When director Kenneth Branagh set the opening speech of Henry V in a movie lot, he was announcing a new philosophy for putting Shakespeare on film. This philosophy is well explored in his latest film, As You Like It. It’s not a perfect film, but I greatly enjoyed watching it, and I expect to give it many more viewings in the near future and likely for years to come.
Shakespeare was writing for the stage, but Branagh has the ability to show with vivid action events that Shakespeare could only describe. In some cases, that worked well, like in the exciting palace coup in the beginning. In other cases, I missed Shakespeare’s language. Believe it or not, actually seeing Orlando wrestle with the lion was far less satisfying than those times when I’ve heard Oliver describe it.
Branagh set his film in Japan, a bold choice that is supported by an on-screen description of 19th century British enclaves in Japan. This had the potential to draw a much sharper distinction between those fleeing the court and the rustics of the forest. However, Branagh contrived to allow Corin and Audrey to remain English. Both actors did a fine job, but an opportunity was lost. Phoebe and Silvius seemed to be English actors of Asian descent. Only the character of William truly embodied the potential of setting the play in a 19th century Japanese forest. I was left wondering why the film was set in Japan at all. Still, the external trappings of the Japanese setting were visually impressive. I enjoyed the ninja soldiers and Charles as sumo wrestler, the Japanese characters and kimonos, but in the end, there seemed to be very little actual consequence to choosing Japan as a setting.
I enjoyed most of the performances, but I feel that Phoebe and Silvus were botched, in that their relationship was not well articulated. I would not have minded if the issue was simply that they didn’t remain faithful to the play, but I didn’t know what they were supposed to be. Most troublingly, the lines explaining the “bargain” between Phoebe and “Ganymede” in the end were cut, and so we don’t even know why Phoebe is marrying Silvius. In general, there were more script cuts than I generally like to see, but again, Branagh is adapting for another medium and we must allow for the conventions of film.
I’ve always felt that Rosalind carries this play on force of personality, and Branagh found a wonderful Rosalind in Bryce Dallas Howard. Adrian Lester is brilliant in everything he does, and this is no exception. But the real standout for me was Brian Blessed in the double role of Duke Senior and Duke Frederick. As the former, he is able to set one of the main themes of the play – the contrast between the false court and the natural world of Arden. As the latter, he movingly demonstrates the transformation and ultimate redemption of the evil Duke in a way that I’ve never seen before, nor found more satisfying.
As You Like It continues to run on HBO. I highly recommend checking it out!