“Into hey nonny, nonny”: Much Ado About Nothing, Merry-Go-Round Comedy and Swirling Worlds in Kenneth Branagh’s and Joss Whedon’s Screen Versions

Par Anne-Marie Costantini-Cornède
Publication en ligne le 13 décembre 2018


Kenneth Branagh’s film (1993) and Joss Whedon’s (2012) are the two main big screen adaptations of Much Ado About Nothing. One of the main issues at stake in this paper is related to the question of genre or the difficulties in representing on screen a play deemed to be a “festive romantic comedy” by critics like Northrop Frye, Cesar L. Barber and Michael Edwards, but nonetheless featuring many ambivalences or oscillations from the sheer comic to more serious, sombre, if not semi tragic mode. As Edwards explains, Shakespeare’s “comedies of wonder” are basically structured according to a symphonic pattern — first, the allegro movement illustrating the mood of mirth or the merry, as related to the courteous comedy of wit or merry war of words; the second introducing chaos and illustrating the sombre vein (Don John’s plots and malevolent calumnies); and the third representing the miraculous return to mirth and the full restoration of the moral order eventually leading to a happy ending. Modern cinematic means and, in Branagh’s version, explicit borrowings from Hollywood codes and conventions (30s’ screwball comedies, slapstick and comic gags) perfectly fit this pattern and prove particularly effective for transposing the essential spirit of the festive comedy. A comparative approach will allow us to analyse the different stances in terms of narrative construction (or deconstruction), verbal-visual shifts, displacements or extrapolative flashbacks, contextualisation effects and aesthetic strategies in terms of mise en scène (play-acting, frame compositions) and cinematography (camera angles, viewpoints or movements, light, sound, montage). This comparative approach will also allow us to highlight different aesthetic approaches, from a semi realist, semi filmic interpretive mode for the first to a more distanced and post-modern stance often verging on film noir genre for the second. Finally, addressing narrative, thematic and aesthetic issues may enable us to assess which version is most effective in terms of the successful adjustment to Shakespearean comic tropes and patterns as well as cinematic achievements.

Cette étude sur les deux principales adaptations de Much Ado About Nothing pour le grand écran, celle de Kenneth Branagh (1993) et celle de Joss Whedon (2012) vise à cerner certains des enjeux narratifs, idéologiques et esthétiques opératoires dans le processus d’adaptation. La première question est celle du genre et de la difficulté inhérente à l’adaptation de ce (sous)-genre spécifique qu’est la comédie romantique festive telle que définie par les critiques Northrop Frye, Cesar L. Barber ou Michael Edwards, lequel, quant à lui, voit ce qu’il nomme la « comédie de l’émerveillement » comme essentiellement structurée sur un mode symphonique en trois temps ou trois tempos, le premier, traduisant le mode de l’allégresse ou de la gaîté (mirth, merry), le second illustrant la rupture de l’harmonie, l’irruption du chaos et l’introduction de la veine sombre (la fiancée calomniée par les complots de Don John) et le troisième marquant le retour inopiné de l’allégresse par un événement impromptu, miraculeux, menant à l’heureux dénouement final. Nous tenterons de montrer en quoi l’utilisation des codes hollywoodiens, les multiples références et emprunts aux « screwball comedies » ou comédies sophistiquées des années 30 ou à la tradition du Slapstick (burlesque, farce), chez Branagh notamment, sont à même de permettre la pleine restitution de l’humeur joyeuse et se conforme parfaitement à ce schéma tripartite. Une approche contrastive nous permettra de mettre en évidence les effets (ou manières) de mise en contexte, les choix en matière de construction narrative ou de déconstruction − déplacements, flashbacks et extrapolations (Whedon) et de discuter les choix esthétiques ici radicalement différents en terme de mise en scène et de cinématographie, la première adaptation relevant d’un mode semi réaliste, semi poétique, alors que la seconde, plus distanciée, emprunte aux codes post modernes et au genre du film noir. En définitive, laquelle de ces versions traduit au mieux les tropes de la comédie festive y compris dans ses oscillations, et peut-on aller jusqu’à risquer une évaluation, voire une distinction entrele plus spécifiquement ‘shakespearien’ et le plus cinématique ?


Texte intégral

1As it stands, Shakespeare’s comedies have been less popular on screen than on stage, making film directors apprehensive, if not reluctant, to undertake them, if only because they are regarded as verbally sophisticated. Indeed, as Michael Hattaway remarks, compared with screen versions of tragedies and histories, there are but few distinguished films based on comedies, which may be due, the writer argues, to their specific “sexual politics and toughness of analysis”1 not really allowing them to appeal to mass audiences. As examples of successful twentieth-century films, however, he first mentions Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle’s A Midsummer Night’sDream (1935), a cine poem “acclaimed for its pioneering cinematography.”2 Among films enjoying both popularity and substantive box office success, there is Franco Zeffirelli’s petulant The Taming of the Shrew (1967), which owed its success also to the presence of the celebrity duo Elisabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. One could also mention the lush Romeo and Juliet made later in 1968, Michael Radford’s Merchant of Venice (2004), and, before this one, Kenneth Branagh’s pioneering and cinematic Much Ado About Nothing (1993), its success due to “cameo performances of photogenic stars, high spirits and picturesque settings.”3 These films have indeed been not only universally praised by both high-brow and popular, and sometimes very young, audiences, but have also contributed to make Shakespeare cinema itself recognised as an art per se. Much Ado’s first, prominent big screen adaptation was particularly welcome by both Shakespeare specialists and cinema critics for its light, joyful atmosphere, proper to render the mood of mirth pervading the play, and its specifically cinematic and dynamic action, equally distributed between colourful outdoor sequences set in the sunny Tuscan vineyards landscapes and more intimate, indoor sequences set in the magnificent Villa Vignamaggio proudly standing amidst lush gardens. Joss Whedon, about two decades later, also opted for a filmic, poetic interpretive mode, but he chose a sober, refined monochrome stance, proper to enhance a nostalgic mood. Besides, the generally slow rhythm and the pauses regularly interspersing the film narrative tend to create a distancing effect.

2But first, what is a Shakespearean romantic comedy? Northrop Frye was one of the first prominent critics who, in 1986, attempted to capture some of its inner mechanisms, arguing that comedies like A Midsummer Night’s Dream were inherently festive, their comic vein essentially hinging on green world tropes. Even if appearing more complex than Roman comedies, they basically follow the “standard New [Greek] Comedy structure”4 (Plautus’s or Terence’s comedies rather than Aristophanes’s) in that they would usually set up a situation which is “the opposite to the one that the audience would recognise as the ‘right’ one.”5 A typical example would be a plot opening on a happy perspective like a prospective marriage. An unexpected obstacle would then arise, only to be overcome, and then the action would proceed towards the final, happy resolution.Indeed, Much AdoAbout Nothing follows this pattern.The Claudio/Hero primary plot, mainly borrowed from the 5thCanto of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1532) and Matteo Bandello’s twenty-second Novella (1554), firstbegins with joy, the men’s return from war and the happy prospect of a wedding. Yetthis is then abruptly jeopardised by calumny, instigated by the bastard Don John, malevolent and melancholy, and then the wedding is deferred. AsMargaret Jones Davies remarks,the theme of calumny jettisoning the reputation and life of a maid is not new. It had been circulating for long: one may find a story about a calumniated fiancée in a Greek novel as early as the 1st or 2nd century AD.6 In a general pattern of duplication and mirror effects, the Claudio/Hero plot is paralleled throughout with the comical sub-plot of the mature, cynical lovers Beatrice and Benedick and their bittersweet love story.

