Much Ado About Nothing (2013)

Much Ado About Nothing

Directed by Joss Whedon, US, 2013

“Shall quips and sentences and these paper bullets of the brain awe a man from the career of his humor? No! The world must be peopled. When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married.”

– William Shakespeare, from “Much Ado About Nothing,” Act II, Scene III

When most people think of romance in Shakespeare, they think of “Romeo and Juliet.”  Enough ink has been spilled over the years arguing that the best example of real romance in the Bard’s work is instead in the comedy “Much Ado About Nothing.”  Indeed, thousands of college essays have been written that point out that the romance between Claudio and Hero in Much Ado is a send-up of Romeo and Juliet.  Of course, it is not Claudio and Hero, who mostly vehicles of plot and satire, that we remember from Much Ado, but rather Beatrice and Benedict.

The 1993 Kenneth Branagh version of the play is truer to Shakespeare’s vision, since it is set in the same time period as the play.  That does not make it a better film that Whedon’s version, however, especially since it is always easier to do Shakespeare as period-piece than set it in the present day. As 2000’s “Hamlet” (the one set in New York), 2001’s “O,” 1996’s Romeo + Juliet, and 1995’s Richard III demonstrate, this concept has had decidedly mixed results.

Much Ado’s snappy dialogue, however, lends itself better to a modern setting than the aforementioned tragedies and history plays.  It helps when the newer version is directed by the modern king of snappy dialogue and ensemble casts – Joss Whedon.

After remembering that it takes a scene or two for the mind to adjust to Shakespeare’s English, I thoroughly enjoyed Whedon’s adaptation.  Amy Acker and Alexis Denisoff are great as Beatrice and Benedict, a younger casting for the duo than the Branagh version which is probably more attuned with what Shakespeare had in mind (you can’t really ask him, he’s been dead for almost 400 years).

You might like Much Ado About Nothing if: You like the original play, the 1993 Kenneth Branagh adaptation, or romantic comedies in general.

You might not like Much Ado About Nothing if: You don’t like Shakespeare, but even if you don’t, you might still want to give this one a chance before leaving the Bard completely behind.

(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe

Ran (1985)

Ran

Directed by Akira Kurosawa (1985, Japan/France)

“You spilled measureless blood.  You showed no mercy, no pity.  We too are children of this age, weaned on strife and chaos.  We are YOUR sons, yet you count on our fidelity?  In my eyes that makes you a fool – a senile, old fool!”

King Lear, one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, is many things, but uplifting it is not.  Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of King Lear, “Ran,” is even darker, and like all great adaptations, shaped by its author to fit his vision of the story.

King Lear itself is an adaptation of a simpler medieval romance.  The complexity and depth of the story are Shakespeare’s innovations.  The ending is especially ahead of its time, as showing the dead Cordelia in her father’s arms, ending any chance of a true reconciliation between the two, was considered too intense for audiences for over a century after the original production.

Kurosawa adapts King Lear to make it fit into his world of pre-Edo Period Japan.  The most obvious change is that Lear’s three daughters are replaced by Hidetora’s (Tatsuya Nakadai) three sons. Unlike Lear, who has become old and foolish but by all accounts is treated by Shakespeare as a just ruler, Hidetora sits on a throne built upon a legacy of bloodshed and chaos.  For instance, his two married sons, Taro (Akira Terao) and Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), have wives who’s fathers were conquered, and murdered, by Hidetora.

While Hidetora is far more deserving of his predicament than Lear, the audience still feels the same pity for him.  While we hear stories about past conquest and bloodshed, providing a deeper motivation to the surrounding characters than exists in King Lear, we are presented with a frail, old man who simply wants to pass his life’s work on to his offspring.  His loyal son, Saburo (Daisuke Ryu) tries in vain to stop his father, and is rewarded for his insight with banishment.  Taro and Jiro, in turn, squander what their father has built.

This is where the complexity lies in Ran – are we to pity Hidetora, or view the destruction of his kingdom as a deserved outcome?  After all, the horrors that he unleashed to build that kingdom are not treated lightly by Kurosawa.  It is hard to say, as there is no simple justice or simple tragedy in Ran, there is only a cycle of violence and retribution, of men trying to seize power only to ultimately lose it.  At least the people in Lear’s world have Albany and Edgar to guide them after the downfall, for the world of Ran there is no such hope.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe