As You Like It
by Ed Moore
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Kenneth Branagh has proven time and again that he is one of the all-time greats when it comes to adapting Shakespeare’s plays into films. His versions of Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing were popular hits, and his Hamlet may well be the definitive version of the play that many consider to be the single greatest work in the history of literature. Thus Branagh is a natural choice to film As You Like It, one of the Bard’s lesser known comedies, for television.
That makes it all the more surprising, then, that As You Like It seems off in both tone and presentation.
Branagh shifts the location of the story from 16th-century France to 19th-century Japan. This switch makes little difference in the plot, in which Duke Senior (Brian Blessed) is driven, along with many servants and followers, from his own court by his brother, Duke Frederick (Blessed again), while his daughter, Rosalind (Bryce Dallas Howard), stays behinds because she’s Best Friends Forever with Frederick’s daughter, Celia (Romola Garai). Then Rosalind meets Orlando (David Oyelowo) at a wrestling match that Orlando wins, only to be threatened by Frederick when he learns that Orlando is the son of a now-deceased rival, whose other son, Oliver (Adrian Lester) hates Orlando because everybody loves him. Orlando falls in love at first sight with Rosalind, and she with him, but then Rosalind is banished by Frederick because she is loved by everyone; Rosalind decides to head out into the forest disguised as a boy named Ganymede, and Celia and Touchstone (Alfred Molina), the court clown, to go with her.
Of course, romantic wackiness ensues, with Touchstone falling for a shepherdess (Janet McTeer), Celia falling for Oliver, and another shepherdess falling for Ganymede, who’s trying to counsel Orlando on his romantic feelings for Rosalind. (Amazingly, Orlando doesn’t recognize the woman he’s madly in love with in her “disguise,” which consists only of dressing like a man while still looking pretty much the same in face, hair and even makeup.)
Maybe Branagh changed the location from France to Japan to take advantage of the more exciting and exotic visuals the physical/cultural changes could provide, since much of the play involves characters standing around together in various combinations and talking about being in love or wanting to be in love. For example, the attack on Duke Senior’s court at the beginning of the movie is carried out by ninjas (yep, that’s what Shakespeare needed—ninjas!), the wrestling match now pits Orlando against a sumo, and kimonos abound. It feels like Shakespeare by way of Gilbert & Sullivan. (Appropriately, Kevin Kline, who plays the weary, moody traveler, Jaques, has done both.)
Branagh also takes an off-kilter approach to the material, often treating Shakespeare’s comedy with the seriousness of a tragedy. Incidents alluded to in the play, like the attack on Duke Senior’s court and Oliver’s attempted murder of Orlando, are shown in dramatic fashion and clash with the lighter scenes of would-be lovers bickering in the forest.
Branagh has assembled a first-class cast, though, and gets top-notch performances from Shakespeare veteran Blessed, who scores equally well as the cold, menacing Frederick and the warm, gentle Senior; Kline, who makes Jaques’ melancholy palpable, especially in the “All the world’s a stage” speech; McTeer and Molina, who get laughs as the lusty Audrey and Touchstone; and Oyelowo, whose Orlando is passionate, sympathetic and intelligent, despite being goofed out of his head in love. Howard continues her ascent into the top tier of young American actresses with her fine performance as Rosalind, but her radiance is a distraction when she pretends to be Ganymede; not for a moment do we believe she is a he, and perhaps we’re not meant to.
As You Like It also looks lush and colorful, thanks to Branagh’s restless camera, which seems to forever be prowling and swirling through the forest, and lush visuals by cinematographer Roger Lanser, who gives and almost dreamlike sheen to the proceedings.
As You Like It may not be a wholly successful adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy, but it’s certainly a beautiful-looking film with enough quality performances to keep you interested—and maybe even entertained.
Ed Moore is a writer and film reviewer in Chicago.
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