3Edwards, expanding on Frye’s ideas, coins the concept of Shakespeare’s ‘comedy of wonder’ unfolding according to a symphonic mode or following a three-movement or three-tempo rhythm. A Shakespearean comedy, he argues, first opens with the mood of mirth or merriness, with the expectation of a happy event andin a general atmosphere of light-heartedness, if not vain frivolousness.7 The mood then gets abruptly darkened by some unexpected event which entails the whole world crumbling into chaos and moral disorder (Don John’s malevolent plot), which makes it verge on the problem play or even turn into the very comedy of evil (“la comédie du mal”).8 The oxymoronic expression is fit to conjure up the sombre, semi-tragic vein prevailing in this second movement. The third and last movement sees the return of mirth and moral order thanks to a surprising and providential event which ultimately makes the comedy a world of ‘wonder’. As the story unfolds, the true essence of comedy rests upon this three-fold musical rhythm. This means the movement from innocence, through fall, to rejuvenation. The shift from a previous predicament and thorny situation (when virtually no man was his own) to the full restoration of social order and moral self represents a real miracle indeed. Rhythm, or impetus, then plays an essential part in the building up of the comic mood. And so it is, or has to be, for our films. On the screen, the festive mood will be made all the more powerful as the cinematic mise en scène and language specificities allow various (visual, aural and textual) effects to operate simultaneously. The oscillation from the merry to the sombre and back to joy again, and the recurrent pattern enhancing what Edward calls the vis comica at work, is made particularly relevant by these various visual and aural techniques. The range of possibilities offered by stage mise en scène combined with the specific assets of cinematography (tight framings or the multiple perspectives offered by camera angles, viewpoints and movements, shots and reverse shots, or alternating editing) enable nuances or prismatic visions of the world and can channel Renaissance mannerist aesthetics. Even though my main focus will be on Branagh’s ground-breaking version, a comparative approach to a few passages will allow me to show to what extent both adaptations – equally faithful to text and equally representative of what Jack Jorgens calls the filmic, poetic or interpretive mode,9 oscillatingfrom the most festive mood to bittersweet ambivalence – may convey the nuancesof the Shakespeare romantic comedy. I will also argue that the symphonic pattern defined by Edwards as inherent to Shakespearean romantic comedy shows mostly in Branagh’s film where the Hollywood tropes are particularly suitable for depicting a festive mood.

4It is indeed not surprising that, after his first great cinematic success with Henry V (1989), Branagh, often seen as one of the most enthusiastic bard idolaters, should try his powers on Much Ado — a play where the complex twists and turns between tragedy and comedy almost make it akin to the problem plays. Here the director also wishes to pay a strong tribute to great Hollywood productions of the thirties. My point is that the film succeeds in operating the festive or symphonic transcription effectively because it resorts at length to Hollywood conventions like slapstick or the mechanisms of the screwball comedy.

5I will adopt a four-fold approach. First, I will consider the pictorial, narrative and contextualization effects as well as narrative shifts (displacements and flashbacks) in the openingsequences. Second, then I will analyse the three cinematic movements of comedy, the mood of the merry and the passage from farce and slapstick to sophisticated comedy. Third, I will dwell upon the visual mechanisms illustrating the intrusion of chaos. Finally, I will comment upon the return of the merry and the happy ending in the closure sequences.

I. Opening sequences: narrative displacements and pictorial effects

6Both Branagh’s and Whedon’s opening sequences start on a nostalgic note, providing us with oblique incipits and conspicuous narrative displacements, albeit of a different nature. The former opens with a poem-song: the words of Balthazar’s song musing on the uncertain lot of women (“Converting all your sounds of woe, /Into hey nonny, nonny!” [II.3.66-67]). The words are fully visualised on the screen in white letters on an all-black background. At the same time, the lines are spoken softly in voiceover by the “wise, compassionate, knowing”10 voice of Beatrice, or rather half-recited, half-sung to the light, nostalgic tune by Patrick Doyle, who also plays the role of Balthazar. This sequence takes place before the actual play begins, even preceding the credits, indicating that the poem-song will serve as an (extra or intra)-diegetic guideline and a pivotal point for the whole film narrative, as indeed it will be heard no less than four times in the film. Here the three-fold (visual, aural and textual) mode, which allows the text itself to be used as visual material, consists in a distancing device as it plays on resonances between various modes of representation, the stage-like and the filmic. The displacement also signals the meta-artistic framing device marking the full difference between film and play and the beginning of the director’s personal re-creation. This deliberate, “determined attempt to show how the words could be dramatic in themselves”11 represents the first of the elegant, meta-artistic arabesques with which the film, for all its narrative clarity, is interspersed. The text is turned into visual and conceptual material, and thus seen from a distancing stance. Peter Greenaway used the same kind of technique at length in Prospero’s Books, released only two years before, although he did so in a more elaborate, intricate way.12

7The conceptual stance will then develop in the next shots as the director resorts to what could be called a mixed, pictorial-realistic mode. Indeed, instead of fully entering the action from the outset and directly unveiling the real landscape, as Zeffirelli does in Romeo and Juliet when he shows a lively, animated daily Verona in the incipit, Branagh deliberately departs from the strictly realistic mode to remain on a meta-generic level, in-between the pictorial and the filmic: we are not shown the real scene and landscape, but rather an indirect representation in the shape of a painting of the lush, colourful Tuscan scenery. As the painting is gradually superseded on the screen by a right-to-left wipe or push-over effect, it slowly gives way to the real landscape, revealing the view of a straw-hatted Leonato (Richard Briers), the leisurely, happy painter of the scene. Only then are we allowed to discover the beautiful 14th century Villa Vignamaggio, where Mona Lisa is said to have lived.13


Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing opening sequence: A right-left wipe or a meta-artistic transition (DVD)

©1993 Renaissance Films PLC and the Samuel Goldwyn Company

8The combined pictorial and cinematic effects first create a form of distancing romanticism, recalling the opening sequence of Olivier’s Henry V, in particular the long pan shot on London before the camera is made to plunge into the Globe theatre − and into the action as it were. The wipe or painting-within-the-film effect, by deliberately underlining the artificiality of creation (painting and film alike), represents yet another meta-artistic hint anda mise en abyme of artistic creation and, as it partakes of the introductory framing device, it implicitly draws the audience’s attention to the screen adaptation as a personal creation. Many film directors use such conceptual meta-artistic devices in their incipits to mark their personal stances. By doing so, they create a contradictory effect, contextualising the action and creating an alienating effect at the same time. Pictorialism-within-film conveys abstraction, as André Bazin explains in What is Cinema:

The picture frame polarizes space inwards. On the contrary, what the screen shows us seems to be part of something prolonged indefinitely into the universe. A frame is centripetal, the screen centrifugal. […] Without losing its other characteristics the painting thus takes on the spatial properties of cinema and becomes part of that “picturable” world that lies beyond it on all sides.14

9Showing a painting rather than the real Messina does conjure up a ‘picturable’ world. It is not only a departure from a mere willing suspension of verisimilitude, which, according to Jack Jorgens,15 features the realistic mode prevalent in Shakespeare films in the 60s-70s, but also a departure from the theatrical mode used previously. This is a conspicuous conceptual stance for a director often criticised, if not despised, by cinema specialists, for a deliberate, relentless commitment to “clarity” and “simplicity”16, and for his desire to make his films accessible to popular audiences as well as high-brow ones. As we finally enter the diegesis, the pictorial-filmic resonances continue with a still-life reminiscent of a Breughel painting or Renoir’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe. The Messina characters are seen enjoying a spontaneous, joyful outdoor party, laughing, chatting and eating in a cornucopia-like, Bacchanalian scene, their bodies and naked flesh unashamedly exposed to the sun. This contributes to constructing the Eden-like, festive atmosphere partaking of the green world of comedy and introducing in one big sweep lush Tuscany Messina (chosen rather than Sicily Messina for reasons of better light) as well as the main characters.17 The cast includes well-known Shakespearean stage actors like Richard Briers as Leonato, Brian Blessed as Antonio (he was Exeter in Branagh’s HenryV), and, perched in a tree and reading the poem,“sunburnt” Beatrice (II.1.282), enacted by a particularly sparkling Emma Thompson, whose performance was universally praised. As she is seen eating grapes, the image is also visually suggestive of ripeness and maturity. Among the Aragon characters will later appear famous American actors like Denzel Washington, perfectly at ease in the role of Don Pedro, the most reputed member of the establishment, together with his brother Don John (Keanu Reeves), his direct counterfoil. The latter’s obvious, stubborn sulkiness throughout the film is meant to represent a man “of a very melancholy disposition” (II.1.5).


