As You Like It
2006: Kenneth Branagh
It is axiomatic in some circles today that a Shakespeare play must be set at some time other than the one for which it was written. This is largely an outgrowth of Trevor Nunn’s experimentation with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1960s and 1970s. By “some other time” I don’t mean a generalized and timeless background like the one we find in Branagh’s Much Ago About Nothing (1993): I mean an egregious in-your-face transposition of the elements of one culture to another where much of the dramatic or cinematic punch is deliberately derived not from the play itself, but by grinding the inconsistencies and incongruities into the face of the audience. This move has gone so far that the satiric website “The Onion” pilloried it in a trenchant piece, “Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play In Time, Place Shakespeare Intended”. It’s quite droll.
Sometimes this transposition works. Sometimes it really doesn’t. Opinions differ, but I found the move of Ian McKellen’s Richard III to a quasi-Nazi context distracting, and by the end of the film, it had more or less cast loose of any real connection with the play. When Richard shouts, “My kingdom for a horse!”, it shouldn’t really be just because he can’t get his Jeep to start. History plays are perhaps the most brittle in this regard, and I think McKellen overstepped the bounds of reason here, whatever the production’s other virtues may have been. Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet was, if anything, even worse, though there the defects ran so deep that it was impossible to tell whether he or anyone else involved in the production really had any notion of what the play was about in the first place — or even cared. The culture clash was merely a distraction (and perhaps for some a welcome one) from the fact that none of the actors really seemed to understand the words they were saying.
Other times, inexplicably, the transfer works. This play is one such. For reasons passing understanding, Branagh chose to set the play in 1880s Japan. It’s not clear how the red-headed Bryce Dallas Howard came to be part of a nineteenth-century traditional Japanese family, or how many of the other characters came to be there, for that matter. But the forest of Arden is re-envisioned not as a gritty place or even a classic pastoral locus amoenus, but in the terms of the spare but exquisitely beautiful traditional Japanese fusion of nature and art. The results are fairly breathtaking. The question of plausibility eventually recedes into the background, and one can simply enjoy the ride. Howard herself is radiant (an overused term, but applicable here) as Rosalind; both David Oyelowo and Adrian Lester as the De Boys brothers are seasoned Shakespeareans who appreciate the power and elegance of Shakespeare’s language. Alfred Molina as Touchstone, Romola Garai as Celia, Brian Blessed as the Duke in both incarnations, Richard Briers (in his last collaboration with Branagh) and Kevin Kline as Jaques are all a treat to watch and (especially) to hear. The score by Patrick Doyle enriches the experience yet further.
No, this is not the most faithful Shakespeare one can find, arguably, in several senses. Its transposition is weird, and it is not uncut, but it is a lyrical and beautiful esthetic treat of the first water. Its alterations do not corrupt the play, but shed fresh light upon it. If you can only see one version, see one of the others (preferably the 1978 Shakespeare Plays version with Helen Mirren). If you can see two, though, make this one of them. It’s undoubtedly the most beautiful of the lot.
Adam: Richard Briers
Amiens: Patrick Doyle
Audrey: Janet McTeer
Celia: Romola Garai
Charles: Nobuyuki Takano
Corin: Jimmy Yuill
Denis: Gerard Horan
Duke’s Man: Justin Hoong-Fai Chan
Duke Senior; Duke Frederick: Brian Blessed
Duke Senior Man: Iain Stuart Robertson
Duke Senior Man: Jonathan Broadbent
Duke Senior Man: Youki Yamamoto
Frederick’s Aide (uncredited): Sacha Bennett
Geisha: Takuya Shimada
Jaques de Boys: Jotham Annan
Jaques: Kevin Kline
Le Beau: Richard Clifford
Oliver De Boys: Adrian Lester
Orlando De Boys: David Oyelowo
Phoebe: Jade Jefferies
Rosalind: Bryce Dallas Howard
Sylvius: Alex Wyndham
Touchstone: Alfred Molina
William: Paul Chan