Picture a lush estate in one of the posh neighbourhoods of Los Angeles, populated by elegant, urbane people.
It's probably the last place in the world you would consider a lack of virginity to be a deal-breaker in an impending marriage contract.
But director Joss Whedon, who last orchestrated the crazed, outsize action of The Avengers, assembles a cast of willing actors to sell that particular anachronism in a low-budget telling of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing shot in his own house... in black and white, yet.
These days, the comedy is considered pretty much a template of the romantic comedy, as long as the focus is on the two main would-be lovers. Beatrice (Amy Acker) has long engaged in a "merry war" with Benedick (Alexis Denisof). In modern terms, the two are incessantly dissing each other, albeit in sublime Shakespearean language. (Whedon dares to suggest their enmity is a result of a one-night stand that went nowhere in the film's silent prologue.)
Their mischief with each other takes a back seat at the estate of Leonato (The Avengers' Clark Gregg) when his virginal daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese), Beatrice's cousin, is betrothed to the smitten Claudio (Fran Kranz from the Whedon-produced Cabin in the Woods).
Their blossoming relationship is observed by the malevolent Don John, who sets his stooges to the task of subverting the nuptials by convincing Claudio that Hero is not the picture of virginal virtue she appears.
That sets the stage for the play's upsetting wedding scene, where Claudio accuses the innocent Hero of, well, being a slut, and Leonato adds to the trauma by believing his accusation.
This is where Shakespeare parts company with the modern rom-com. It's a scene of alarming domestic horror. When director Kenneth Branagh submitted his film version of the play 20 years ago, the scene's full-bore dramatic power tended to fatally unbalance the comedy.
Whedon's film, with its subtler performances and its contemporary trappings (Whedon himself wrote the music for a pleasingly jazzed-up version of the Hey Nonny Nonny song Sigh No More, Ladies) is more evenly modulated. The cast affect a more conversational approach to the language, and even engage in a little understated physical comedy.
Shooting in his own backyard over a couple of weeks, Whedon is intent on a relaxed good time and he achieves that with a cast of actors more intent on serving the ensemble than proving their Shakespearean worth. (See Branagh's version.)
If it was a truly contemporary comedy, the vilified Hero, upon winning her reputation back, would reject the contrite Claudio and also tell her dad where to get off.
So maybe it doesn't pass as all that contemporary. On the other hand, Shakespeare's admonition to women in Sigh No More, Ladies, "Be you all blithe and bonny" roughly translates as "Look pretty and act stupid."
I understand that in modern-day California, that mating strategy is alive and well.