But there’s also a little too much that’s on-the-nose contemporary in the way Whedon tells the story. The film opens with a shot of Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alex Denisof) waking up in bed together, in a brief fling that’s supposed to be a prelude to their subsequent warlike courtship, and this choice and others locate the story a bit too firmly in the post-sexual-revolution present. While a sexy, earthy vibe is entirely appropriate to Shakespeare’s material, a world of relatively casual sex simply doesn’t fit with the play’s crucial, unalterable plot twist, in which not merely chastity but actual virginity is treated as something worth prizing, worth disowning someone over, and even worth dying for.
The maidenhood issue is not a small incongruity, and at times it threatens to undo the impressive work of Whedon’s cast — highlighted by Acker’s brilliant embodiment of Beatrice (she rather overshadows Denisof’s Benedick), Clark Gregg as her uncle, Sean Maher as the sinister Don John, and Nathan Fillion’s put-upon, recessive, and entirely hilarious Dogberry. The actors are mostly Whedon’s favorites from other projects (Acker from television’s Angel, Gregg from The Avengers), and they combine the necessary candlepower with an effective “where have I seen him?” obscurity. (Only Fillion — the hero of the canceled Firefly, and now the star of the crime show Castle — is anything close to a real celebrity, though after this performance I would happily sign a petition to get Acker more A-list work.)