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‘Much Ado About Nothing’ brings the Bard to the present day

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Benedick Alexis Denisof

Beatrice Amy Acker

Claudio Fran Kranz

Leonato Clark Gregg

Dogberry Nathan Fillion

Prince Reed Diamond

Roadside Attractions presents a film written and directed by Joss Whedon. Based on the play by Shakespeare. Running time: 107 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for for some sexuality and brief drug use). Opening Friday at Landmark Century Cinemas.

Updated: July 22, 2013 3:47PM

Joss Whedon’s take on Shakespeare’s classic tale is swanky, sexy and sophisticated, as bracing as a dry martini poured from a silver shaker on a summer night.

In many of his best-loved romantic comedies, William Shakespeare sends his mixed-up couples into the woods so they can learn some lessons and straighten out their complicated alliances away from the strictures of society and surrounded by the natural world. But in Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” the two couples resolve their mix-ups and misunderstandings at home.

Whedon’s film version of the play takes that literally. It was filmed in the director’s own house, during a break in filming “The Avengers,” and he decided to invite some friends over to make a movie. In scenes set in his daughters’ bedroom, characters confer in Shakespearean iambic pentameter against a backdrop of the girls’ dollhouse, a music box, and stacks of stuffed animals. His kitchen, backyard and hot tub provide the settings for eavesdropping, plotting, pining and law enforcement.

Wisely, Whedon had cinematographer Jay Hunter film in a lush black-and-white that gives magic and timelessness to the modern dress and decor. It seems to dip the proceedings in moonlight, very fitting for the story of two moonstruck couples, one dramatic and one comic, who mirror each other with themes of trust, honor and intimacy.

Every romantic comedy with witty repartee between initially antagonistic lovers can trace its origins to the Bard’s Beatrice and Benedick, who spend so much energy discussing their dislike for each other that they must be in love. “There is a kind of merry war” between the couple, a character explains, with a “skirmish of wit” whenever they see each other.

A silent opening scene added by Whedon shows us Benedick (Alexis Denisof of Whedon’s “Angel”) sneaking out after spending the night with Beatrice (Amy Acker, in a performance of striking intelligence and grace). He thinks she is still sleeping. She does not let him know that she is watching him leave. Much later, he returns with his friends the Prince (Reed Diamond) and Count Claudio (Fran Kranz), triumphant after success in battle. He is welcomed by Beatrice’s Uncle Leonato (Clark Gregg of “The Avengers”), but not by Beatrice, who mutters, “You always end with a jade’s trick: I know you of old.” We understand what she is remembering.

Their friends conspire to make them fall in love. They let Benedick overhear them talking about Beatrice’s love for him, and when they know she is listening, they discuss his love for her. The next thing you know, the sworn bachelor has changed his mind about marriage. “The world must be peopled!” he reminds himelf.

Claudio impetuously falls for the lovely Hero (newcomer Jillian Morgese), daughter of Leonato. The Prince’s bitter half-brother (Sean Maher) tricks him into believing that Hero has been unfaithful. In the middle of their wedding ceremony, Claudio accuses Hero and storms off. Claudio is so afraid of his feelings, he clings to the certainty of believing the worst rather than take on the risks of intimacy.

The capable cast is mostly made up of Whedon regulars, with Nathan Fillion a standout as the clueless cop Dogberry, who is a challenge to modern audiences with less tolerance for slapstick and malapropism than the 16th century audience at the Globe Theatre. Though modern actors tend to overplay this role, Fillion offers a light, understated touch that conveys confusion rather than coarseness.

Whedon brings the same light touch in making the comic couple in every way the heart of the story. Beatrice and Benedick may be clueless about their own feelings, but they are the only characters with the wisdom and integrity to understand the injustice of Claudio’s accusations. That unity of understanding and purpose is as important in sealing their union as their friends’ trick was in revealing that their “merry war” concealed a deep affection. This play about the ability to see through disguise and misdirection has been brought to the screen with wit and style that illuminate its true spirit.

Nell Minow is film critic for the website

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