Olivier is brilliant as the utter bastard who schemes and murders his way through his own family to seize the British throne for himself. The third of Larry’s big screen Shakespeare adaptations mixes richly designed sets with impressive location action and in its newly restored glory is a technicolor marvel to behold.
Most of us, facing some down time while producing the biggest project of our lives, would retreat to a quiet beach or other holiday destination to try and unwind. Joss Whedon, by contrast, took his break from making The Avengers to produce this, delightful and crisp adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s best comedies.
Shot in black and white at Whedon’s own home (with actors who have worked with Whedon on previous projects), Much Ado About Nothing is a revelation. All too often contemporary adaptions of Shakespeare are almost apologetic about the language, relying on gurning actors and slapstick comedy to try and compensate for the audience’s (perceived) inability to follow the dialogue.
By contrast, Whedon, a master of sharp scriptwriting himself, leans into the text and gives his actors space and time to draw the audience in as well. This is, quite simply, one of the best, contemporary film adaptations of Shakespeare and is both funnier and more moving than Kenneth Branagh’s much-loved 1993 version.
Nathan Fillion is pure comic genius as Dogberry and Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond and Fran Kranz are excellent as Leonato, Don Pedro and Claudio respectively. Benedick is played with charming aplomb by Alexis Denisof while Sean Maher brings the right amount of brooding mischief to the role of Don John.
But, the star in every way is Amy Acker as Beatrice. Acker was excellent in minor roles from Whedon’s earlier TV work (Angel and Dollhouse). Here her ability to shift from fragile vulnerability to barbed defensive wit is breathtaking. And, the way she delivers the crucial “that I were a man” speech is a shining moment in Whedon’s long list of strong female characterisations.
It is unsurprising that Pixar head honcho John Lasseter shut down production of GNOMEO & JULIET after the acquisition of Walt Disney Animation Studios. The script contains glaring similarities with Lasseter’s own Oscar-winning TOY STORY films – not least the fact that the action centres around a group of supposedly inanimate objects that come to life when nobody is around. The project was eventually revived by Starz Animation Toronto and I for one am glad it finally saw the light of day because, for every moment of shameless plagiarism, there is another finely written Shakespearean gag right behind it.
The film opens with a disclaimer, announced by a diminutive gnome with a pointy hat far larger than the rest of him, that what we are about to see is a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s classic tale of star-crossed lovers, “only different.” To hammer this point home, the gnome is then dispensed with as he attempts to read the play’s lengthy prologue. There is another scene much later in the film where our hero, Gnomeo (James McAvoy) seeks refuge atop a statue of Shakespeare himself, only for the Bard to come alive and (with the voice of Patrick Stewart) inform him of the play’s original tragic resolution. Gnomeo demands a rewrite and so the numerous screenwriters are thence covered to bring a more upbeat resolution to their film.
GNOMEO & JULIET unsurprisingly shies away from the play’s original dialogue, this is a film for kids after all, but is not adverse to slipping in the occasional gag – “What’s in a gnome?” – for those familiar with the source material. There are also a number of visual allusions to Bill’s other plays, as well as a bus seen heading for his hometown of Stratford Upon Avon. That said, the screenwriters do their best to stick close to the story of two feuding families – in this case blue and red garden gnomes living in neighbouring gardens – and the forbidden love between Juliet Capulet (Emily Blunt) and Gnomeo Montague, with only the character Mercutio notable by his absence. The star-packed voice actors, including Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, Jason Statham and Stephen Merchant, all appear to be enjoying themselves, while the animation style does a fine job of emulating the kitsch aesthetic of crudely painted porcelain ornaments.
While it certainly jars every single time you recognize jokes, character arcs or entire sequences from other, better animated films (most obviously SHREK and TOY STORY), there is still enough intelligence, wit and good natured fun up on screen to give GNOMEO & JULIET a pass. And if it brings Shakespeare’s work to the attention of a new generation then who are we to complain? The classic Elton John numbers littered throughout, however, are almost entirely redundant.