Angst-ridden vampire slayers. Musically inclined mad-scientist bloggers. The ever-expanding stable of po-faced Marvel superheroes. Joss Whedon has tackled all the great archetypes of our era. What challenge remains but the characters of William Shakespeare, that timeless poet of star-crossed lovers and existentially agitated royalty? The Bard’s mid-career comic romance is in many ways a natural fit for Whedon’s blithe sensibilities, with its slyly lighthearted tone and swoonily amorous entanglements.
He’s updated the setting to a modern-day hill manor and made an alluringly idiosyncratic choice to shoot in black and white. The appealing cast is comprised primarily of Whedon alums: Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof are caustic courters Beatrice and Benedick, and a delightfully clueless Nathan Fillion is that ‘ass’ of a constable, Dogberry.
No one tongue-trips over the verse, and the misty landscapes glisten magically and ominously as the story winds its way through misunderstanding, manipulation, tragedy and romantic triumph.
Yet there’s an unfortunate frivolousness to the way the filmmaker treats many of the darker narrative turns – especially in the case of the easily duped Claudio (Fran Kranz) and his inamorata, Hero (Jillian Morgese) – as if he’s rushing through the hardship to get to the happy ending. The movie feels like too much of a lark. To paraphrase the play’s voice of reason, Friar Francis, it would be better if Whedon paused awhile and let his counsel sway us more.