“Sunburnt” and merry-hearted Beatrice (Emma Thompson) reading the poem-song in Arcadian Messina

©1993 Renaissance Films PLC and the Samuel Goldwyn Company

10Subsequently, with the dynamic arrival of the Aragon soldiers, we are introduced to the merry mood, and with it follows a string of Hollywood references. The mood of mirth or “accélération de l’être18 pervades the first part of the film; all is leisurely, refined mirth with a touch of aristocratic gallantry, in a Watteau-like green world. In François Laroque’s words, “[at] the beginning of the play the atmosphere of the fêtes galantes of Messina is conveyed mainly through verbal images that are full of seasonal echoes.”19 The mood of mirth is also linked to the central, oxymoronic image of the play, that of a merry war prevailing between sexes, as is evoked by Leonato from the outset: “You must not, Sir, mistake my niece. There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signor Benedick and her. They never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them” (I.1.50-52). For Branagh, this first means a representation built on cinematic movement and impetus. Besides, the best way for the director to pay a strong tribute to both his passions (Shakespeare and Hollywood) or to bridge time and gender (stage-screen) gaps effectively is to resortto explicit quotations or semi-parodies and thus achieve a seamless superimposition of the romantic and courteous comedy of wit themes with Hollywood sub-genres. This is also a way for him to find a balance between theatrical and rather static moments when, in keeping with stagecraft mise en scène requirements, the real time of enunciation has to be respected, and more cinematic ones bringing narrative energy. The first big finding in this respect is of course the long opening and credits sequence offering the spectacular entrance of the Aragon warriors openly modelled after John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven (1960), a filmic quote which has been pointed out many times.20 As the strong, aggressively male Aragon world − boisterous, fists raised and soldiers galloping wildly − is seen invading, or literally penetrating, the soft, feminine Messina in a joyful spirit of conquest, mirth – or ‘merriness’- is indeed linked with animated and cinematic movement. This succeeds in conjuring up joy, creating an effect of jubilant suspense or expectation and building up the allegro tempo pertaining to the first symphonic movement of the comedy.

11The scene is shot with a mix of real time and slow-motion techniques, or, Rothwell suggests, according to a “proto-symphonic score”.21 The Aragon entrance freely borrows from Hollywood codes and associates the warlike and the merry. This stands as a visual transposition of the play’s central oxymoronic image of a merry war of the sexes.

12The mood of mirth is further expounded in the rest of this long sequence as it shows both sides’ pre-encounters and feverish preparations at length. The steadicam is used throughout,22 pursuing the women hysterically fluttering about in their apartments and showing them fully involved in the rituals, bathing and getting clothed in light, long and white cotton dresses,23 or showing men jumping stark naked into pools of water amidst roars of laughter. The whole sequence is bathed in an atmosphere of sensuality, if not eroticism, as a particularly lecherous and voyeuristic camera catches patches of naked flesh here and there, men and women alike. The sequence concludes on a vertiginous high angle crane shot showing the two opposed words, Aragon and Messina, male and female, finally encountering and confronting each other (in V-formations). Such a spectacular cinematic illustration will recur in the closure sequence (in the third symphonic movement) to encompass a general view about rejuvenation and recovered happiness, and also as a way to mark the circularity of the narrative.


Frontal viewpoint on the solemn entrance of Aragon.

The Prince (Denzel Washington), Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) and Don John (Keanu Reeves)

©1993 Renaissance Films PLC and the Samuel Goldwyn Company


Extreme high-angle shot: two worlds encountering or the ‘merry war’ visualised

©1993 Renaissance Films PLC and the Samuel Goldwyn Company

13The joyful opening sequence, Russell Jackson remarks, offers “what is effectively a prologue in sights and sounds,”24 definitely responding to the construction of a merry atmosphere. To achieve direct narrative accessibility, the director first draws on impression de réalité effects or what Marc Vernet refers to as a system of the “plausible”. Such a system, often specific to a definite genre, is prone to give the fictive world its consistency and defines “possible worlds”:

The impression of reality is (also) based upon the coherence of the diegetic universe constructed by the fiction. The diegetic universe takes on the consistency of a possible world, because it is strongly supported by the system of the plausible and is organized so that every element of the fiction seems to respond to some organic necessity by appearing essential to the imagined reality. [The system of the plausible] recreates the appearance of a natural surfacing of events as well as the ‘spontaneity’ of reality […]. The surfacing of the real […] is actually an integral part of the fiction’s construction.25

14Here the whole opening sequence is constructed on the realistic stance as it draws on verisimilitude effects, but it also introduces conceptual hints (pictorial effects) and sheer cinematic or filmic poetry (the spectacular, western-like entrance). Branagh’s incipit (opening sequence and credits), one could say, is not wholly realistic, but it operates on a half-poetic, half-realistic stand. If it does propel the dynamics of animated movement, this does not disrupt narrative fluidity, but rather sustains clarity.

15Joss Whedon, on the other hand, enhances the sombre vein. The effect is heightened by the choice of monochrome cinematography throughout. The story opens on an extrapolative flashback recalling Beatrice and Benedick’s former love. The protagonists are enacted by Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof, the famous duo of the TV series Angel (1999-2004), directed by Whedon himself.The film narrative is set in a sombre and nostalgic perspective from the start. The narrative displacements operated by both directors in the opening sequences are of a different kind. Here the flashbacks show narrative soberness and restraint. One may notice the dubitative, half-sorry look of Benedick as he silently leaves the room and Beatrice’s equally silent response as she pretends to sleep, but fully understands she is being left. (We will see later whether such a radical displacement and extrapolation is plausible or questionable).

16In both versions, ‘periodising’ is different. Branagh sets the action in the past, whereas Whedon takes a modern stance and offers a set of contemporary social situations. He shows Leonato welcoming his wealthy guests in his magnificent, aristocratic house where social distinctions are clearly marked between the upper-class representatives (household and guests) and the maids dressed and behaving as maids despite the occasional glimpses of friendly complicity with their mistress. The mansion is all nooks, labyrinths and dark corners, a real spatial presence. As he already did for the The Avengers (2014), Whedon, here, resorts to sophisticated cinematography. The high photographic quality (operated by Jay Hunter) is remarkable for its poetic artistry and refined visual achievement. Action, especially in the first part, is mainly represented indoors and basically features casual chatting and drinking, but one may wonder whether this is merely a realistic stance or whether it also has a deeper significance. The film is interspersed with sheer aesthetic and stasis moments interrupting the narrative and conjuring up filmic poetry. During the ball, upper-class Governor of Messina Leonato (Clark Gregg) offers a show performed by acrobats, perfectly suited to aristocratic guests. The scene is shot by means of refined, extreme low angle shots. Another such aesthetic moment will occur later in Claudio’s gulling-swimming pool scene displaying soft, suspenseful hues. such filmic, dream-like poetry may verge on post-modern, distanced stances: the arrival in handcuffs of Don John (a very sober, convincing Sean Maher), or, at the end, the villain’s capture shown by way of (‘remediated by’) a mobile phone picture. The nostalgic ‘Sing no more tune’ score composed by the director himself and executed by his brother Jess also represents an artistic asset and a conspicuous achievement for a film made in only twelve days. Frame compositions reveal elaborate workings and fine cinematography. This is also illustrated by such images as the myriads of reflections or mirror effects on the car windows in the credits (a cine poem). The prismatic reflections on the household objects, glasses and bottles, caught by close ups or extreme close-ups, are visual effects which, here combined with the monochromatic choice, obliquely recall the dream-like or ‘strangeness’ effects characterizing the film noir. The genre was described by Deleuze as one creating the ‘atmospheric’ in a “privileged” or “distinctive milieu”: “The film noir describes the milieu, sets out situation, holds itself back in preparation for action.”26

17If both versions are on the whole cinematic, resorting to the filmic, poetic or interpretive mode (in Jorgens’s terms) rather than to the theatrical one, cinematic mise enscene and animated movement rather than theatrical stillness, the aesthetic approaches remain radically different. Branagh’s film relies on Hollywood action-film impetus to sustain action and respond to the dynamics of the play; Whedon’s draws on a darker, or more distanced vein. Therefore, one of the issues to be investigated is which of the films is the most effective in transposing the essential spirit of a festive romantic comedy and the genre tropes. The illustration of the play’s courteous comedy of wit will be particularly relevant to this extent. This leads us to our second sub-point concerning the first symphonic movement: what about the cinematic ‘merry war’ tropes?

