at a merely somewhat interesting party. At best, the actors here will inspire interest in what has been done with these parts by more accomplished actors.
Of all the angles which could have been explored here, I wish the thin line between tragedy and comedy in romance had been further investigated, especially given that we live in the age of divorce. At the tender age of thirty-two, I have seen marriages walk this line and shakily land it clean on the other side, and I’ve seen missteps from which the tightrope walker did not recover. I don’t fault Whedon for reinventing the heroes as former lovers, but I was bored with how little he allowed that prior relationship to mean in the end. A more daring, fresh account of the story could have invented silent flashbacks to Benedict and Beatrice’s formerly happy life together, used the existent dialog as emblem of deep discontent, and circled back around to a mature reconciliation. Instead, the denouement is needlessly and undeservedly giddy.