|A FilmExposed Film Review
Dir: Kenneth Branagh, 2006, USA/UK, 127 mins
Cast: Brian Blessed, Bryce Dallas Howard, Romola Garai, Adrian Lester, Alfred Molina, Kevin Kline, David Oyelowo, Richard Briers
For his fifth Shakespearean screen adaptation Kenneth Branagh has chosen what’s typically seen as one of the playwright’s lightest confections. As You Like It sees the avuncular Duke Senior (Blessed) cast out of his court by his wicked brother, Frederick (also Blessed). He flees with a band of followers into the Forest of Arden (sometimes Ardenne) where, in the tradition of Renaissance pastoral literature, the rustic world provides a zone of calm contemplation from which to judge the pros and cons of courtly life.
Amid this drama, As You Like It centres on the love affair between Rosalind (Howard) and Orlando (Oyewelo), youngest son of the dead Sir Rowland de Boys. Sir Rowland’s eldest son, Oliver (Lester) has persecuted his brother, denying him an education and income befitting his station, and following an assassination attempt Orlando also flees into the forest with his father’s servant, Old Adam (Briers).
Having fallen for Rosalind at court, Orlando encounters her again following an episode in which he festoons trees with bad poetry dedicated to her. But he meets her in her disguise as Ganymede, a male shepherd. In a typically intricate piece of plotting, Shakespeare has Ganymede, who is disparaging about Orlando’s poetry, strike a deal with him: he will pretend to be Rosalind, and Orlando must woo him/her. Throw in several more love affairs between numerous characters and the stage is set for a comedic disquisition on romantic love with some added homoerotic overtones (in Greek mythology Ganymede was a beautiful boy whom Jove desired and plucked from earth to serve as cupbearer to the gods on Mount Olympus).
Branagh’s adaptation is hit-and-miss in the alterations it makes to the play’s structure. In the original text, Frederick’s coup occurs offstage and is rather confusingly explained. Here it is understandably placed at the beginning, with a surprise attack launched by ninjas as Duke Senior’s court enjoys a piece of kabuki theatre. That’s right: ninjas and kabuki. Branagh has, for some strange reason, decided to set his As You Like It not in Warwickshire or Ardenne (the play’s exact location is unspecified, but these are the two most plausible options) but in 1880s Japan, when that country had opened its borders to foreign trade and European merchants set up homes around ‘treaty ports’.
The decision is a puzzling one, as despite the aesthetic pleasures always afforded by ninjas (whose attack is in any case clumsily filmed, complete with some embarrassingly cheesy zooms to pump up the drama) it adds absolutely nothing new to the play. Aside from the odd Japanese gate and Zen rock garden dotted about the place, there’s no escaping the fact that as we see it here The Forest of Arden is more Horsham than Honshu.
As You Like It is by far Branagh’s least convincing Shakespeare adaptation, but special note must be made of Bryce Dallas Howard, who is superb as Rosalind. Her character is one of Shakespeare’s most vivacious female creations and she captures her wit and intelligence with aplomb. Kevin Kline is also very good as Jacques, the caustic philosopher. Alfred Molina does his best with Touchstone, but Shakespere’s fools are rarely funny, and that is the case here. There are depths to this deceptively light play, but this version leaves them almost wholly unplumbed.