II. Courteous comedy of wit in cinema

18The mood of mirth, which pervades the first part of the play, is not only represented by means of movement in Branagh’s film, but also by means of the full visualisation of the war of wit prevailing between “Lady Tongue” and “Signor Mountanto”. Indeed, in the play, the whole dramatic tension rests upon the central oxymoronic image of the “merry war” of the sexes, or else the merry war of wit and words linking the sub-plot protagonists throughout. The war is amply illustrated by multiple verbal images equating both protagonists, showing them as the very representatives of merriness. Beatrice “was born to speak all mirth, and no matter” (II.1.291-292). She is “a pleasant spirited lady” (II.1.301) or, the Prince asserts, endowed with “a merry heart” (II.1.276). Benedick is deemed to have a “jesting spirit” (III.2.50), “a good outward happiness” (II.3.167) and, “from the crown of his head to the sole of his foot he is all mirth” (III.2.7-8). Both protagonists fully acknowledge this vein in themselves. Beatrice asserts that she was born under a star that danced; Benedick, infuriated, wishes a distinction clearly to be made between joyful merriness and mere foolishness: “[T]he Prince’s fool! Ha, it may be I go under that title because I am merry” (II.1.179-180). Conspicuously, merriness is associated with both wit and bachelorhood. Bachelors are deemed to live “as merry as the day is long” (II.1.41-42) as they deny love or marriage. Such merriness leads to a merry, sophisticated “skirmish of wit” (I.1.52) between the two protagonists. This joyful verbal jousting lying at the core of the comedy of wit is transposed into encounters that tend to be static, particularly in Whedon’s film. Sometimes, as the director’s choice is to keep the full text, this even tends to slacken the action and general rhythm too much, thus producing a slow, stagy or theatrical effect. This may not entirely satisfy a cinema audience usually expecting action and animated movement. To be effective on the screen, such textual, mannerist sprezzatura must first remain sufficiently refined and ambiguous (the text made clear and accessible, but not too explicit) while being supported by a system of visual sprezzatura or tropes suggestive of nuances and ambivalence. So, provided these skirmishes of wit may be effectively played, which is the case with such famous, seasoned actors as Branagh and Thompson, the mood of the merry will be effectively rendered. The emphasis on the merry war of words, Rothwell remarks, will also have the effect to “privilege the play’s wit over the sentimentality”27, or in other terms to displace the focus on the mature pair’s cynical exchanges. Many critics have noticed that precisely due to this verbal jousting and merry war, the Benedick-Beatrice comic sub-plot has been more popular on stage than the more sentimental and serious primary plot and this from the very start — for instance, as Jones-Davies remarks, with the 1608 Blackfriars production, or as shown by the very title of the play Benedicteand Betteris performed in 1613 before the Court for the royal wedding festivities of Princess Elizabeth.28 From then on, it has been systematically placed in the foreground.

19Branagh’s film, precisely because it hinges on such explicit Hollywood codes, tends to re-establish some balance between the two plots. The courteous comedy of wit is here directly paralleled with the 1930s-1940s screwball comedy, a Hollywood film sub-genre, very popular in the Great Depression, then enduring with such directors as Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder (Some Like it Hot), Ernst Lubitsch (The Lady Eve)or Preston Sturges (It happened Friday).29 It could be defined as a kind of humorous battle of the sexes, a soft dominant-dominating relationship with a slight advantage for the woman, (often of the ‘possessed-with-a-fury’ kind), a film interspersed with farcical situations, wit, fast-pace repartees and also generally escapist themes. The screwball comedy portrays a kind of paradoxical couple forever seen quarrelling or squabbling, who seems utterly mismatched at first sight, but whom the spectator senses from the start as perfectly matched deep down, twin souls ultimately bound to get married, in true Hollywood happy-ending style.30 The genre is often associated with slapstick, romantic or situation comedy or bedroom farce.

20That Hollywood sophisticated screwball comedy should be considered as the modern, immediate equivalent of the Renaissance sophisticated courteous comedy of wit is no surprise. The analogy is all too obvious. The play’s sub-plot expands on the merry war of words between “Lady Disdain” and “Signor Mountanto”. Beatrice’s name for Benedick refers to a fencing-term meaning ‘upward thrust’ — a term which obviously has bawdy overtones as well as martial ones; thus, this double entendre literally and essentially conflates the ‘merry war’ oxymoron into one word. C. L. Barberalso detects resemblances to contemporary rituals:

[T]he flyting match of Benedict and Beatrice, while appropriate to their special characters, suggests the customs of Easter Smacks and Hocktide abuse between the sexes. Much of the poetry and wit, however it may be occasioned by events, works in the economy of the whole play to promote the effect of a merry occasion where Nature reigns.31

21Here indeed, Beatrice and Benedick, seemingly twin souls in immoral cynicism, share the same denial of the naked truth deep down, in fact a passion and true longing for love. Their commitment to bachelorhood is but a façade, one to be softly ridiculed as a minor flaw rather than serious hubristic pride or prejudice. The analogy with the screwball sub-genre is striking in Whedon’s film too, notwithstanding Whedon’s distanced refinement, precisely because this kind of comedy belongs to a recognised film genre. The critics have pointed out at length the numerous allusions to Hollywood sub-genres in Branagh’s films (here the screwball comedy or the musical). Lynda Boose and Richard Burt’s article conspicuously entitled “Totally clueless? Shakespeare goes Hollywood in the 90s”, also points to the “metacinematic discourse of self reference”32 always present in any film comedies. Samuel Crowl comments on explicit references to Hollywood and “popular romantic comedies” such as Some Like it Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959), or of course Singing in the rain for the fountain-splashing scene33; Russell Jackson speaks of the “mores of the Screwball Comedy [which] clearly has a bearing on the presentation of Much Ado About Nothing for the cinema”. The writer further argues that the “collision of ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ worlds may resemble some modern preoccupations enough to make Benedick seem like ‘a new man’”.34 Crowl offers a stimulating explorationof Stanley Cavell’s analysis of the comedy of remarriage, particularly in his Pursuit of Happiness: the Comedy of Remarriage. Since originally Cavell did not include Much Ado as a possible example of festive comedies among the likes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It, Crowl argues that our play does relate to such a theme as remarriage, because the sub-plot allows for the emergence and full reconstruction of once past romantic relations, which, therefore, literally represent a remarriage or renaissance.35 The comedies analysed by Cavell often deal with egalitarian themes, Crowl also remarks, as they exemplify a typical female self-assertion and independence of mind. Incidentally, one could also say, this is also proper to the 20s ‘screwball mood’ at a time when suffragettes were fighting for their civic rights.

22In the first movement building up the mood of the merry, the third main Hollywood element is slapstick — straightforward, exaggerated physical comedy borrowing from farce in 16th-century commedia dell’ arte or Punch and Judy shows, and proper to the burlesque genre. The word slapstick itself comes from the Italian word batacchio or bataccio (the term “slap-stick” is the literal translation), which means a club-like object composed of two wooden slats and used by one character to strike another during the show. When struck, the batacchio produced a loud smacking noise. Little force being transferred from the object to the person being struck, it did not harm the actor, but would merely amuse the audience. Slapstick comedy also relies on the use of physical gags, often repeated. One can think of the great burlesque films of Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin for instance, the latter, Bazin comments, needing the medium of cinema “to free comedy completely from the limits of space and time imposed by the stage or the circus arena.”36


A slap stick in 16th century Commedia dell’ Arte shows

© https://en-wikipedia.org/wiki/Slapstick


Punch and Judy advertisement, London (1910): Punch with his slapstick

© https://en-wikipedia.org/wiki/Slapstick

23According to Jacqueline Nacache, the visual gag, an essential figure of comedy, represents a disruption of the normal filmic discourse and a way to introduce a kind of comic suspense or comic disorder.37 Incidentally, the author also speaks of a “science of rhythm” in Hollywood productions, which perfectly suits Branagh’s film38. This also correlates with Gilles Deleuze’s views on the logic of exacerbated dynamism and impetus prevailing in the “movement-image” or “action-image” cinema particularly inferred by camera mobility and typical of 40s or 50s Hollywood war or action films:

The action-image inspires a cinema of behaviour (behaviourism). […] [O]n the one hand the situation must permeate the character deeply and continuously, and on the other hand the character who is thus permeated must burst into action, at discontinuous intervals.39

