On the Edge of Slander

Much Ado About Nothing

a film directed by Joss Whedon
Elsa Guillet-Chapuis/Roadside Attractions
Amy Acker, right, as Beatrice in Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing

In a curious way the central figure in the splendid new film of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Avengers), is the house in which the events unfold. Not that the house—Whedon’s own—is particularly remarkable. It is a comfortable, sprawling Santa Monica McMansion, no doubt very expensive, with more than a touch of a suburb about it. But that is the point: we are not in faraway Sicily, where Shakespeare set the story, or in glorious, technicolor Tuscany, where Kenneth Branagh set his admirable film adaptation twenty years ago. We are rather on familiar ground, and, as if to conjure up the ordinary accoutrements of modern American upper-middle-class life, the camera dwells lovingly on the kitchen counter and the wine glasses and the piles of dishes and the stairs that lead up to the pleasant patio and, discreetly hidden, the video screens scanned by the bumbling employees of a security company—Whedon’s clever incarnation of Messina’s night watchmen.

All of this familiarity makes the circumstances that set the story in motion in Shakespeare and in his sources seem particularly discordant and weird. They were strange enough to begin with. Shakespeare followed his principal source, a story by the Italian monk Matteo Bandello, in having a Spanish army commander, Prince Don Pedro of Aragon, and several of his officers arrive in Messina, in the wake of a successful military campaign, for a month’s stay as the guests of the town’s governor, Leonato. The awkwardness such a stay would inevitably entail is heightened by the fact that Don Pedro brings with him his disgraced bastard brother, Don John, who is under a kind of uneasy house arrest. The situation calls for an elaborate exercise of courtesy: everyone knows that there is no choice about the visit, but everyone has to behave as if they were witnessing an act of unconstrained hospitality.

Here the resolute conventionality of Whedon’s setting—all those furnishings that seem straight out of the Crate and Barrel and Restoration Hardware catalogs—is oddly effective, constantly playing off against the underlying uneasiness and ambiguity of the occasion. In a recent book, Shakespeare’s Restless World,1 Neil MacGregor, who earlier wrote the best-selling History of the World in 100 Objects, chooses twenty objects with which to convey the ideas and assumptions that Londoners in the 1590s and 1600s brought with them when they went to see Shakespeare’s plays. Many of MacGregor’s objects are highly class-specific—a slender brass-handled fork that a gentleman (with the initials “A.N.”) carelessly dropped at the Rose Theatre some four hundred years ago, an extremely fancy Venetian drinking goblet, an apprentice’s flat cap, and so forth. There is little room for confusion. An aristocrat wouldn’t have been caught dead in the apprentice’s cap, and the apprentice wouldn’t have known…

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