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As You Like It

All Welles Not Well in Branagh’s
Heavy-Handed Filming of As You Like It

Cover of DVDHBO/The Shakespeare Film Company (2006)
Directed by Kenneth Branagh. with Bryce Dallas Howard, Kevin Kline, Alfred Molina, Brian Blessed, Romola Garai, David Oyelowo, Janet McTeer.

In the “Making of” documentary for his film As You Like It (the DVD’s only extra feature), Kenneth Branagh describes how he thinks more cinematically now than … well, he doesn’t fully finish the thought, but his inference is that he thinks more cinematically now than Shakespearean. While the making-of doc asserts this as reason to praise this production, it unfortunately provides a reason for avoiding this film.

Thinking cinematically to Branagh seems to mean channeling Orson Welles or Martin Scorsese and planting every one of their cinematic techniques everywhere and everyway he can—not just ad nauseum but literally nauseating with dizzying tracking cameras and disorienting editing.

To Branagh, it also means playing loose with the text to a greater degree than necessary. He opens the film showing us Duke Frederick’s usurpation of his elder brother, including a fair amount of violence. He rearranges Shakespeare's scenes, chops the first scene up and scatters it throughout the play, cuts what seems like half the text, and plops the whole into 19th century Japan (but obviously filmed in England). By imposing his cinematic sensibilities onto Shakespeare, Branagh seems to have forgotten that Shakespeare’s texts are inherently cinematic in the right hands. And at one time, he had the rightest of hands, as evidenced by his Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing. Perhaps his Hamlet, a lusciously fine production but earning some criticism for being too stagey, yanked him down this new path of cinematically deconstructing Shakespeare, first with an unsatisfying musical Love’s Labour’s Lost and now this tragedy.

For this As You Like It is more tragedy than comedy. Providing scenes of the usurpation is all well and good, knowing that something else will have to go, and what we lose is the full depth of Rosalind’s relationships with Celia and Orlando and the interplay between Duke Senior and Jaques. Removing this contextual humor, Branagh is left with lots of giggling girls, dancing exiles, and confetti to convey that this is, in fact, a comedy.

Branagh derives his setting from the historical context of British merchants who created miniempires of commerce shortly after the opening of Japan to the West. Thus, the usurpation is carried out through a samurai-ninja attack. While the setting gives us some nice moments, like the sumo wrestling scene and Rosalind hiding behind a fan upon meeting Orlando, it utterly falters in Arden (which, in the film’s opening scenes is many days’ walk from the Duke’s palace, but in the last scene is literally a hop, skip, and jump away). Branagh also gets uncomfortably close to a racist depiction of William (Paul Chan) as a simpleton Japanese farmer scampering away in fear when Touchstone bullies him with physical violence rather than just idiotic wordplay.

The production is full of strange, text-altering choices. In this telling, Audrey (Janet McTeer) becomes one of the exiles, a serving girl in the court heaved out by the usurping army, saved by William, and instantly recognized by Touchstone in Arden. This removes a huge chunk of the fool’s role as the court-to-country thematic counterpoint to Duke Senior. Corin (Jimmy Yuill) also is given a backstory as a priest, which prompts a totally different reading of his “I am a true laborer” speech in opposition to Shakespeare’s intended theme. Corin then plays the part of Sir Oliver Martext, but whether he was play-acting or truly drunk was lost in the film editor.

When a director boasts of—and a cast lauds that director for—thinking cinematically, said director needs to be cognizant of overthinking. In this As You Like It, quick edits create confusion in the narration (a la, the Martext scene). Settings serve more to provide an atmosphere than context, such as the de Boys brothers’ first confrontation in a driving rainstorm: we concentrate more on the big raindrops than the important expository lines. Patrick Doyle’s score—arguably his best composition (the soundtrack CD is definitely worth having)—often intrudes. The lion attack is the silliest this side of Prehistoric Women, not because it is in the play in the first place but because Branagh tried to trick us into not noticing that Orlando is fighting off a taxidermied beast. Most infuriating, Branagh never keeps the camera still. He loves tracking shots, constantly moving around and over characters in conversation. As Jaques gives his Seven Stages of Man speech, we the viewer sneak up on him around the bushes and trees.

The immensely talented Kevin Kline is Jaques, and his immense talent is rendered worthless in his portrayal of the melancholic not as a cynic bandying with the other characters but as a chronically depressed man. As everybody tries to please him (the lords forgo killing deer—they turn vegetarian for Jaques’ sake), Jaques just becomes tiresome; and rather than meeting his match of wit with Rosalind, their scene is more like a therapy session. Other true talents, like Bryce Dallas Howard as Rosalind and Brian Blessed as the two dukes, overamplify their expressions and giggles (in the first case) or expressions and sighs (in the second) so much you can’t hear the text for all the visual noise. Howard’s best moment is the epilogue, coming during the credits as she walks from the set to her trailer past crew and cast. Alfred Molina as Touchstone scores most of the few genuine laughs this film has, delivering the fool’s wit with perfect gravitis. Too bad his part was pared so much we lose the full spectrum of that wit.

For all these failings, this As You Like It has some important merit. Its most valuable contribution is in its portrayal of the play’s often-overlooked father-daughter dynamics, thanks in large part to the performance of Romola Garai as an affectionate, effervescent Celia who pointedly and firmly stands up to her father when he banishes Rosalind. After he explains his reasoning to her, Celia smiles tenderly, kisses her father’s forehead, then turns stern: “Pronounce that sentence then on me, my liege.” It is not a plea; it is a threat, so obvious she barely needs to remind Rosalind afterward, “Know’st thou not the duke hath banished me, his daughter?” Not only does Branagh show us Duke Frederick beginning to lose his grip on power (indeed, on life itself) after the loss of his daughter, but Duke Senior’s relationship with his own Rosalind is major motivation for their respective survival instincts.

David Oyelowo’s Orlando is every bit the spirited youth described by others, intensely earnest in all things from earning his birthright and winning the wrestling to loving Rosalind; plus, Oyelowo is a stud with a gentlemanly manner that could easily trip up a Rosalind’s heels. Jade Jefferies is one of the most delightful Phoebes I’ve ever seen, proof that the part can be romantically silly and she a clever lass rather than a scowling beast. Alex Wyndham is a most energetic and surprisingly intelligent Silvius, his lovelorn passion manifesting in physical agitation. With Oyelow, Jefferies, and Wyndham involved, the great “and so am I” scene of V.2 promised to be perfect. But Branagh’s camera twirling around the participants’ heads turned the film’s best ensemble moment into a spinning headache.

That’s cinematic thinking intruding on Shakespeare’s naturally cinematic moment, when the camera should be the spectator, not a player. If you want great Shakespeare on film, see Branagh’s earliest efforts; and if you want great Shakespeare with samurai, see Kurosawa.

Eric Minton
September 20, 2011

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