Full disclosure: I first saw the play when I was a wee thing, and it must have imprinted or something, because it’s still one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. I tend toward the comedies, which will surprise approximately none of you. ;-) That said, the play is problematic for a modern audience, and I have seen plenty of versions that I didn’t much like. The BBC “Shakespeare Retold” version, for instance, was not my cuppa.*
Joss Whedon’s version is delightful. It’s beautifully filmed, almost every shot adding layers to a tale that can be oversimplified. There is so much rich character stuff going on every second. There are little glances and gestures in unexpected places that suggest a whole back story of warm affection between Hero and her father Leonato, between Claudio and Don Pedro, between Dogberry and Verges, his shadow. The evil Don John (the bastard!) and his crew get lots of time to demonstrate their villainy in fun new ways.
Fran Kranz makes a fantastic Claudio, and had me rooting for him from the first shot. Tom Lenk is more brilliant than ever as Dogberry’s sycophant. That man is just incredible. ♥ Amy Acker is quite wonderful as Beatrice, as you might imagine, bringing a fragility to her “that I were a man” speech. Alexis Denisof didn’t make me see Benedick in a new light or anything, but jeez: it’s Benedick! How could he go wrong? He doesn’t, of course, and his was a solid performance all around, with lovely comedic touches. Hero is always a bit of a cipher, and that’s somewhat true here, but as I said, the unspoken business brings interesting nuance to many characters, including hers.
MiAmor noted that it’s great to see old friends looking so well and doing great work. I think that our attachment to these actors probably adds shading to the performances. We bring certain expectations of what Nathan Fillion, et al, will do, and he can either meet them or confound them, and either is a lot of fun. Apparently, Nathan didn’t have as much stage/Shakespeare experience as some of the other actors, and was very nervous about doing the project at all — until after he’d shot his first scene. Dogberry is a departure for him, and while I don’t know that he’s my favorite ever (that would be Michael Keaton), it’s great to see him go there, along with the whole Whedon posse. The whole undertaking raises the bar for home movies.
So, yes, the movie is a Good Thing, and you must all see it at the earliest opportunity if you have the slightest inclination in that direction.
But, it being the Film Festival, we had special guests! Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof introduced the film and did a Q&A afterward. *flail* So adorable, and not just Amy! In their intro, they called Joss on speakerphone — in a less successful variation on the scene from Cabin in the Woods — and slightly staticcy bon mots were exchanged. The Q&A was gorgeous, though. As many of you already know, the genesis of the film was the long-standing tradition of Shakespeare readings Chez Joss. Friends and family would gather, drink wine, skip the boring parts and just read through whichever play seemed like fun that day. Apparently, they steer away from the histories. “Sorry, Bard,” said Alexis. In the lull following the wrap of "that other art house film" The Avengers, Joss’ wife, co-producer Kai Cole, suggested that they skip a family trip to Italy to instead make a movie.
Alexis said that the first he heard of the “official” project, was when Joss called him from the airport and asked if he could stop by to “talk about something”. Alexis says he knew it had to be bad, if Joss had to deliver the news in person. “Aly, I think I’ve been cut from The Avengers,” he said. Heh. (He verified that it was indeed him in all those prosthetics in the middle of the film.) Instead, Joss asked if he’d be interested (duh!) and said to start learning his lines because it was going to happen soon. Alexis says that he didn’t bother, but the “soon” part was absolutely true. Amy said nobody had time to panic, that way.
The whole thing was filmed in 2-1/2 weeks at Joss’ house. According to the actors, there would be a scene shooting in one place, while performers read lines and worked out rudimentary blocking in another place. According to them, the Whedon-Coles just left the door unlocked in the run-up to filming so that participants could drop in and rehearse their scenes.
All the costumes were from the actors’ existing wardrobes, although Amy said that costume designer Shawna Tripic dropped by to go through her closet and pick the outfits and accessories she thought would work best. “Lucky you,” said Alexis, who thinks he wore the same suit through the whole thing. (I seem to remember a few changes, though, so he might be misremembering.) I’m not sure how much set dressing went on, but the house really does act as another character. Sometimes the result is hilarious, but I’ll not spoil anybody for the visual jokes on display.
There’s lots of drinking going on in the course of the film, which makes sense as a lot of it takes place during parties, dinners, weddings, and wakes. Also, as Amy said, “Certain scenes make a lot more sense when the characters are drunk.” So true. Amy fessed up that all of the wine and spirits depicted are colored water, but Alexis said that most of the real drinking went on after wrap and before morning call. A slumber party was implied. Alexis said, “I’m making it sound like total debauchery. It was…slight debauchery.” \o/ Oh, and he recommends that you never invite drunk people to your film shoot.
The final point Alexis wanted to make is that the film is a successful combination of the immediacy and freshness of live theatre with the precision and potential of film. I’ve got to agree.
* Conversely, the BBC Shakespeare Retold version of Taming of the Shrew is one of my favorite things ever. Ev. Er.
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