24Burlesque or farcical effects are employed in both films. In Branagh’s it is not in a very sophisticated way, but rather in a deliberately hyperbolic and all too obvious way, as if by means of some bombastic or deflated comic (visual) effect. Hence in the second gulling scene (II.3), the benevolent love-trapping of Benedick and Beatrice, Benedick is seen struggling to unfold a deck-chair. He falls on his back with a noise as he overhears the comic liars’ fake news, and later he imitates the raucous cry of the crow to conceal his presence in a grotesque way. The film is interspersed with references to the mythic Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn screwball duo, some acknowledged by the director himself.40 In the ‘bid to dinner’ scene, Benedick, sitting on the fountain edge, clearly imitates Grant, ridiculously fidgeting, posing and pulling faces as he is watching Beatrice approaching. When she addresses him in a most Shrew-like way (“Against my will I am sent to bid you come in to dinner”, II.3.222-223), the contradiction between her furious frown and his jubilant pondering (“There is a double meaning in that”, II.3.233) makes himeven more ridiculous. One may also think here of the typical showing-off of the commedia dell’ artebraggachio or braggart, a kind of Armado in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Both versions here adopt, and elaborate on, the farcical mode as they visually extrapolate on multiple hide-and-seek play-games, and gags, Benedick seen alternately appearing and disappearing behind bushes or, for Whedon, in the garden behind the dining room big French windows, Denisof (as Benedick) seen falling and crawling on the ground. Both deliberately and self-consciously resort to physical gags. Alexis Denisof is even seen practising gymnastics before Beatrice and literally showing off his muscles to her, and, for all the differences between the two films, one senses here a few inter-textual winks from Whedon to his predecessor Branagh. This is also meant to respond to the low comedy vein of the play and correlate with the sequences involving the clown-like guards. In Branagh’s film, Beatrice undergoes the same kind of initiatory ritual as Benedick as she falls victim to a stratagem coined in an exactly parallel way as the one prepared for her male counterpart.41 Both protagonists are thus dealt with in similar ways. In an outdoor sequence, Beatrice (still very much the untamed shrew) is seen hiding in the garden, alternatively appearing and disappearing behind bushes or statues, and finally showing the utmost surprise when overhearing the pretended truth told by the female love plotters Hero and Ursula. The sequence ends on a climactic merry-Hollywood moment and a real apotheosis of joy, in a perfect combination of Shakespearean (first-movement) mirth and Hollywood comedy. It evolves through a series of views of Benedick seen playfully wading in the fountain and splashing superimposed on views of Beatrice freely and exultantly swinging high up in the air. The two moments are interrelated by means of the alternating montage technique. This not only creates the effect of simultaneousness necessary to sustain narrative fluidity, but also results in once again placing the protagonists on a fully parallel and egalitarian visual stand.42 These swinging worlds, visual or baroque motifs now disrupting both the spatial and established moral order translate, more than love itself, the radical metamorphosis that both characters have undergone. As the images convey a sense of liberation and thus suggest relief, or literally comic relief, they duly signal self-liberation, the end of a fake, semi-hubristic self-denial and full acceptation of one’s human weaknesses. However, one may notice here a basic difference from screwball comedies where such sense of happy, comic relief would only come at the very end of the film, after an effect of narrative postponement or suspension (or comic suspense) sustained by means of multiple narrative peripeteia or plot’s twists and hazards. Beyond such plot meanderings, however, the comic denouement is always expected and not in the least surprising. But of course, neither director may avoid following the play’s plot or film’s narrative guideline. Whedon obliquely takes up the images of an all-swinging, swirling world already elaborated in the ball entertainment, displaying the acrobats’ masterly convolutions very high up into the air, camera below (here the spectator experiences ‘primary identification’ with the camera and feels dominated). But metaphorical implications diverge as, instead of imparting the meaning of spontaneous liberation and elemental happiness, the air image here rather conjures up a sense of pure artistic beauty and sophisticated refinement. Artifice and visual poetry prevail over direct, simple reality. This technique could be considered as an example of Whedon’s cinematic mannerism.

The visuals of happiness


Joss Whedon’s mannerist swirling worlds

© 2012 Messina, LLC


Air and water: elemental happiness superimposed

©1993 Renaissance Films PLC and the Samuel Goldwyn Company

25Slapstick also applies to the characterisation of the legal representatives and ‘shallow fools’; this as a direct visual equivalent to their malapropisms and verbal flaws. One of the difficulties of the representation of comedies, Hattaway contends, is precisely characterisation — the fact that comedy characters tend to be “typified” rather than “individuated.”43 It is always difficult to sustain the representation of clown-like characters like the watchmen or the comic pair Dogberry-Verges. Branagh was criticised for his systematically farcical and exaggerated choices. The grimacing, utterly lunatic Dogberry played by Michael Keaton and Ben Elton’s particularly dumb Verges, both seen grotesquely riding invisible horses, were unanimously regarded as rather unconvincing. One must indeed admit that their performances were definitely superseded by Whedon’s comic actors. Nathan Fillion, in particular, has often been praised for his restrained, subtle performance of Dogberry. But, if the risk is for comic representation to verge on caricature or fall into the mere ridiculous, such visual malapropisms as grimaces or odd gestures might also be deemed necessary to ‘let off steam’ or provide direct comic relief to the serious vein darkening the comedy and stifling the festive spirit especially in the second symphonic movement.

III. Moral disruption, or innocence calumniated

26To illustrate the serious mode of the second movement, Branagh indulges in a series of contrasts between Tuscan landscapes epitomising joyful Messina and the prison-like, dark recoiling nooks (almost caves) of Don John’s realm. Whedon, for his part, opts for indoors, relishing the confined spaces of a mansion placed under the surveillance of the constable and guards, legal servants to aristocratic masters. This second movement is subdivided into two, equally intense visual moments: the scene where Margaret impersonates Hero at the window and the ‘Kill Claudio’ scene, amply extrapolated in both films. It is all too logical that the gulling or (negative) third stratagem coined by the villain should be fully visualised. A cinema audience would expect to be shown even what is deemed hardly visible or remains uncertain in the play. Here, a few long shots, camera below, are appropriate to suggest rather than fully visualise the impersonation trick. As Crowl argues, the act of showing (and not simply telling) the malevolent, cunning trick, that Jones-Davies brilliantly calls “the illegitimate construction” (III.4.42), fully in keeping with a ‘bastard’s attitude, may make the audience actually understand Claudio and sympathize with him. This in turn gives depth to a character often fustigated for his immaturity, inconstancy, and his all too zealous readiness to take Hero’s guilt for granted. Direct visualization of Claudio’s (and Don Pedro’s) strong emotions by means of tight, intimate framings (extreme close-ups) in both versions allows a better understanding of Claudio. It also allows what Christian Metz calls the “secondary form of identification”44, a transformation from “all perceiving”45 spectator to character, which, in “a series of mirror effects”,46 will construct narrative truth. Such tight framings are necessary for plot clarification. They also produce such a secondary form of identification between spectator and character, which entails new meanings and guide the spectator along clear-cut lines of interpretation. This effect is more explicit than the play’s allusive verbal images. By extension, this fills out or gives depth to Claudio’s character, so oftenrestricted or flattened.



Making things clear: Margaret (Imelda Staunton) and Borachio (Gerard Horan) outlined in a very explicit moment of “talking”

©1993 Renaissance Films PLC and the Samuel Goldwyn Company


Joss Whedon’s gulling ‘window scene’

© 2012 Messina, LLC

27The scene also implicitly points to the arrogance and naivety of the Prince, who once pretended to be the gulling god of love, but is now the one being gulled, the biter being bit or ‘l’Arroseur arrosé’parexcellence. Thus, if this explicit visual effect partakes of the system of the plausible, it also helps counterbalance the issues and reassess the importance of the primary Hero/Claudio plot.


Tuscan harmony

©1993 Renaissance Films PLC and the Samuel Goldwyn Company


Californian dream

©2012 Messina, LLC

28In the failed wedding scene, Branagh opts for a naturalistic stance to illustrate the irruption of chaos. The sequence unfolds in extreme physicality with a series of loud shouts and strong physical violence. The sequence is balanced between two crudely violent moments, the duplicative pattern here again provides for a visual enhancing stance and expounds on the harsh cruelty of Claudio towards Hero. He is seen screaming and throwing her to the ground. Leonato, literally unbound, shows even fiercer violence. This is for the sake of popularization, clarity and accessibility again, but also to unveil the disrupting moral violence of a patriarchal world all too ready to condemn women without even questioning their real guilt. Both films indeed powerfully evoke the radical metamorphosis of Leonato from a rather mild, benevolent and protective father character at the start into a senex iratus, the ‘heavy father’ described by Frye:

The typical characters in such a story are the young man (adulescens), a heavy father (sometimes called senex iratus, because he often goes into terrible rages when he’s thwarted), and a ‘tricky slave’ (dolorus servus), who helps out the young man with some clever scheme.47

29Leonato is turned senex iratus indeed, with the immature Claudio in the role of the adulescens, even if this is somewhat softened by the visualizing and sympathy-propelling stance previously constructed. The role of the tricky slave or dolorus servus is allocated to both Borachio and Conrad, as well as the Dogberry-Verges pair, both couples distributed according to a parallel, diptych-like divide between the evil ones on the one side, and the good and faithful on the other.

30By contrast, in Whedon’s version, everything seems to operate effectively: for instance, Hero’s soft self-restraint and silent sobbing, the self-assured and dignified protest of the Prince (Reed Diamond), his insistence on the word “talk’ and the implacable “common stale” verdict, or Claudio’s violence subtly mixed with intense grief. There is an intensely dramatic moment in this overall pattern of duplication, the ‘Kill Claudio’ scene when Beatrice, enraged, demands that her slandered cousin’s honour be revenged (IV.1.284). This, in a way, represents an even deeper and more effective moral chaos than Don John’s plotting, and we may now understand fully the proleptic irony contained in the ‘Into hey nonny, nonny’ song poem. The scene shows a confused and divided — a kind of ‘two bodies’— protagonist: Benedick now seen torn between two contradictory senses of duty, one of revenge, which he owes to his newly won Beatrice, even if he senses her demand as somehow excessive and unfair, and the other the loyalty he owes to his friend and companion of old, all the more so as he suspects some kind of foul play and ensuing misinterpretation. The ‘Kill Claudio’ scenes are shot in very tight framings in both films, again by means of close-ups or extreme close-ups well selected to define a cinema of intimacy and to reveal the intensity of inner moral battles. The alternating montage technique, also grounded in a pattern of shots/reverse shots, serves the purpose of narrative clarity, but also the narrative balance and egalitarian theme again, as equal treatment is granted to both protagonists’ deep emotions.


