Back in 2011, I compiled a Top 5 List of my favorite modern black-and-white films. This post was inspired by my viewing of The Good German during my Soderbergh marathon. While that movie didn’t make the cut, it had a distinctive look of a classic like Casablanca. That’s one way to approach using black and white, but it’s hardly the only option. Setting up that list gave me the idea to do a marathon of recent examples of this stylistic choice. Two years later, I’m finally taking the plunge. It helps to have exciting possibilities, including several from 2013. My first selection is Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, which ranked among my most anticipated films of this year. This Shakespeare adaptation brings together many familiar faces to Whedon’s film and TV world. I’m a huge fan of his work, especially Firefly and Buffy, so the chances of me disliking this movie were very low. Did I set myself up for a disappointment? Crazier things have happened, but this seems like an unlikely proposition.
What's this story about?
Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedict (Alexis Denisof) really don’t like each other, and their conflict goes back to a one-night stand that did not end well. They reunite at the home of Messina’s governor Leonato (Clark Gregg), who welcomes Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) to his gorgeous mansion after victory at war. The loser was his brother Don John (Sean Maher), who waits for his chance to strike back. His opportunity appears when Claudio (Fran Kranz) falls for Leonato’s daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese) and wants to marry her. Meanwhile, the house guests hope to trick Beatrice and Benedict to fall in love once again.
How does the black-and-white cinematography serve the film?
The choice to present this adaptation in black and white is excellent and connects perfectly with the gorgeous setting. Although it’s been translated to the modern world, the story feels timeless and works better with this style. This is especially true during the party, where acrobatic dancers twirl high above the ground while beautiful music plays behind them. It’s these moments that stand out even more than the dialogue, and the striking look makes them work. We’re drawn into this universe, which seems apart from our daily life because the colors don’t match our own.
Does this style feel modern or like more of a throwback?
The dialogue obviously brings a tone that’s much different than a modern setting. Even so, the issues don’t seem too far away from our current age. When Beatrice gives the powerful “if I were a man” speech, the cynical rage connects to the frustrations of 2013. Unlike the traditional jealousy of Claudio, she cares little for the expectations of romance. It’s only another lone wolf like Benedict that could really draw her attention. Whedon’s laid-back score and the vocals from Maurissa Tancharoen add to this blend of classic and modern styles. There’s a sexy atmosphere that meshes effectively with this approach. These characters are alive and aren’t delivering Shakespeare’s words with limited feeling.
How interesting are the characters within this setting?
It’s a delight to have so many familiar faces from Whedon’s universe within a single film. Nathan Fillion doesn’t arrive until the second hour, but he’s charming alongside the great Tom Lenk as the bumbling policemen. Sean Maher is cast against type as the villain and shows the nastiness of that character. Fran Kranz dials back his quirks to play the straight man. It’s wonderful to see Alexis Denisof get a lead role, and his silly attempts to woo Amy Acker work so well. She’s the standout performer and brings such anger and grace to Beatrice. She was a secret weapon on Dollhouse and continues to show her range in this prime role. Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond, and many others round out the cast and help to create a believable world.
What's the end result?
Whedon lets the characters breathe for a while before diving into the plot. This languid pace and Shakespeare’s language might lose some viewers. I’m the target audience as a Whedon fan and writer, so it’s no surprise that I enjoyed it. Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s most accessible tales, and his biting wit remains in this version. It’s a striking film that stands apart from much of the indies released this year. Whedon gets the chance to pull back from the blockbuster world, and the result is a joy to experience.
Next week, I'll join Greta Gerwig in Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha.