Unproduced? That's how Judge Joel Pearce likes this lesser Shakespearean comedy.
A dream of Japan
For a while there, a Shakespearean film from Kenneth Branagh was a major cultural event. That started with the release of Henry V, an uncommonly intense and tasteful production from such a young director. This trend continued with the dazzling production of Much Ado About Nothing, one of the best Shakespearean adaptations ever filmed. After Hamlet, however, excitement over Branagh's productions has quickly waned. Love's Labour's Lost barely registered in most circles, and I didn't even hear about As You Like It until it showed up on the DVD Verdict list. It's an interesting production, one that serious Shakespeare fans will want to explore—even if they feel the same way I do about the problem comedies.
Facts of the Case
I'll try to do this the best I can. The young Rosalind (Bryce Dallas Howard, The Village) is trapped in her uncle's court after her father is banished to the woods nearby. She decides to follow her father, dragging her cousin Celia (Romola Garai, Amazing Grace) along for the journey. It's a dangerous trek, though, so Rosalind disguises herself as a man. She soon discovers that the handsome young Orlando (David Oyelowo, The Last King of Scotland) is also exiled in the forest. They love each other, but she must now win his affection without revealing her true identity. Much silliness ensues, often involving the exploits of some of the other new forest dwellers: the melancholy Jaques (Kevin Kline, Trade) and the playful Touchstone (Alfred Molina, Frida).
It's almost impossible to approach a film version of a Shakespearean play the same way that critics approach the average film. It shouldn't make a difference to us, really, what the source material is, but it's hard to escape the influence of the Bard, especially as an English teacher and film critic. My admiration for the man aside, As You Like It features one of the most ridiculous, unnecessary plot devices in the history of situation comedies. All Rosalind needs to do to solve the main conflict in the play is reveal her identity to Orlando. We've already seen by this point that he is good, noble, and brave, which means she would have his protection and wouldn't need her disguise anymore. Instead they spend four acts in this complex game that she assembles before they can be together for good. She is trying to test him, I suppose, but any man that's willing to paste his bad poetry all over a forest can be trusted. It's complication for complication's sake, and it doesn't play as well as it did 400 years ago.
And, of course, we must ignore completely the fact that Bryce Dallas Howard does not and could never look like a man. Her disguise is even worse than Superman's, because she doesn't even have glasses to change her appearance. She just ties her hair in a ponytail and puts some pants on. This would have made a lot more sense on the Elizabethan stage, since boys needed to play all the girls' parts, and that play with gender was always present in the performance. That no longer resonates with us, and it's hard to ignore the fact that Bryce Dallas Howard is a female hottie, even when she's wearing men's clothes.
The side plots haven't aged well, either. As much as I love Kevin Kline and Alfred Molina, their own stories are silly, overly wordy, and terribly trite. When Shakespeare was willing to grapple with major issues in life and love, he did so with brilliance and keen insight. The problem comedies, on the other hand, play out just like our own situation comedies, except twice as long and strangely old-fashioned. Branagh's visually opulent production and novel approach can't cover up the flaws of the source material, which is the largest complaint I can level against this film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Regardless about how I feel about As You Like It, this is a stunning production. Branagh has plopped the story into 19th Century Japan, where British nobles have moved in and act—as much as they can—like Samurai. The lords dress like samurai rulers, and Jaques writes on his typewriter cross-legged on the floor. This Japanese identity isn't real, though, any more than Rosalind's transformation can actually make her a man. They quickly discover that they are the same people that they were in Britain, and find themselves trapped in the same squabbles they always were. The new setting means nothing in the end, except that the exile takes place in the stunning Japanese forest, which is a beautiful place to tell a story. As with his other productions, Branagh draws great performances from all of his actors, and they speak Shakespeare's text with great timing and beauty. Fans of As You Like It will surely find nothing to complain about here, despite its strange transportation to another place and time.
As far as the DVD goes, HBO has really pulled out the stops in terms of the transfer. The image quality is stunning, taking full advantage of the scenery, both indoor and outdoor. I can see no flaws at all, especially for a television production. The sound is also excellent, with clear dialogue and nicely mixed music. There isn't much action in the surrounds, but that's hardly the point here. In terms of extras, we get a production featurette that promises to take us "from page to screen." How they thought they could do that in four minutes, I'm not sure. A commentary would have been greatly preferred, but we have to do without.
Branagh has done as well as possible with a play that simply doesn't play that well anymore. Those who are able to get caught up in the drama will have a blast. For the rest of us, though, it really is much ado about nothing. It's certainly better than those old BBC versions, though, if you want to visualize the play for class.
Branagh and his cast are all free to go. My issues with As You Like It are with its original creator.
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