Leonato (Richard Briers) as “senex iratus

©1993 Renaissance Films PLC and the Samuel Goldwyn Company


Benedick’s duty of revenge: Kenneth Branagh and Robert Sean Leonard

©1993 Renaissance Films PLC and the Samuel Goldwyn Company

IV. The third movement or return to order: moral restoration

To illustrate the restoration of moral order and trigger off the last symphonic movement, chance is the main element needed. Chance, Edwards argues, is part of the inherent vis comica, the ultimate force propelling the comedy forward towards the final wonder and comic denouement. The vis comica, the force that determines the comedy’s progress from mirth to mockery, or threat of evil and often of death, is chance, or fate, but a fate which is strangely mindful to provide for man’s well-being and disentangle good from evil.48

31The return of joy is here made possible partly thanks to reasoning, by means of the fourth and last stratagem or cunning trick coined by the wise Friar, but a great part is also left to that providential fate (or ‘heureux hasard’) Michael Edwards tells us about. There is reasoning indeed as the stratagem imagined by Friar Francis (Jimmy Yuill in Branagh’s version) is also one based on language and rumour, but this time it is positive rumour, as opposed to the slanderous calumnies imagined by the villains. This is the very last twist in this overall narrative progress or tragic-comic accretion from mere rumour to calumny back to rumour again. Hero’s sudden death, the wise Friar reckons, is bound to give rise to remorse in the culprits, thus conjuring up grace and a wish for redemption. And then, there is also sheer chance. That the foolish watchmen should unexpectedly overhear the details of the treacherous plot, hidden behind some intricate antique columns and decor (Branagh) or by means of cameras or a postmodern form of surveillance (Whedon) does indeed smack of the miraculous. This fully illustrates the pattern of duplication at work or the swirling oscillations between the serious mode and the comic, from the scene where the supposed ‘Hero’ is overheard behaving like a ‘common stale’ to the unexpected wonder of the watchmen’s discovery (dullness defeated). This is a radical reshuffling of fate or turning of the tables, as is underlined by Borachio himself: “What your wisdoms could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to light” (V.1.218-219). As he thus associates the opposed images (wisdom and fools, truths unrevealed and revealed) with the idea of the necessary pursuit of the truth and the final, eschatological resolution, this stands as a most high miracle or an “amazement to be qualified” (V.6.67) indeed. The truth appears as if magically conjured up in this ultimate twist of fate, signified by the baroque reversal, which turns fools into kings of the day, as in the most exuberant Carnival festive rituals.

32Does this mean that Shakespeare’s comedies exhibit something of a grotesque, baroque aesthetics, or is it cinema purely enhancing this stance? What is made clear via the cinematic medium is the basic opposition between sustained sense-confusion, the visual or ‘de-visioning’ trap or the making up of a false reality (Hero ‘talking’ with a man at her window), and what is here deliberately and plainly concealed (Hero’s face hidden under the white wedding veil) for the sake of truth.49 The prismatic hearing stratagems of the play have found here a visual equivalence. The ending from the second (remarriage) scene marks the comical climax in what Edwards calls the ‘comedy of wonder’, the phrase coined after the wise Friar’s own words: “Let wonder seem familiar” (V.6.70). This statement induces everyone around (and also the audience, in a meta-cinematic way) to accept this ultimate turn of the Wheel of Fortune as being perfectly ordinary.50 By extension, it underlines the bittersweet or in-between vision of a decidedly mutable and forever unstable world, which may also ultimately undermine the all-too-traditional Hollywood Happy Ending. For indeed, as is shown by Dominique Sipière, Serge Chauvin, James MacDowell and Manuela Ruiz Pardos in the collective work devoted to Happy Endings and Films, even the most established Hollywood codes are not that straightforward and certainly not to be taken for granted. As Dominique Sipière asserts: “Of course, everybody knows that Hollywood endings were not all that happy. But they tended to afford some sort of happiness for the spectator through rather diversified means.”51 Serge Chauvin also highlights this ambivalence in his article entitled “And they lived happily ever after… Or did they? Matrimony as a false ending”.52 Everything is uncertain, fluctuating. Besides, the very Hollywood model, Mac Dowell contends,53 is often seen as questionable, more a counter model or a ‘bad’ ending to be avoided than a necessary reference. This is an interesting point for Shakespeare films, as directors are certainly not allowed to underestimate the model or to come out with flawed cinematography, the last point being often the reason why cinema specialists have been tearing Branagh’s films to pieces so assiduously. Branagh here resorts to a traditional festive ending, and a technically very cinematic one, too. We are given yet another example of Branagh’s technical expertise in the long, three-minute shot of the endlessly twisting and meandering farandole — a shot which demanded several takes. As he resorts to the same kind of technical crane effect and extreme high angle shot as at the outset, the film narrative is completed in a circular pattern also suggestive of the wanderings of chance or multiple twists and turns of Fortune. The playful camera towering over the lush courtyards of the villa encompasses a scene of unleashed, exuberant joy, with everyone dancing, laughing and hopping about as if under the spell of overpowering music and urged on by the propelling ‘sigh no more’ leitmotiv which reaches a climax here in its conclusive occurrence, itself sustained by the visual climax achieved by the extreme high-angle shot. The omniscient camera imparts the sense of the inevitable return of joy, and again, this technique creates poetic and meta-cinematic hues beyond the mere realistic stance. By comparison, Whedon’s conventional and subdued dancing party indoors appears as a rather low-key and pretty dull ending, but also one deliberately displaying its own artificiality and revealing distancing self-consciousness. This corresponds to what Ruiz Pardos signals as a general change in conventions over time, with a shift from straightforward narration towards more distanced, conceptual hues: “In recent years, the convention of the happy ending in Hollywood romantic comedy has become significantly less codified and more ambivalent, diverse and self-conscious not only in ideological but in narrative terms.”54 This could also evoke what Pierre Berthomieu calls the Hollywood ‘new wave’ featured by “artificial realism” or “aesthetic neo realism.”55


Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) and the guards watching


Fragmented frames and slant views


The camera’s eye

A watching world: post-modern stances and surveillance in Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing

©2012 Messina, LLC

33In conclusion, although it is always hard and certainly risky to do so, we may be tempted here to ponder on an assessment of both films, and it would also be equally tempting to make a distinction between the specifically ‘Shakespearean’ on the one hand and the cinematic on the other hand. If Branagh’s version may be seen as responding to the festive mood more powerfully, all the more so as it rests upon Hollywood impetus and codes throughout, Whedon’s cinematic achievement seems more effective, with brilliant cinematography, but this of course may also be due to the technical evolution of cinematic techniques. The latter film has several interesting innovations both in terms of cinematography and mise en scène: the gender displacements for Conrad (Riki Lindhome) or the Sexton, the subtleties and refined aristocratic attitudes or immediate modernisation (the villains Borachio and Conrad seen smoking cannabis). There is also the film noir stance, for instance, as a slow, pondering camera indulges in long, gratuitous stasis or lingering moments on domestic objects (glasses and bottles on tables, windows) caught in close ups, which also induces a myriad of reflection effects and tends to suspend the action in narrative uncertainty. The general atmosphere of surveillance prevailing (showing and watching taking the lead over the telling of events) by means of the systematic remediation of the information thanks to modern means of communication (the photographs taken during the wedding, the televisions placing Leonato’s mansion under surveillance, the constant use of cameras or phones) – all this, in a meta-artistic way, tends to deconstruct the filmic narration and provide us with a sense of the conceptual and artificial beyond immediate action. The dazzling California mansion is a powerful locale and almost a full character in itself, displaying many dark corners and sub-places filmed through a post-modern stance by means of a systematic multiplication of points of view, slant views, fragmented frames or shots taken behind grates or gratings,56 which, combined with the monochromatic choice could also suggest a metaphorical, second level of meaning (similar to Orson Welles’s for instance). But the overall choice of indoor scenes — despite the clever use of all the sub-spaces around (garden, stairs, swimming pool, patios), — tends to restrain the action and create a stifling atmosphere suggestive of confinement: except this is Messina, not Elsinore! It slackens the rhythm and creates an effect of slow heaviness. Such an effect is also conveyed by the mise en scène, especially in the first part, where characters are involved in very little action, beingmostly static and merely busy socialising for a long span of time. Such slowness and indoor choices, ill-matching with the rhythm proper to comedies, may prevent the comic representation process and eventually disrupt what Barber calls the process of “clarification”:

