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Wither Wander You Wit?
Almost As You Like It

Me, uncle?

Kenneth Branagh has made some brilliant adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, many of which have excelled on the strength of his own acting. His 1989 Henry V was a triumph due to his own stirring rendering of Henry’s St. Crispin’s day speech, and his subsequent films, including the awesome Hamlet , also benefited from his own contributions in front of the camera. His latest adaptation of Shakespeare, HBO’s As You Like It, doesn’t have the benefit of his own performance. Set in 19 th century Japan, As You Like It tells the story of a duke and his court exiled into the woods of Arden when his brother usurps the duchy and forces out Duke Senior. The film’s opening is dark, with little mirth: Duke Frederick has staged a palace coup. Like other Branagh films, he takes license in staging action which is not in the play proper. The opening coup in the film stages action which occurs offstage, and is only told through Orlando’s exposition, the beginning of the play.

The setting relates a silly problem with the wrestling scene in which the undersized Orlando must engage (in this version) a Sumo wrestler, but ridiculously throws the much heavier opponent—who looks nothing like a “Charles”!—out of the ring and knocks him out. Suspension of disbelief is a prerequisite for theatrical enjoyment, but this gets ridiculous. Seriously, the scene is comically bad.

Furthermore the setting brings to mind that other great play adapted to film in Japan, King Lear which Akira Kurosawa molded into his own epic, Ran. Both Ran and As You Like It deal with familial bonds broken out of foolishness and pride, the loyalty of those who serve, such as Lear’s Kent and Orlando’s Adam. Kurosawa’s setting provides an epic landscape to match the grandeur and sweep of the play, but the Forest or Arden hardly seems to fit a Japanese garden. While the formality of the Japanese court seems appropriate, this play is pastoral. Maybe it’s my Western viewpoint, but the woods in AYLI can only be pictured as French: it is a play tied to place, and Branagh’s setting comes off as gimmicky and contrived, far removed from the play’s essential themes of love and forgiveness.

On the other hand, Branagh explains his vision convincingly in an interview on HBO’s website for the film:

I began with the prospect of bringing the palace coup—the overthrow of Duke Senior by his so-called evil brother, Duke Frederick - right at the front of the story - something that’s impossible to do in the theatre in the same way. So that in the cinema we would start that way and continue all the way through so that the story could have underneath it what the play also contains, which is a sense of danger.

I wanted to put it in a potentially violent place but also in a place that addressed the other themes within the play, which are the notion of romantic love - boy meets girl. I wanted that to happen in a place that would be romantic in the way that Shakespeare comedies seem to require. And the play also talks about the tension, if you like, between town and country, between busy lives in the city and the desire to be simple in the outside world.

I found that all of those desires to explore more explicitly in cinema themes that were in the play were answered for me by the idea of taking it away from the conventional English glades, and go to Japan where in the second half of the 19 th Century - from about 1850 to 1900 roughly speaking - there was a moment where Japan was trying to become an industrial nation from an agricultural one.

They opened up a country that had been very closed off, and invited people to come and trade. And so they did, including many English people who set up in these treaty ports around the coasts where they produced these sort of mini-empires. They brought their families and some of them went native. And so a Duke Frederick, a Duke Senior borrowed from the Japanese. And the landscape became something that was very different and magical and mysterious to them and to us.

In another interview with NPR, Branagh says he was attracted to the Japanese setting for its visual appeal, and says he found Japan “painterly.”

Even though the setting is lush and cinematic, the acting at times seems bound to the stage. David Oyelowo’s Orlando is overacted, as is Celia (Romola Garai), with both principals acting as stage actors, using broad exaggerated expressions rather than the subtlety required of film. Furthermore their delivery is stilted at times, like bad Shakespearean actors—there is too-much-staccato-and-pausing-between-words-in-lines! Bryce Dallas Howard does well as Rosalind, but the chemistry between Rosalind and Orlando is not as charismatic or magical as between Emma Thompson and Branagh in his exceptional adaptation Much Ado About Nothing.

