Dir: Kenneth Branagh UK-US. 2006. 127mins.
Kenneth Branagh's fifth Shakespeare adaptation (after Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet and Love's Labour's Lost), As You Like It is a curiously undercharged affair. Handsomely and fluidly shot and intelligently performed, it nonetheless lacks spark. What should be a playful and magical sojourn in the Forest of Arden turns into a test of endurance as we wait for lovers to recognise one another, disguises to be stripped off and the various subplots to be resolved.
Part of the problem is Branagh's decision to set the film in late 19th-century Japan. This may allow for a few references to kabuki plays and an opening action sequence with a hint of Kurosawa about it, but the immersion in Japanese culture feels half-hearted. The actors are British and American, and the film was shot in England; the Japanese references here are decorative and superficial.
As You Like It , which has already played in film festivals in Dublin and Bath and was theatrically released in Italy late last year, is penciled in for release in the UK on around 20 prints in July. Branagh still has his fans and he may win respectful notices in certain quarters from reviewers who relish tasteful literary cinema. (At times, the scenes of high jinks in the woods are even vaguely reminiscent of certain sequences in Merchant Ivory's A Room With A View.)
The title may also have library value; it is not a film that is ever likely to date. Whatever else, it will provide a useful primer for anyone studying the play.
Nonetheless, it is hard to see the film (co-financed by HBO) doing any better than the director's last foray into Shakespeare territory, Love's Labour's Lost.
This new Shakespeare adaptation is one of three features Branagh has directed in relatively quick succession after a lengthy break from working behind the camera. His version of The Magic Flute was warmly received in Venice last autumn; he has also recently completed a remake of Sleuth with Michael Caine and Jude Law.
As a generalisation, film adaptations of Shakespeare's tragedies are generally more critically successful than those of his comedies. The former have a darkness and narrative drive that the latter often lack. It is instructive to compare the intensity of such Shakespeare-inspired movies as Kurosawa's Throne Of Blood and Ran with the insipid mood struck here. Branagh brings little radicalism or edge to the material.
The story starts with Duke Senior (Blessed) and his small court watching a kabuki play in their small court on the edges of the Forest of Arden. His warmongering brother Frederick (also Blessed) bursts in with a group of samurai warriors and stages a coup. Senior is forced in to exile.
The sons of Sir Rowland De Boys, a former friend of Senior's, are at loggerheads. The eldest, Oliver (Lester) disinherits his younger brother Orlando (Oyelowo), who also seeks refuge in the woods. Joining the party in the Forest of Arden is Frederick's daughter Celia (Garai) and Duke Senior's daughter Rosalind (Dallas Howard).
To protect themselves, they adopt disguises. Rosalind pretends she is a young man called Ganymede and Celia assumes the identity of his sister Aliena. They take the court jester Touchstone (Molina) with them for company. It is at this point that the complications, romantic and otherwise, begin in earnest.
Stage productions of As You Like It often draw parallels between the usurping dictator Frederick (played here by Brian Blessed) and modern-day fascists. This isn't something that Branagh much emphasises. It is hard to take the genial, gallumphing Blessed seriously as the embodiment of evil.
Given the relatively modest budget with which the film was made, it is no surprise that there are few big set-pieces. What is disappointing is how quickly the dramatic momentum flags once the main characters are banished in the woods.
In the underrated Love's Labour's Lost, Branagh successfully boiled down a Shakespearean comedy into a 90-minute Busby Berkeley-style musical complete with big production numbers and plenty of song and dance. He shows no such chutzpah here.
Ultimately, this is a disappointingly conventional and even timid stab at the material. It is commendable that the director gives his actors so much leeway and makes Shakespeare's language sound so natural. What is lacking, though, is any real verve.
Too much of the comic business is leaden. The scenes between Touchstone (the elaborately coifed Alfred Molina) and Audrey (McTeer) are strained and unfunny.
There are also opportunities here for Bringing Up Baby-style screwball humour about gender confusion and role playing but the filmmakers don't take them. Given that so little happens, the two hour plus running time seems excessive.
Nevertheless, individual sequences are cleverly handled. For example, when Jacques (Kline) recites the famous lines 'all the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players,' the camera roams around him before finally fixing in a close-up on his face.
It is a moment that could easily have descended into kitsch has poignance and charm. Likewise, the scenes between the two feuding brothers Oliver and Orlando register strongly.
As ever in his Shakespeare films, Branagh has assembled an eclectic cast. This time, he has chosen not to appear himself. His lead Bryce Dallas Howard shows plenty of flintiness and charm as Rosalind, the heroine who spends much of the movie in male garb. (Unfortunately, she doesn't look remotely like a man. It strains belief that her would-be lover Orlando doesn't recognise her.)
Kevin Kline delivers just the right measure of understatement and wistful melancholy as Jacques. There is strong support, too, from David Oyelowo as the courageous but lovelorn Orlando and from Romola Garai as the ever-loyal Celia.
The woods themselves are lovingly shot. Patrick Doyle's rousing music tries to put a bit of oomph into the storytelling. For all the efforts of the cast and technicians, this is one Shakespeare adaptation that never takes wing.
The Shakespeare Film Company
Kenneth Branagh, adapted from the play by William Shakespeare
Bryce Dallas Howard