Bard to the Bone: Branagh Regains Shakespearean Creds With Highly Watchable Comedy

Palm Beach Post, 19 August 2007
by Hap Erstein, Palm Beach Post Film Writer

The shelf of film adaptations of William Shakespeare's plays would be much sparser without the handiwork of director-screenwriter and sometimes actor Kenneth Branagh. His latest movie - a Japanese-tinged As You Like It - is a worthy addition to his previous adaptations of the Bard's texts, even if you have to experience it on cable TV instead of a big-screen theater where this visually stunning and well-spoken knockout of a film deserves to be seen.

Undoubtedly, Branagh was overpraised when he burst upon the scene in 1989, a brash 28-year-old who invited comparisons to Sir Laurence Olivier by penning, directing and playing the title role in his antiwar version of Henry V.

But he did have a way of harnessing the movie medium and making Shakespeare accessible to the masses, as he proved again four years later with a Much Ado About Nothing that was both sensuous and quite faithful to the romantic skirmish comedy.

There are those who say he was too faithful to Shakespeare with his Hamlet (1996), which clocked in at 4 hours and 2 minutes, but somehow brought him his fourth Oscar nomination for his barely edited screenplay. (Less known is his Bard-friendly A Midwinter's Tale, a black-and-white comedy about struggling actors putting on a Christmas-time production of Hamlet in a church.)

His only real stumble with Shakespeare on film was seven years ago when he strayed the furthest, turning Love's Labour's Lost into a drastically abridged song-and-dance pastiche, about which the less said the better. Its critical and commercial rejection may explain why it has taken Branagh so long to get back to the Bard. It may also explain why As You Like It is being aired on HBO.

Branagh, who does not appear onscreen (but does find a way to sneakily insert himself into a scene during the closing credits), sets the durable comedy in 19th-century Japan. It was a time when trade with the West had opened up the nation and English merchant visitors had become commonplace. Although Branagh is reverent to Shakespeare's language, he is also mindful of the visual demands of film, a tricky balancing act at best.

He begins with a first-rate scene-setter, a nearly wordless sequence in which we see a Kabuki performance interrupted by the samurai warriors of evil Duke Frederick, who crash through the rice paper-thin walls of the performance space and abduct the alien Brits. Early on in the play, Shakespeare wrote in a wrestling scene which gets the victorious Orlando - the play's romantic lead - banished to the Forest of Arden. So without a single word change, it was easy for Branagh to fill that wrestling scene with the rituals of sumo.

Those who are resistant to such cultural transposition as mere gimmickry will be pleased to learn that the film settles down when the action moves to the forest, leaving the japonaiserie behind except for an occasional scene in a serenely raked formal stone garden.

The play is one of Shakespeare's most poetic and romantic comedies, with lots of the crowd-pleasing plot devices that he became known for. The characters experience a liberation through nature that is magical, with nearly everyone falling in love.

As You Like It tends to succeed or fail based on the abilities of its Rosalind, the daughter of a benevolent Duke, who takes to the forest disguised as a guy she dubs Ganymede. There she finds herself adored by members of both genders and, when the plays works best, by the audience as well. She is played by Bryce Dallas Howard (Ron's daughter), repeating a role she was acclaimed for onstage three years ago at New York's Public Theatre.

Having been shackled previously in such films as Manderlay and Lady in the Water, she has hardly been fairly tested yet, but she absolutely blossoms as Rosalind. Howard deftly controls the attentions of Orlando (hot-blooded newcomer David Oyelowo), who is convinced she is a guy, and she also attracts a randy shepherdess named Phoebe. Whatever Branagh said to Howard as he directed her obviously worked. This is the first tangible evidence that Howard has screen star quality.

The play is studded with juicy supporting roles and Branagh has drawn a solid cast at ease with Elizabethan verse. Alfred Molina is a worthy Touchstone, the clown who turns downright lecherous in the woods with Janet McTeer (Tumbleweeds) as country lass Audrey. Kevin Kline assumes the melancholic mantle of a courtier called Jaques, a man of "most humorous sadness." He gets the choice soliloquy of "all the world's a stage," which he delivers well, but Branagh mutes its effectiveness with the odd decision to film most of it in a long shot.

Knowing that his script is wordy, Branagh makes a point of keeping the camera moving, swirling around the characters and coming close to giving the viewer motion sickness. Still, the play comes through with impressive clarity, even if the director gives the impression he is afraid of stillness.

In The Winter's Tale, there is a famous stage direction that a character exits, pursued by a bear. It is often omitted in production (understandably), but Branagh finds a way to top it in As You Like It, inserting a curiously tangential attack by a hungry lion. In his film of Much Ado, Branagh got the audience's attention with the injection of a little nudity. He almost does the same again, as Rosalind skinny-dips in an Arden stream, covered by a strategically placed tree limb.

The settings look attractive and reasonably authentic, a tribute to production designer Tim Harvey, for the movie got nowhere close to filming in Japan. Instead, it was shot in the woods of a Sussex park as well as a London studio for the interiors. All the world's a stage indeed.

Still to be determined is whether Branagh can get his career in contemporary films back on track. A remake of Anthony Shaffer's trick thriller Sleuth that Branagh directed is due out in October. But if As You Like It is any indication, his touch with Shakespeare is very much intact.

And he still has 31 plays of the Bard's left to adapt.


As You Like It
When: Tuesday, 9 p.m.
Where: HBO
Running time: 2 hrs., 7 min.
The verdict: One of Shakespeare's most poetic and romantic comedies, skillfully performed and deftly transferred to 19th-century Japan.

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