[T]he clarification achieved by the festive comedies is concomitant to the release they dramatize: a heightened awareness of the relation between man and “nature”—the nature celebrated on holiday. […] This sort of clarification about love, a recognition of the seasons, of nature’s part in man, need not qualify the intensity of feeling in the festive comedies. […] Where the conventional romances tried to express intensity by elaborating hyperbole according to a pretty, pseudo­theological system, the comedies express the power of love as a compelling rhythm in man and nature.57

34So ultimately, are Branagh’s sunny Tuscan landscapes or lush gardens and Hollywood impetus more effective to evoke the festive atmosphere? The quality of acting, too, is questionable in Whedon’s film. Jillian Morgese’s Hero is very uneven, not so convincing in the comic gulling stratagem scene, much better in the failed wedding one. Despite the convincing performances of such actors as Nathan Fillion (Dogberry), Fran Kranz (Claudio), or Diamond Reed (Don Pedro), there is a general problem with the enunciation of the Shakespeare text. The very slow, low-key or even subdued manner to which the actors resort may apppear quite ineffective at times to create an impression of overall, aristocratic refinement. Even if this works better for the Aragon villains, extravagant and out of place anyway, refinement does not mean dullness.58In addition to this, basic narrative choices may be awkward in Whedon’s version. Both the incipit flashbacks and radical narrative displacements are questionable. As they are placed at the beginning of the film narrative (a technique somehow recalling film noir suspense tropes), they tend to give pride of place to Beatrice and Benedick’s past relationship. They also represent a radical extrapolation in that they fully visualise a past relationship only briefly alluded to in the play by means of oblique images, as when Beatrice ponders: “You always end with a jade’s trick, I know you of old” (I.1.121). There is another such allusion when, during the masked ball, Don Pedro tells Beatrice “Come, lady, come, you have lost the heart of Signor Benedick”, and she answers “Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile, and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one” (II.1.243-246). This tends to shift the focus and give the sub-plot prominence again. As for Branagh, heopted for a more (re-) balancing perspective after the long tradition of stage mise en scène emphasising the sub-plot. Whedon’s choice may also be questioned in terms of narrative or characterisation coherence. Indeed, is the evocation of an open sexualised relationship fully appropriate here? It is in keeping with the presentation of an aristocratic, patriarchal milieu in which all men (Claudio, Don Pedro, the Prince or Leonato) display obvious expectations concerning maidenhood? However, one may wonder whether such views are likely to be so clearly endorsed by the women, Hero, and especially the more independent-minded Beatrice. Sexual licence seems only allowed to low characters (Margaret or Borachio). This implies that, in this film,modernisation somehow operates, but in an imperfect or lame way. Maybe more effectively, one could argue that it is hard to make this choice fit with Beatrice and Benedick’s utter surprise as they discover eachother’s love. The sexualised past relationship may be in contradiction with the text of the play. The ‘sigh no more’ (serious) nostalgic undertones as well as the fleeting allusions to the past (the ‘jade’s trick’ or ‘lost heart’ images), may be more suggestive of unfulfilled promises of love, as it is for Ophelia, than the expression of the actual frustration of an abandoned woman betrayed by a “professed tyrant to their sex” (I.1.141-142). This over-interpretation not only victimises and weakens the character of Beatrice, but also disrupts the play’s egalitarian, balanced stance. Besides, in terms of characterisation, can Benedick be regarded as a real flippant, tyrant to the female sex if he is also supposed to appear as “so rare a gentleman” (III.1.90) and a worthy warrior full of honour, one who “for shape, for bearing, argument, and valour,/Goes foremost in report through Italy” (III.1.95-96)? His professed cruelty to the sex is nothing but another bachelor’s boasting trick, similar to the wishful self-deception (a willing suspension of the pursuit of happiness) displayed by the screwball comedy characters. Thisstance is perfectly followed by Branagh, who gently mocks the character throughout the film. So Whedon’s film, for all its creative findings and of course its fine cinematic technicalities, may also be a flawed presentation of the essentials of a festive, romantic comedy of wit. This of course can be left open to discussion.


1  Michael Hattaway, “The Comedies on film”, Russell Jackson (ed.), in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film, 2nd edition, Cambridge, CUP, 2007, p. 87.

2  Ibidem.

3  Ibidem.

4  Northrop Frye, Northrop Frye on Shakespeare, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1986, p. 35-36.

5  Ibidem.

6  See Margaret Jones-Davies who mentions Chariton de Lampsaque’s novel, in “Notice” to Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare: Comedies, II: Œuvres VI, Paris, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Gallimard, 2016, p. 1481. All the quotations from the play are taken from this edition.

7  Michael Edwards, Shakespeare et la comédie de l’émerveillement, Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 2003, p. 10.

8  Ibid., p. 153.

9  Jack J. Jorgens, in his introduction to Shakespeare on Film, Lanham, London, New York, University Press of America, [1977] 1991, p. 1-35, defines four main modes of adaptation on screen: the theatrical mode basically featuring the early cinema adaptations (30s-40s), the realistic mode characterising the 50s-70s (Zeffirelli, Polanski, Brook…), the filmic, poetic or ‘interpretive’ mode for the more innovative and daring eighties and nineties. To this must be added the periodising mode, for the freely-inspired adaptations (Kurosawa).

10  Kenneth Branagh, Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare, New York/ London, W. W. Norton & Company, 1995, p. 5.

11  Ibid., p. xiv. The half-toned incipit is also a way to hint at the ambivalence of a play, which the director asserts is, “harsh and cruel”, as well as “generous and kind”, and on the whole one that is “holding up a mirror to nature” (Ibid., p. xi). See the ample comments by Samuel Crowl, in Shakespeare at the Cineplex: The Kenneth Branagh Era, Athens, Ohio University Press, 2003, p. 64-67.

12  Beyond the meta-artistic hint here, the usual intra-diegetic guideline of the film narrative is provided by the play-text or play’s plot itself, which makes all Shakespeare films basically narrative (rather than non narrative), ‘diegetic’ and ‘representational’, according to Christian Metz’s classifications. Marc Vernet’s comments on Metz’s views and narrative cinema in Jacques Aumont et al., Aesthetics of Film, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1992,p 68-97; see also the section entitled “Every film is a Fiction film”, p. 77-79.

13  Kenneth Rothwell, A History of Shakespeare on Screen: A Century of Film and Television (2nd ed.), Cambridge, CUP, [1999] 2004, p. 239. The writer comments on the pictorial introduction to the story. It brings out, he says (p. 239), the abstraction of painting better to remove it with the introduction of the real: “the stasis of watercolor gives way to kinetic screen alive with motion”, in particular with the entrance of the messenger (Alex Howe).

14  André Bazin, What Is Cinema?, vol. 1,. 2 vols. [1967], translated by Hugh Gray, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press Ltd, 2005, p. 166.

15  See note 9 above.

16  Kenneth Branagh, in Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare, op. cit., p. ix.

17  The cast displays a deliberate mix of accents, races, ages, or experiences. Branagh meant to contrast the young, fresh and innocent Hero and Claudio (Kate Beckinsale and Robert Sean Leonard) with the mature and cynical lovers enacted by the famous duo Branagh-Thompson then in their thirties. The director also explains that by resorting to a mixed cast, he meant to make a film “which would belong to the world” (Much Ado, screenplay, p. ix-x). See Samuel Crowl, Shakespeare at the Cineplex, op. cit., p. 65-67.

18  Michael Edwards, Shakespeare et la comédie de l’émerveillement, op. cit., p. 10.

19  François Laroque, in Shakespeare’s Festive World: Elizabethan Seasonal Entertainment and the Professional Stage, Cambridge, CUP, 1991, p. 212. The writer regards the “Messina interlude” as similar to the “period of carnival” (p. 212-213), and also points to the central opposition in the “first of May/ last of December” images (I.1.180-182) between Beatrice associated with spring festive rituals and Hero associated with winter festivals and thus equated from the start with the ‘darkness’ of the tomb (p. 212). This is an example of the play’s many proleptic ironies.

20  This is acknowledged by Branagh himself in the script, Much Ado, op. cit., p. viii. For Hollywood references, see also note 29.

