AYL: the 2006 Branagh version (I love you, Branagh, but you’re not Kurosawa)

So, as part of my due diligence, directing As You Like It, I like to go back and look at some of the past versions of the play that I can find on film or video.

Today, we have the 2006 version…

In 2006, Kenneth Branagh (who’s got quite the Shakespearean film pedigree… Henry V, Much Ado, a full-length Hamlet), directed (but unlike those previous films, didn’t act in this) a version that while it was released theatrically in Europe, but ran only on HBO–who produced the film–here in the States. Branagh set his version in samurai-era Japan, when there were European traders in the country. And as he makes some really interesting choices:

A dialogue-free pre-credit sequence shows us the usurpation of the dukedom, replete with a Kabuki performance and a ninja attack. Frederick, with his black hair, is obviously younger than Duke Senior, a grey-bearded gentlemen, both played by the late Brian Blessed. In foreshadowing to Frederick’s climactic meeting of the “old religious man”, we see Senior meet the same religious man as he flees into the Forest of Arden (as will his daughter, Celia, and Touchstone when they flee into the woods).

As the added opening can attest, Branagh loves to edit and move around scenes and speeches as well as add new scenes, and for the most part it works: we actually see Oliver’s torching of Orlando’s home, the meeting of Touchstone and Jaques, Orlando finding Oliver, and–of course–Frederick’s off-stage conversion. Branagh’s not afraid to get fancy with the camera, either: the first half of Orlando and Ganymede’s first meeting is done in a single take, with a flowing camera following them as they walk through the countryside in an unbroken shot. Very nice, and very good in showing the growing chemistry between the two.

Speaking of the two, Bryce Dallas Howard is a solid and versatile Rosalind (though perhaps a little too effeminate as Ganymede) and David Oyelowo is great as Orlando. Both Kevin Kline and Alfred Molina thrive in their melancholy and comic roles of Jaques and Touchstone, respectively. And Romola Garai makes the most of the thankless role of Celia, making it both slapticky and heartfelt.

And the Epilogue is awesome. After the close of the film, we see Howard in Ganymede costume walking and speaking the epilogue to us, but something is amiss… we’re seeing a car in the background. Then as she continues to walk, we see the trappings of a film set and location shoot. It’s really well done. It ends with her entering her trailer, closing the door behind her, with her name and character name taped to the door. Then we hear Branagh’s distinctive voice say, “Cut.” Then credits. Awesomely done, and reminiscent of how he handled the opening Chorus to his first Shakespeare film, Henry V.

If all of this makes it sound like a great production, I’m afraid to say… it isn’t. It’s ok, don’t get me wrong. But somehow, in this case the whole is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. The elements are all there and all great, but the enterprise as a whole doesn’t quite gel. I’m not put off by the setting. You all know me by now, I love breaking free of the “traditional” museum-piece trap (though I am a little disappointed that there weren’t more “native” characters… a few Japanese actors [maybe in the de Boys roles] would have been nice… here we’re left with what appear to be Eur-asians limited to playing the country bumpkins). It’s definitely worth a view… I just wish I liked it more. And you can find it both on DVD and streaming on Amazon and currently HBO Go.

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