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As He Likes It

September 3, 2007

I suspected it for a while but couldn't be certain. Now I can say with full confidence that Kenneth Branagh has finally gone mad. I watched his new As You Like It for HBO and I regret to say that what little composure he once had as a director of Shakespeare's plays on screen ended with Much Ado About Nothing in 1993.

Branagh's adaptation of Shakespeare's 1599 pastoral comedy is set in Japan and takes its premise that country's opening up of trade to the west in the 19th century -- the idea of British traders in Japan failing to return to Queen Vic and choosing to build mini-fiefdoms in the land of the rising sun instead. The choice made no sense to me. It looks like little more than an excuse for pretty costumes and lots of pointless shots of picturesque pagodas and trees.

The decor is half Victorian traveling circus and half geisha fantasy. The two seem to have little to do with one another and we don't learn much from the contrast either. In the final scene, all the brides (who've heretofore been seen in western garb) suddenly turn up in full-on kimonos and Japanese hairdos. I'm guessing that Branagh might be aiming for some comment on cultural assimilation, but I don't see what this has to do with the theme of the play.

The cinematography is fussy (lots of strange camera angles and out-of-place track shots.) When Kevin Kline, as Jacques, delivers his "All the world's a stage" speech, for instance, he does so from a distance, his body and face obscured by twigs and leaves as the camera gradually meanders towards him. What a waste.

Branagh has also managed to suck all the humor out of the play. Alfred Molina's Touchstone is a lecher in a Barnum and Bailey clown's wig. And the less said about Bryce Dallas Howard's Rosalind the better: "No charisma" just about defines it. It's just as well that Branagh slashed her lines. The production must have been particularly trying for Adrian Lester, who plays Oliver in this adaptation but embodied Rosalind in an all-male version for Cheek by Jowl theatre company in the mid 1990s. He was so powerful, funny and tender in that role. Some critics thought him the finest Rosalind in modern British stage history. All I can say is that I hope he was well paid for putting up with HBO's sub-par production.

There's so much that is left unexplained in this film. From the silent Buddhist monk, always seen from behind, who occasionally wanders across the camera's viewfinder, to Oracle founder Larry Ellison's inexplicable appearance in the credits, I found myself constantly surprised. But not in a good way.

6 Comments:

  • "...to Oracle founder Larry Ellison's inexplicable appearance in the credits"

    Yes, I'm sure all the groundlings watching this film really give a shit that you recognized "Oracle founder Larry Ellison"'s name in the credits.

    You're out of touch with anything resembling what real audiences are concerned with.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At September 3, 2007 at 6:20 AM  

  • And I assume that the "groundlings" don't give a shit about the performances, the cinematography, the lack of comedy and the baffling mise-en-scene either? I'd be interested to hear your take on what you think audiences DO care about.

    By Blogger chloeveltman, At September 3, 2007 at 8:39 AM  

  • Thank you Chloe. I just returned from a month's travel away from anything theater-related. Got home, and thought I'd turn this on for a little gentle reintroduction.

    Watched for a while, and thought I'd lost all sense of what makes for good work, and that I should turn around and go back on vacation.

    Yes, he'd managed to make a moderately visually appealing piece that was gratuitously set in Japan - no reason for it, and no Japanese actors in significant roles (?) - and had removed all humor and dramatic tension from the play. Major disappointment. Perhaps time to give up on him...

    By Blogger ben, At September 3, 2007 at 12:26 PM  

  • Agreed. The uneven Much Ado (Michael Keaton, anyone? Anyone?) was the last time Branagh doing a Shakespeare film was even remotely a positive thing. His Hamlet was a slog, and Love's Labour's Lost was unwatchable. Also, as an actor he just seems to get hammier as time goes by.

    Sam

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At September 4, 2007 at 3:27 PM  

  • I've tried to watch this show three times and it just puts me to sleep. The first time I tried I spent the first 15 - 20 minutes reminding myself it was a comedy. I've never understood the whole Kenneth Branagh thing, but you're right - he's completely lost whatever it was he supposedly had.

    By Blogger E. Hunter Spreen, At September 5, 2007 at 12:44 AM  

  • Emma T has put an evil voodoo curse on the man.

    Let him flail himself to sleep.

    It won't be long now.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At September 6, 2007 at 10:11 PM  

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