Branagh's Japanese Sojourn
Whether it's Shaffer or Shakespeare, one can always count on twinkle-eyed British boy wonder Kenneth Branagh to direct audacious stage adaptations

FilmStew, 13 July 2007
By Shelley Gabert

As You Like It... set in the Empire of the Sun?

That's Kenneth Branagh's vision for Forest of Arden in the HBO film he has directed of Shakespeare's 19th century comedy. But let's face it; as the reigning British king of Shakespeare, actor-writer-director Branagh has earned a bit of leeway with the Bard. All told, he has adapted five Shakespeare plays into films, but here he felt that by setting 'As You Like It' in Japan, he could introduce both Europeans and Japanese characters.

"Japan has a wonderful landscape, a celebration of nature and a connection with nature," Branagh explains during a panel discussion at the Beverly Hilton Hotel attended by FilmStew. "Town versus country, busy city life versus a simpler country life. From 1850 to 1900, Japan was trying to become an industrial nation, not an agricultural one and so Westerners were invited in. Lots of English people came, as they were in all other parts of the Empire, and traded in silk and rice and they often formed little mini empires, so that the mixture of Japanese and English were sometimes exactly in the kind of proportion we have in the film."

Much of the action takes place at a Japanese trading post, and Branagh makes the palace coup occur at the beginning of the narrative. There's no questioning his casting though, as the film stars Bryce Dallas Howard as Rosalind, David Oyelowo as Orlando and Kevin Kline as Jaques. They're joined by Brian Blessed (Duke Frederick/Duke Senior), who Branagh has worked with before, as well as Richard Briers (Old Adam), Adrian Lester (Oliver) and Jimmy Yuill (Corin). Other cast members include Janet McTeer as Audrey and Alfred Molina as Touchstone.

Branagh's studio, Shepperton Studios, is almost as drenched in history as the Old Globe Theater in London. The first film made there was 'Henry V', which earned him Academy Award nominations for Best Actor and Director. That film also starred Paul Scofield, who shot the trial scene from 'A Man for All Seasons' more than 30 years before. It is also where famed director Stanely Kubrick shot '2001: A Space Odyssey'. Branagh also just finished filming 'Sleuth', for which he directed the stellar twosome of Michael Caine and Jude Law, from a script by Harold Pinter.

Branagh though has made Shakespeare his own, through 'Much Ado About Nothing' (starring Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, Keanue Reeves and Emma Thompson) and his full-length version of 'Hamlet', which received four Academy Award nominations. In 2000, he made a 1930's musical version of 'Love's Labours Lost', his fourth Shakespeare film adaptation. Certainly Kline has a definite Shakespeare pedigree, and his productions at the New York Shakespeare Festival have included five plays; he directed and starred in a second production of 'Hamlet' that received five Drama Desk nominations.

In casting Kline, Branagh couldn't say enough about his talents. "He's got vast Shakespearean experience," raves 46-year-old Belfast native Branagh. "He's a brillliant dramatic actor, a very, very funny man, and is in life intellectually curious. And as with all funny men, he has a kind of disposition to a certain kind of melancholy and philosophical introspection."

"Some scholars over the years have said that Jacques is the voice of Shakespeare," Branagh continues. "In this midst of this romance, here is this absolute cynic. Although, he's also an idealist. Only Shakespeare could have thought to put a guy, who when everybody is celebrating their love and marriage and happy endings, says, 'It's not for me. Sorry. I'm going to go meditate and try to fgure out what is really going on.' That this is some Platonic shadow game. He's really got a philosophic bent."

While Howard recently starred in 'Spider-Man 3', she also did work on the New York stage and appeared in another version of 'As You like It' at the Public Theater. Her co-star David Oyelowo meanwhile has a long history with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Even so, he was very intimidated to audition for Branagh, which he did at his house.

"This man is a complete legend as far as Shakespeare is concerned, as far as acting is concerned, as far as what the theatrical acting establishment in the UK is concerned," he recalls. "And when I arrived to audition, the biggest shock for me was the fact that I had to audition against Branagh. He was reading the other lines and my saliva just turned to sand. There I was auditioning with Henry V's Lago Benedict... I mean Coriolanus. So for you to be behind the camera was great because I knew I was in the hands of sort of the best."

[As You Like It debuts on HBO August 21st, with several other playdates to follow on both HBO and HBO 2.]

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