by Josie Kafka
Shakespeare’s As You Like It is a story of inheritance and disguise, court and country, intellect and emotion. Kenneth Branagh’s 2006 version relocates the play to late-nineteenth-century Japan with (mostly) excellent results.
When their father dies, first-born son Oliver refuses to provide for the education of his younger brother Orlando. Meanwhile, old Duke Senior is supplanted by his younger brother Duke Frederick. After some typical Shakespeare shenanigans, all the good guys—including Duke Senior’s lovely daughter Rosalind, her cousin Celia, wacky uncle Jaques, and professional fool Touchstone—wind up in the forest, allegedly a place “exempt from public haunts” but really a location of semblance and dissimulation.
Especially for Rosalind. She and Celia decide the best way to ensure their own safety is disguise: Celia will be a country girl named Aliena; Rosalind will be the youthful Ganymede, because she is already “more than common tall.” Rosalind’s boyish disguise allows her to audition her crush Orlando for the role of husband: she promises to teach him how to forget lost love, but is really testing him out. It also provides delightfully silly comic moments, as when the shepherdess Phoebe develops a crush on the dashing Ganymede, much to Rosalind’s confusion.
By setting the film in feudal Japan, with the main characters as English merchants, Branagh gets to play with the notion of theatricality and performance. The opening scene—utterly without dialogue, since it is not in Shakespeare’s text—positions the major players as the audience at a stylized Noh performance that is rudely interrupted by Duke Frederick’s band of samurais. You can get a sense of the visual aesthetic in this trailer:
Branagh returns to the theme of artifice by staging the epilogue as actress Bryce Dallas Howard leaving the forest and removing her costume as she walks through a movie set and into her trailer. In bookending the movie that way, Branagh emphasizes the performative qualities of all actions, including of course Rosalind’s cross-dressing, but also marriage and even life itself.
The result is a play that is more subtle than wacky, despite the above trailer’s bias towards pratfalls. Howard’s inquisitive Rosalind is charming, but occasionally a bit desperate in her love for Orlando. Romola Garai, as Celia, bears the brunt of the slapstick and does an excellent job of looking utterly gobsmacked in response to some of Rosalind’s odd decisions. David Oyelowo’s Orlando is so stable that, at times, I wondered why he was so into this bizarre Rosalind girl or that moody boy Ganymede.
The real highlights, though, are Alfred Molina’s Touchstone and Kevin Kline’s Jaques. As Juliette pointed out in her review of Branagh’s Much Ado… (and the commenters agreed), Michael Keaton’s foolish Dogberry is too over the top. Here, Branagh has reigned in some of that madness with Touchstone’s more cultured fool:
Touchstone is still silly, but has more panache than Dogberry, and his commentaries nicely juxtapose with the pessimistic intellectualism of Jaques, who seems to be perpetually struggling to figure out exactly how to get by in any world, inside or outside of the court. In one of the best scenes in the movie, Jaques and Rosalind-as-Ganymede discuss their life philosophies. When Rosalind makes the point that life is better if one is happy, Kevin Kline looks delightfully pensive, as though that idea had never occurred to him before.
By toning down the low comedy and playing up the subtleties of both theme and character, Branagh created a film that both celebrates and questions love. Although the production values are not as high as, say, Hamlet (a lion-attack scene is hilariously cheap), the suggestion seems to be that we don’t need scenery-porn to appreciate a performance any more than we need a big budget to appreciate life. To paraphrase Touchstone, it may be a poor thing, but it is mine own.
Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, True Detective, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)