Duke Frederick is passionately acted by another Much Ado alum, Brian Blessed, who doubles as Duke Senior. The veteran Kevin Kline, who admitted that he’s never been paid so little, plays Jacques a little too straight (sans humor, sans irony, sans everything) and not at all cynical, but just clinically depressed, even though among the cast he seems to have the best sense of Shakespeare’s meter. But Alfred Molina gets the juiciest and funniest lines, of course, as Touchstone, and his delivery of lines like this is perfect:

Touchstone: Truly, and to cast away honesty upon a foul slut
were to put good meat into an unclean dish.

Audrey: I am not a slut, though I thank the gods I am foul.

Touchstone: Well, praised be the gods for thy foulness!
sluttishness may come hereafter.

Unfortunately Branagh doesn’t let Molina stay on stage long enough, and throws the brakes on him just when he starts to have fun.

I never cease to be astonished by Shakespeare’s ability to reflect on his own art. All of his plays are, in a sense, about plays, and seem to have an internal playwright working within the play. Hamlet and Midsummer Night’s Dream of course stage plays explicitly within the play while in the other plays it takes the form of disguises, double dealing, pretending, or as in The Tempest, black magic. Here it’s Rosalind cleverly staging a cascade of marriages to end the play, which at the same time bring along a series of reconciliations and restorations. The plays within the play always reveal for us that at the end, when the disguises are discarded, a greater self-knowledge emerges. In the comedies, the self knowledge means the recognition of the value of married love as an outlet for our passions and energies. For Shakespeare the greatest sin becomes not sex outside of marriage but hiding in melancholy like Jacques when there’s a party to be enjoyed in the name of love and (married) sexual appetite. Branagh shows this visually through a burst of color, dancing, and song to close the play, reminiscent of his handling of the close of Much Ado About Nothing. In his endings, Branagh shows that he understands that the comedies are about community and wedded joy, and those who don’t get with the program end up alone and miserable, like Jacques and Frederick sitting glumly and mute, as Branagh imagines them, beneath a tree in the dark and lonely forest.

On the other hand, the greatest sin for readers is of course the shortening of the play for cinematic purposes. The full deliciousness of the game Rosalind plays with Orlando is not realized because of the abbreviation, and her adoration seems a little too easily gained. We don’t get nearly enough of Touchstone’s brilliance, and many other scenes are unjustly cut short in the name of televised brevity. Too bad. A few adjustments to modern sensibilities and wider audiences are to be expected, but certainly anyone willing to sit through two hours of Shakespeare can take a few more minutes for the full enjoyment of Shakespeare’s glorious language and scenic development. One of the great moments in my life—seriously—was sitting in a theater through the full four hours and some odd minutes of Branagh’s brilliant Hamlet in all its unabridged splendor, tears pouring out as good Prince Hamlet told Horatio that the readiness was all. And while the comedies can still be enjoyed with a bit of paring down, Branagh cut this one a little too close to the bone, without giving this play all that it deserved.

Still, it’s Shakespeare on TV, and so I won’t complain too much. Premium cable is absolutely the right environment for Branagh’s adaptations of Shakespeare, as long as there’s no forced abridgement. Public TV couldn’t give him the budget for his lush locales, while theatrical releases don’t draw an adequate audience. For folks like me who live in the cultural hinterlands, if we can’t make it to the arthouse the one weekend the film shows up, we’re screwed, and we’re waiting for the DVD anyway. Accessibility is what Branagh is aiming for—a noble goal, for sure, and it’s what cable gives us, along with just big enough a budget to give the plays a decent staging. Let’s hope there’s more where this came from, and Mr. Branagh, if I may, A Winter’s Tale please? I’ll take mine unabridged.

Originally posted at Ohdave's Into My Own.

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