Whedon’s ‘Much Ado’ Echos Movies’ Bard Obsession: Comment

Joss Whedon’s delightful updated black-and-white “Much Ado About Nothing” probably cost about as much as the budget for donuts on his “Avengers.” Which just goes to show: You don’t need big bucks to do right by the Bard.

Of the many hundreds of movies made from Shakespeare’s plays, the most successful have generally been those which hewed close to the text and the time.

Laurence Olivier’s Shakespeare films -- “Henry V,” “Hamlet,” and “Richard III” (the latter recently reissued on a great Criterion disc) -- are classics not simply because as director Olivier didn’t monkey around with the plays. They triumph because Olivier is at his peak as an actor (as he also was in “Othello,” a filmed transcription by Stuart Burge of his legendary stage performance).

For sheer cinematic audacity, there is nothing in the filmed Shakespeare canon to surpass Orson Welles’s “Othello” and his Falstaff pastiche “Chimes at Midnight.” (His “Macbeth,” where Welles plays the title character crowned with cut-rate headgear and sporting a near-incomprehensible Scottish brogue, was something else again).

Two Geniuses

Both were filmed piece-meal, whenever funds could be raised, and the sound quality is sometimes maddeningly out of sync. But Welles was able to match Shakespeare’s genius in a couple of sequences, notably the battle of Shrewsbury in “Chimes,” the greatest and most mournful of all war scenes.

What of the Shakespeare films that retain the language but put the plays through the time machine? I’m generally not a fan of newfangled concepts when it comes to the classics. They reek of gimmickry.

I’m still recovering from Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet,” starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Claire Danes, which updated the text to the Gen X world of Verona Beach, Florida and scored the soundtrack with groups like the Butthole Surfers. While I’m pretty certain Shakespeare would be writing for the movies, were he alive today, I doubt he would be writing for MTV.

Richard Loncraine’s aggressively oppressive “Richard III,” updated to the Art Deco 1930s, stars a chain-smoking, Hitlerish Ian McKellen in pencil-thin moustache and tailored uniforms with boar’s head insignia. He utters “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse” while sitting in his Jeep.

Al Pacino

Funkier and friendlier is Al Pacino’s “Looking For Richard,” a hang-loose documentary about a staging of “Richard III” (“A haws! A haws!”) and his quest for “the meaning of Shakespeare in our lives.”

Julie Taymor has offered up a few Bardic variations on a theme, most notably “Titus” (1999), featuring a shape-shifty time scheme and a brutish mud-splattered Anthony Hopkins as the Roman general. Less successful was her gender bending “Tempest” starring Helen Mirren in a thinnish performance as “Prospera.”

As “Tempest” reboots go, I much prefer the charming, neglected Gregory Peck Western “Yellow Sky,” or the sci-fi “Forbidden Planet,” with Robby the Robot subbing for Caliban. Derek Jarman’s campy “Tempest” has its art-house fans, as does Peter Greenaway’s “Prospero’s Books,” with John Gielgud in the title role speaking almost all of the dialogue while other actors oftentimes parade about in the nude.

Paul Mazursky’s uneven “Tempest” transformed Prospero, sans Shakespeare’s language, into a Manhattan architect (John Cassavetes) with a mid-life crisis.

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Ralph Fiennes made an impact last year with his updated “Coriolanus,” though I thought the TV news bulletins and the Iraq-Afghanistan parallels were more annoying than galvanizing. Still, this is the movie where Fiennes truly gets to play Voldemort.

Kenneth Branagh has taken several newfangled stabs at Shakespeare: His giddy, sun-splashed “Much Ado About Nothing,” set in a Tuscan villa and starring himself and Emma Thompson as the sparring lovers Benedick and Beatrice, makes a nice companion piece to Whedon’s film.

Branagh’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost” was a 1930s comic romp in the Busby Berkeley vein, although it was more berserkely than Berkeley.

I quite like Michael Almereyda’s “Hamlet,” set in modern-day Manhattan following the death of the CEO of the Denmark Corporation. Ethan Hawke’s grad student-ish Hamlet recites “To be or not to be” in the “Action” aisle at Blockbuster Video (remember Blockbuster Video?). It’s daring without being disrespectful.

The greatest Shakespeare movies that don’t actually reproduce the Bard’s language belong to Akira Kurosawa: The samurai “Throne of Blood” is his vehement visualization of “Macbeth,” with Toshiro Mifune being pierced with enough arrows in the finale to stock an archery range; and “Ran,” with Tatsuya Nakadai as the ferocious, discombobulated Lear-like warlord.

Welles once said, “No movie that will ever be made is worthy of being discussed in the same breath with Shakespeare.” But Welles himself, and Kurosawa, gave the lie to that.

(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own).

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