'As You Like It'
Catholic News Service, 6 August 2007
It's a sad byproduct of motion-picture economics that director Kenneth Branagh's latest Shakespeare adaptation is bypassing theaters and going directly to TV. But all the more kudos to HBO for having the good taste to acquire what turns out to be an exceptionally fine adaptation. It will debut on the pay cable channel Tuesday, Aug. 21, 9-11:15 p.m. EDT.
It is arguably Branagh's best Shakespeare film since his first, "Henry V," trumping his "Love's Labours Lost," "Much Ado About Nothing" and "Hamlet," all worthy but flawed in one way or another.
"As You Like It" is rather eccentrically set in 19th-century Japan, when the country was opened up to the West for the first time. For the first few minutes, you'd be forgiven for thinking you're watching a color remake of "The Seven Samurai."
Given this setup, the main European characters are occupiers living in a trading post. In the opening scene, Shakespeare's royal characters - Duke Senior (Brian Blessed), his daughter, Rosalind (Bryce Dallas Howard), and niece Celia (Romola Garai) - are watching a kabuki performance, while outside armored samurai forces led by the duke's villainous brother, Frederick (Blessed, in a dual role), get ready to attack. When they finally break into the house, the duke and his entourage, including the dour Jacques (Kevin Kline), must flee to the forest of Arden.
Only Rosalind is allowed to stay behind as a companion to Celia, but eventually she rouses Frederick's unreasonable ire, and she is banished. Celia insists on going with her, so they, too, flee, with court jester Touchstone (Alfred Molina) in tow.
In a parallel story, Oliver (Adrian Lester), the jealous elder son of the late Sir Rowland de Boys, is plotting to kill his brother, Orlando (David Oyelowo). Orlando, accompanied by his faithful old servant, Adam (Richard Briers), takes to the woods as well.
It was love at first sight for Rosalind and Orlando when she watched him get the best of champion (sumo) wrestler Charles in an earlier scene. In the woods, Rosalind, now disguised as a boy, encounters the lovelorn Orlando and paves the way for their ultimate union. And the various other romantic alliances, including Touchstone and goat herder Audrey (Janet McTeer), and young shepherds Silvius (Alex Wyndham) and Phoebe (Jade Jefferies), fall into place.
Once the action shifts to the forest, the Japanese window dressing nearly vanishes, and the production becomes more traditional.
This is a wonderful story of forgiveness, reconciliation, redemption and, in one instance, actual conversion. Branagh's pruned the text, but not anywhere near as drastically as the creaky (if enjoyable) Elisabeth Bergner-Laurence Olivier version that often shows up on TV.
The casting is the usual Anglo-American colorblind hodgepodge favored by Branagh. But this time, the American actors, especially the luminous Howard, fit in seamlessly. Howard's accent is impeccable, and though Kline is more restrained in his Britishness, he's an accomplished Shakespearean, and delivers his "seven ages of man" speech deftly. And even the incongruous (for the historical period) casting of black actors Lester and Oyelowo works well, as they are so accomplished in their portrayals. Of the older guard, Branagh stalwarts Briers and Blessed are particularly wonderful.
As with all the director's Shakespeare films, he makes sure the text is always delivered with consummate clarity, and in cinematic terms Branagh again proves his mastery of the medium.
Some passing Shakespearean bawdiness may preclude the youngest viewers, but otherwise this is fine family entertainment and should be a boon to students studying the play.
Perhaps HBO will be inspired to pick up Branagh's so-far-unreleased movie of Mozart's "The Magic Flute."
[Forbes is director of the Office for Film & Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.]