Glasgow Film Festival: Much Ado about Shakespeare

In his second Glasgow Film Festival round-up Alistair Harkness is impressed by a lively take on the Bard from the creator of Buffy

THERE’S no getting around the fact that the Glasgow Film Festival team have scored a bit of a coup by enticing Avengers Assemble director Joss Whedon to have the British premiere his contemporary take on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (****) at this year’s event. Bringing proceedings to a close this Sunday evening, and it’s a nifty, accessible adaptation, shot in black-and-white in Whedon’s own home, and boasting lively performances from the loose repertory company of actors that have worked with the director over the years on TV and film work. Particularly good in this respect is Amy Acker (last seen in the Whedon-produced Cabin in the Woods). She plays the emotionally cautious Beatrice, whose disdain for the verbally incontinent Benedick (Angel star Alexis Denisof) becomes the source of most of the film’s gentle laughs as each tries to deny their amorous feelings for the other – even as they’re immediately apparent to all those around them. Mercifully Whedon doesn’t waste a lot of time coming up with an elaborate modern-day concept to sell us on the contemporary relevance of the play; he’s domesticated it, and that almost feels like enough to make its themes work. As for the language, while it takes a little time to get used to the rhythms, the way characters volley dialogue back-and-forth is reminiscent of the hyper-literate, pop-culture savvy interplay found in much of Whedon’s work. It’s a refreshing approach. Where most contemporary updates of Shakespeare tend to focus on the heavier side of the Bard’s work, this one unashamedly makes it fun.

Fun is not a word that could be applied to two of the festival’s most notable British films: both Broken (**), which screened earlier this week, and Shell (***), which premieres today, are anchored by astonishing performances from first-time actresses and have much to commend them on the technical side, yet both films’ debut directors (Rufus Norris in the case of Broken, Scott Graham with Shell) seem hampered by some burning need to comply with an unwritten law in British cinema that states horrible things must happen if you’re to be taken seriously as a filmmaker. This is most jarring in Broken, an uneasy, emotionally manipulative hybrid of Andrea Arnold and Bill Forsyth that exploits the super-smart, self-assured and utterly engaging performance of young star Eliose Laurence by surrounding her 11-year-old character Skunk with contrived characters, mental illness and sexual abuse allegations that inevitably result in her being put in a horribly dangerous situation. It wouldn’t be so bad if this didn’t feel so desperately at odds with the film’s wonderfully funny coming-of-age scenes featuring Skunk’s burgeoning friendship with the neighbourhood kid who takes a shine to her.

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Shell doesn’t have anywhere near those kinds of problems, but this Highland-set tale of loneliness and despair still feels a little rote in terms of the provocative sexual themes it’s attempting to explore. Expanded from a short film by director Scott Graham, it creates a foreboding atmosphere with desolate cinematography and an internalised performance from newcomer Chloe Pirrie as the eponymous going-nowhere 17-year-old whose days spent manning her epileptic father’s petrol station mask a more curious relationship between father and daughter. Queasy interactions with regular customers – particularly a brief but devastating one with Michael Smiley – add to the unease, but it’s not hard to guess where all this is going and despite the film’s many technical strengths, its story doesn’t feel strong enough to sustain a feature.

After vacuous, narcissistic crowdsourced global-snapshot movie Life in a Day, I also had my doubts that the similarly experimental We Are Northern Lights (***) would work at feature length. But this shot-by-the-public portrait of Scotland (which received its world premiere last weekend at the festival and goes on selected release from this Saturday), is surprisingly engaging. Sure, there is the odd self-absorbed contributor determined to reinforce every cringeworthy Scottish stereotype by talking only in clichés about their homeland. And yes, there are quite literally some shaky moments early on (mostly involving people attempting slow-panning shots of Scottish scenery). But it does well to show all sides of life.

It works best when people just tell their own stories simply and without affectation, be it a mother and daughter discussing the difficulty of making a life for themselves on Eigg, raw scenes of Glaswegian junkies discussing their efforts to keep a clean home for the sake of their kids, or the quarry worker who, in discussing the geological origins of the raw material he works with every day, coins the brilliant expression “Molten-palaver”. Though visually speaking it’s of variable quality (in places it’s downright unwatchable), there are moments of real beauty, both accidental and intentional, and some enjoyably surreal scenes too, like the beekeepers who commandeer city rooftops to store their hives – an oddly appropriate image for a film festival that has succeeded once again in creating a genuine buzz.