As You Like It

As You Like It


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

One of the most pleasing cinematic trends in the last decade or so, has been for original and unconventional adaptations of Shakespeare.

As a lifelong fan, but one who had to sit through innumerable school trips to over-reverential theatre productions, it was a joy to see filmmakers rediscover how profound, universal and downright exciting his plays were. And kudos must go to the founding father of the movement, Kenneth Branagh.

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It is easy to mock his luvvie-ish persona (he did it himself in Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets) and some of his non-Bardic excursions have been less than unqualified successes. But his 1988 take on Henry V (a bold choice for a debut, inviting comparisons with Laurence Olivier's iconic 1944 version) was a triumph; gritty and revisionist while still being a feast for the eye and a joy to the ear.

Without that, it is arguable we might not have had Baz Luhrmann's  gangsta Romeo And Juliet, Michael Almereyda's New York slacker Hamlet .. Geoffrey Wright's Aussie crim Macbeth. So it's a shame to report that darling Ken's latest effort doesn't really hit the mark.

You can't fault the originality of the setting - 19th century Japan, where Duke Senior (Brian Blessed) is reimagined as a European merchant who has brought his family and retainers to the country, embraced the local culture and founded a small private fiefdom on the fringes of the imperial court. It is based on historical fact, and makes for a superb opening where a kabuki play in the main pavilion, all lacquered wood and subdued lighting, is violently curtailed by a usurping force of black-clad samurai under the command of the duke's brother (Blessed again).

Hot on the heels of that comes an argument between the two brothers Orlando (David Oyelowo) and Oliver (Adrian Lester) that turns into a martial arts battle in pouring rain. Once again, Branagh unashamedly uses his love of big cinematic set pieces to grab the audience's attention. It may not be entirely faithful to the text, but damn, it's entertaining.

Unfortunately, this early promise quickly dissipates and it is hard to pin down exactly why. Part of the problem is that, five adaptations in, Ken's modus operandi is beginning to look a bit formulaic, particularly in the casting; a couple of big Hollywood names eager to prove they like, totally get Shakespeare (and put a few more bums on seats in Des Moines)  rounded out by stalwarts from his Renaissance Theatre company days and the odd familiar TV face, such as Spooks star Oyelowo.

It's also hard to get away from the fact that, after his four-hour full-text version of Hamlet in 1997, a 70mm-shot epic whose inspirations were equal parts Sergei Eisenstein and David Lean,  doing "hey nonny-no" stuff like Love's Labour's Lost (2000) and now this seems a bit like scaling Everest then pootling around in the foothills.

Not many critics see the comedies as Will's finest hours - and the plain fact is that they aren't that funny, unless you really share the Elizabethans' sense of humour or go along with a Brodie's Notes in your back pocket . As You Like it is particularly rich in unbelievable contrivance, obscure puns and tortuously rhetorical insults, almost designed to test a modern audience's patience.

Perhaps the point of the half-English/half Japanese setting (the Forest of Arden exteriors were shot at Wakehurst Place, in Sussex) was to increase the sense of a dreamlike neverland where fraternal conflict and attempted murder resolve into multiple happy endings just like that. But, in reality, it just makes the anachronisms look more glaring. For instance, the wrestling match at which Rosalind first falls in love with Orlando is played as a deadly serious sumo bout with every bit of ritual intact (down to the giant nappies) and young Mr Oyelowo matched against a Japanese man mountain - called Charles, and later described as "sinewy". Still, his victory is no more unbelievable than it is in the play.

And one doesn't have to be Mr PC to notice that, though the production design reflects Ken's embracing of Japanese culture, there is only one speaking part for an Asian actor. Most of the other Oriental faces are extras who stand around looking wise or beaming.

Using the setting to explore themes like colonialism and cultural appropriation (after all, the play was written at a time when Europeans were beginning to discover, and exploit, the Far East) would have made for a very interesting movie. Instead, there's just a lot of cross-dressing and increasingly forced slapstick. Much Ado About Nothing was like being given a surprise invite to a lavish summer party in Tuscany; this feels more akin to being trapped in a "back to nature" weekend theatre workshop where the actors are having a lot more fun than you.

There are compensations, of course, chiefly in the playing. The Americans are actually very good; Bryce Dallas Howard speaks the verse naturally but musically and her Rosalind is feisty, sexy and independent, while Kevin Kline as the melancholy Jaques gives the "seven ages of man" speech beautifully, seeming to realise life's capacity for pain and disappointment even as he speaks of it.

Among the Brits, Romola Garai stands out as Rosalind's devoted cousin Celia, displaying a natural touch for comedy and a steely will when defying her usurping father to be with her friend in exile. And Alfred Molina as Touchstone, sporting Charlie Chaplin's trousers and Jack Nance in Eraserhead's hair, makes one of the least funny clowns in the canon almost bearable.

Given an original script like this, you can't go too far wrong. But Branagh's other meetings with the Bard have gone a lot more right. It's time to try Everest  again, Ken, and there's never been a truly great film version of King Lear...

Reviewed on: 15 Oct 2007
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As You Like It packshot
A banished duke and a young nobleman, Orlando, seek refuge in the Forest of Arden. The duke's daughter, in love with Orlando, pursues him disguised as a boy and devises a test for his love.
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Director: Kenneth Branagh

Writer: William Shakespeare, adapted for the screen by Kenneth Branagh

Starring: Brian Blessed, Bryce Dallas Howard, Romola Garai, Adrian Lester, David Oyelowo, Alfred Molina, Kevin Kline, Richard Briers

Year: 2006

Runtime: 127 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US, UK


CFF 2007

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