Tuesday, June 3, 2008

As You Like It

"As You Like It" (Kenneth Branagh, 2006) Branagh's films run hot or cold--his "Henry V" and "Hamlet" and "Dead Again" being good, and over-heated messes like his version of "Frankenstein" and 2007's "Sleuth" being where he just can't manage the material, or, in an attempt to light them up a bit, he starts being a bit too fusty with them, bringing in a swooping camera amid histrionic performances. Those are the Branagh movies where you want to grab him by his ascot and say, "why don't we call it a night, let everyone get some sleep and think things over."

Happily, "As You Like It" is not one of those over-baked Branagh's, but it feels a bit underdone as well, where the setting and the text don't seem to mesh as well as the director thought they might.

This Shakespeare comedy is set, by the director, in feudal Japan where a warlord sets another Duke and entourage out into the forest--a classical japanese garden--to talk over matters and wait until the complications abate and everyone can get married and live happily ever after in a nice frothy frolic, very much like his ending for "Much Ado About Nothing." A lot of Branagh's past collaborators are here--Richard Briers, Adrian Lester, and Brian Blessed (playing both Dukes--and far less boisterously than one is accustomed to seeing him), Kevin Kline gets the "All the World's a Stage" speech, Alfred Molina plays Touchstone (looking like Brian Bolland's Mr. Mamoulian), and the lead of Rosalind is played by Opie's kid, Bryce Dallas Howard. Now, Howard has previously been cast in roles where she was merely meant to be frail or other-worldly, so to see her in full command and making "As You Like It" her own is something of a great triumph, acknowledged by Branagh by giving Howard the afterword, as she strolls through the trailers, bottled water in hand, and takes her bow, before going to her trailer.

Now that's updating Shakespeare.

This film never saw a release in America, but instead went directly to HBO, no doubt due to the poor performance of Branagh's "Love's Labours Lost" in theaters. Too bad. Branagh seems to be at his best adapting Shakespeare and breathing some life into it for modern audiences, and at his worst doing something else.

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