21  Kenneth Rothwell, A Historyof Shakespeare on Screen, op. cit., p. 239.

22 This is different from the handheld camera technique and somehow more stable.

23  Fashion plays an important part in the play, as Margaret Jones-Davies remarks in the “Notice” to Much Ado, op. cit., p. 1494-1496. Samuel Crowl, in The Films of Kenneth Branagh, Wesport and London, Praeger, 2006, p. 80, remarks that the maids Ursula (Phyllida Law) and Margaret (Imelda Staunton) — both well-known Shakespearean actresses — and Hero wear similar costumes (made by Phyliss Daulton), which, in a way, may explain Claudio’s confusion. This also tends to flatten, if not “obliterate the play’s social hierarchy” (p. 79) and reintroduce natural harmony. This is an interesting difference with Whedon, who, on the contrary, tends to maintain them and insist on the aristocratic background of Leonato’s household (see further down).

24  Russell Jackson, “Shakespeare’s comedies on film”, in Anthony Davies and Stanley Wells (eds.), Shakespeare and the Moving Image: the Plays on Film and Television, op. cit., p. 118. Russell Jackson is Branagh’s text consultant (for this and other Shakespeare films).

25  Marc Vernet, in Jacques Aumont et al, Film Aesthetics, op. cit., p. 123. See p. 114-117 for “the plausible”, and p. 121-125 for the “impression of reality”.

26  Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, London and New York, The Athlone Press, 1986, p. 149. See also Raymond Border and étienne Chaumeton, in Panorama du Film noir américain (1941-1953), Paris, les éditions de Minuit, 1955, about the creation of the effect of strangeness (“L’insolite”) and the dream-like in the neo realist thriller genre, p. 3 and p. 127-130.

27  Kenneth Rothwell, A History of Shakespeare on Screen, op. cit., p. 238.

28  Margaret Jones-Davies, “L’intrigue comique semble l’avoir longtemps emporté sur l’histoire tragi-comique de Héro et Claudio”, in “Notice”, Shakespeare. Comédies II, Œuvres complètes, VI, op. cit., p. 1498.

29  Samuel Crowl, in the Films of Kenneth Branagh, op. cit., p. 89, also gives the very good example of Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday (1939). The film shows two very shrewd and talented journalists and fiancés, Hildy Johnson and Walter Burns (played by Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant) forever quarrelling and competing and then separating, but who, on realising they are unable to live without each other, finally get engaged again. Such screwball characters fully match with the Beatrice-Benedick ‘wit-competing’ mood.

30 So much so that, to explain the concept of a ‘screwball comedy’ and by some kind of anachronistic, baroque reversal, popularising articles sometimes refer to such works as Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, but also, often, to Shakespeare’s comedies like Much Ado, The Dream or As You Like it: ‘c’est shakespearien’ indeed!

31  Cesar Lombardi Barber, Shakespeare’s Festive Comedies: A Study of Dramatic Form and its Relation to Social Custom, Princeton, Princeton University Press, [1959] 2012, p. 5

32  Lynda Boose and Richard Burt (eds.), “Totally clueless? Shakespeare goes Hollywood in the 90s”, in Shakespeare, the Movie: Popularizing the plays on Film, TV, and Video, op. cit., p. 11, and see also p. 8-22.

33  Samuel Crowl, Shakespeare at the Cineplex, op. cit., p. 66-67; see also The Films of Kenneth Branagh, op. cit., p.82, or Sarah Hatchuel, in A Companion to the Shakespearean Films of Kenneth Branagh, Winnipeg, Blizzard Publishings, 2000, p. 157-158.

34  Russell Jackson, “Shakespeare’s comedies on film”, in Anthony Davies and Stanley Wells (eds.), Shakespeare and the Moving Image: the Plays on Film and Television, Cambridge, CUP, 1994, p. 117.

35  Samuel Crowl, Shakespeare at the Cineplex, op. cit., p. 66-69.

36  André Bazin, What is Cinema?, vol. 1., op. cit., p. 147.

37  Jacqueline Nacache, Le Film hollywoodien classique, Paris, Nathan, 2001, p. 27.

38  Ibid, p. 29. The author speaks of « la science du rythme propre au récit hollywoodien ». The italics are in the text. The translation is mine.

39  Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, op. cit., p. 159.

40  Kenneth Branagh, Much Ado, screenplay, op. cit. p. 47.

41  Whedon chooses an indoor scene for the gulling of Beatrice, with Amy Acker seen heavily tumbling down the stairs or bumping her head on the table under which she is hiding.

42  Alternating montage is often resorted to in narrative cinema as it helps clarification and narrative fluidity. It does “affect the meaning” and may create suspense effects for instance. See Marc Vernet, in Jacques Aumont et al., Aesthetics of Film, op. cit., p. 72: “Editing and systems of camera movement only have meanings as functions of narrative effects and their comprehension by the spectator”.

43  Michael Hattaway, Shakespeare’s comedies, op. cit., p. 88.

44 Christian Metz, Psychoanalysis of Cinema: The Imaginary Signifier, London and Basingstoke, Macmillan/Palgrave, 1982, p. 47. See also Alan Bergala’s analysis in Aumont et al., Aesthetics of Film, op. cit, p. 216-217. Quoting George Bataille, he explains: “Initially, the spectator of a film, like the reader of a novel, is perhaps [such] a person suspended from narratives” and thus there is a strong wish for him to “enter into the narrative” (p. 217).

45  Ibid., p. 45. Primary identification is defined as the spectator’s identification with the camera.

46  For Metz, the two-fold identification process implies that the cinema signifier depends on “a series of mirror-effects organised in a chain,” ibid., p. 51.

47  Northrop Frye, Northrop Frye on Shakespeare, op. cit., p. 35.

48  Michael Edwards, Shakespeare et la comédie de l’émerveillement, op. cit., p. 17.

49  The final wedding is precisely, as Cavell says (and which Crowl sensed as being perfectly appropriate here), literally a ‘remarriage’.

50  This is much in the same way as the miraculous ‘resurrection’ in The Winter’s Tale or the final reconciliation in TheTempest.

51  Dominique Sipière,“How do you mean, happy? Towards a typology of classical Hollywood ending”, in Armelle Parey, Isabelle Roblin and Dominique Sipière, (eds.), Happy Endings and Films, Paris, Michel Houdiard Éditeur, 2010, p.28.

52  Serge Chauvin, “And they lived happily ever after,… Or did they? Matrimony as a false ending in (post)-Hollywood fictions of remarriage”, in Happy Endings and Films, op. cit., p. 40.

53  James MacDowell, “Does the Hollywood happy ending exist?”, in Happy Endings and Films, op. cit., p. 15-16.

54  Manuela Ruiz Pardos, “‘Not quite the end’: the boundaries of narrative closure in Hollywood romantic comedy”, in Happy Endings and Films, op. cit., p. 115-116.

55  Pierre Berthomieu, Le Cinéma hollywoodien: le temps du renouveau, Paris, Nathan, 2003, p. 40-41.

56  See Sarah Hatchuel, presentation and interview in the DVD (JOUR2FÊTE, 2014).

57  Cesar Lombardi Barber, Shakespeare’s Festive Comedies: A Study of Dramatic Form and its Relation to Social Custom, op. cit., p. 7-8.

58  Technical text restitution may sometimes be frankly uneasy. Alexis Denisof for instance seems more than once at pains with the text, especially for long cues. Amy Acker is somehow more convincing. But it is also certainly hard to compete with such screen monsters as the Branagh-Thompson team.

Pour citer ce document

Par Anne-Marie Costantini-Cornède, «“Into hey nonny, nonny”: Much Ado About Nothing, Merry-Go-Round Comedy and Swirling Worlds in Kenneth Branagh’s and Joss Whedon’s Screen Versions», Shakespeare en devenir [En ligne], N°13 - 2018, Shakespeare en devenir, mis à jour le : 17/02/2022, URL : https://shakespeare.edel.univ-poitiers.fr:443/shakespeare/index.php?id=1490.

Quelques mots à propos de :  Anne-Marie Costantini-Cornède

Anne-Marie Costantini-Cornède est membre de PRISMES (Paris 3 - Sorbonne Nouvelle) et Maître de Conférences à l’Université de Paris (5). Elle a soutenu une thèse sur les esthétiques de la représentation dans les films shakespeariens et publié de nombreux articles et chapitres d’ouvrage sur les films classiques et les modernisations (Olivier, Branagh, Luhrmann, Rohmer), les liens entre peinture et cinéma (Jarman, Greenaway), les adaptations historiques ou transnationales (Hytner, Kaurismäki, Kuros ...