If you ever wondered what actors do when they have some spare time, this is a pretty good example. We really do get together and read plays in living rooms for fun. Yes, often with a lot of alcohol present, though not always. That it led to a film is less natural, but not surprising given the attendees that birthed the effort. I’ve made no secret that I think Joss is brilliant, so I really wanted to like this film; and, frankly, more than I did. I still was impressed with aspects and with the commentary (so far), but he’s playing in a different league taking on the Bard and I bring a lot of my own background to it.
The last film adaptation of this Shakespeare classic I saw was Branagh’s back in 1993. The comedies aren’t really my favorites, I’m more for the tragedies and historicals (Tempest, The Hollow Crown, Coriolanus). The comedies are Elizabethan sit-coms; light fare with lots of great moments of language wrapped up in, often, ridiculous plots. With the exception Twelfth Night and Midsummer Night’s Dream, they also tend to be much harder to understand as they are witty, often time-based or culturally/politically unique banter. And so much of the impact is supposed to be the banter. It’s like watching an old episode of South Park that is riffing on a 15 year old, forgotten news event. It may still be funny, but a lot of it is lost in time.
The opening of this latest adaptation certainly suffers from the thick language and old repartee, so much so that Whedon put the credits over the scene to distract audiences and allow them time to sink into the film without worrying about trying to translate to modern meanings (by his own commentary admission). The updated time period attempts to bring it into more familiar territory–but in some ways it clashes as they are talking about princes and counts and wars that are rather at odds with the expectations rather than making them feel more natural.
The struggle here is one every adaptation runs up against. Sometimes the translation in time works brilliantly as the themes of the play and the issues of the time relfect one another well. Richard III comes to mind. In this case, however, I couldn’t really find a good reason for the translation… and it wasn’t even consistent in place and dress. It had an early 20th Century feel, but a modern home and conveniences (and cell phones). It was a bit of a confused mess design-wise. That said, the visual choices and the black & white film presentation felt sumptuous, which did support the characterizations.
The cast are all competent, and draw from all over the Whedon-verse (dive in and be surprised), though Acker and Denisoff truly do stand out both in ability and in their lead roles. Each deftly slides between broad humor and deep drama effortlessly.
When you realize that this was a home movie (literally at Whedon’s abode) shot, edited, and produced during Joss’ time with The Avengers, the result is Herculean. But judged on its own merits, it is simply serviceable and entertaining. Enough for lovers of the comedies to watch, and enough for lovers of Joss to see and own (particularly if you enjoy his commentary tracks). It certainly doesn’t break new ground, but neither does it salt the earth. I’d love to see what he could do with a classic text given more time and budget. For now, this was a good diversion and a chance to see a lot of familiar faces doing very unfamiliar roles.