As You Like It Review
Kenneth Branagh’s fifth Shakespearean adaptation also marks the third time As You Like It has been brought to the big screen as a notable production. The 1936 version, directed by Paul Czinner, had the draw of Laurence Oliver in the leading role, William Walton providing the score, J.M. Barrie’s name amongst the screenwriters and an early credit for David Lean. Christine Edzard’s 1992 take, following her acclaimed adaptations of Little Dorrit (1988) and The Fool (1990), went for a modern day reinterpretation thereby relocating the Forest of Arden (the play’s primary setting) to an urban London wasteland. For his version Branagh takes a similar tact to Mira Nair’s recent Vanity Fair, namely enlivening a potentially stuffy period flick by switching the locale to somewhere far more exotic. Nair went for India and some misguided Bollywood trappings; Branagh, on the other hand, opts for 19th century Japan, a means of bringing in a Kurosawa rainstorm, a bout of sumo wrestling, sundry non-speaking locals and not a great deal else.
Indeed, whilst we may open with a kabuki performance, Branagh never really has the guts to throw himself into any kind of wild reinterpretation. Whilst watching the early stages I was reminded of how such films as An Actor’s Revenge or the 1957 version of The Ballad of Narayama were able to be both cinematic and theatrical within the same framework. As You Like It, unfortunately, remains firmly the latter; the Japanese setting is a mere piece of empty set-dressing and, furthermore, almost ignored once we switch to the Forest of Arden for the remainder of the narrative (shot, incidentally, in the UK and possessing very little in the way of a distinctive sense of place). In fact, you could argue that the feel of As You Like It is not so much theatrical as televisual. This review is timed to coincide with its UK network television premiere, though it’s worth noting that prior to its cinema release in 2007 the film was initially screened in the US on HBO (their film arm being one of the major investors alongside BBC Films). The look is colourful though ultimately rather flat, the style never once daring but instead happy to plod along over the two-hour duration.
His previous Shakespeare films had already shown Branagh’s predilection for mixing up British television names with American film stars. Much Ado About Nothing saw Ben Elton rub shoulders with Denzel and Keanu, whilst his Hamlet offered the never-to-be-expected combination of Charlton Heston and Ken Dodd (unfortunately not on-screen at the same time, however). As You Like It continues in a similar vein with the likes of Bryce Dallas Howard (The Village, Manderlay) and Kevin Kline sharing dialogue with Brian Blessed, Adrian Lester from Hustle, David Oyelowo from Spooks and Richard Briers. Kline and Howard prove really quite adept at removing the theatrical shackles, yet the likes of Oyelowo repeatedly hammer it home to us – any chance of perhaps bypassing Branagh’s pedestrian telling are thus repeatedly hampered. With that said, it should be noted that Blessed (in a dual role of the rival Dukes) is surprisingly subdued, for once utilising his eyes for more than his vocal chords.
And so we’re left with another As You Like It that should offer far more than it ever delivers. (I should perhaps note that generally I’m a fan of Branagh’s takes on the Bard; the first three at least standing up to more than a single viewing.) The 1932 version remains a curio for its impressive list of credits, the 1990s take proved underwhelming primarily because it came nowhere near to living up to its director’s previous works, and this latest version simply comes across as incredibly flat. The original play should offer plenty to the experienced filmmaker – a mixture of romance, exile, attempted fratricide and fiendish plots, a blend of hi-jinx and melancholy – yet Branagh seems unable to handle the tonal shifts with any kind of delicacy (in which case it reminded me greatly of Peter’s Friends, a very strong contender for one of the most downright annoying British films of nineties). Indeed, for a director with an increasingly varied cv – the latest rumours suggest he’ll be helming the big-screen adaptation of Marvel’s Thor comic books – he comes across as surprisingly naïve here. Unable to stage the action, unable to control the comedy, unable to create any kind genuine feeling at all – and as such unable to provide the audience with anything that would justify two hours of their time.
Lionsgate’s Region 2 DVD handling of As You Like It offers up a decent enough presentation though little in the way of supplementary material. Taken from a print in expectedly pristine condition, the image is crisp throughout and handles the colour schemes especially well. When reviewed in the October 2007 edition of Sight & Sound it was noted that the original aspect ratio was 2.35:1. Here we get a 1.78:1 offering, anamorphically enhanced of course, yet it appears to be correct. There are no sign of cropping and given the film’s premiere on HBO in the US this would seem to be further argument that the S&S listing was incorrect. (I’ve no concrete evidence for this and would appreciate any comments below either backing me up or, as the case may be, proving me wrong.) As for the soundtrack, here we get English DD2.0 and DD5.1 options, and both come across pleasingly well. The somewhat heavy presence of Patrick Doyle’s score is seemingly correct whilst the dialogue remains clear throughout. English hard-of-hearing subtitles are also available.
The extras are limited to a gallery of production stills, original theatrical trailer and a three-minute featurette that effectively plays like an extended promo. Most of the actors are present to introduce their characters, Branagh himself offers a few words and there are plenty of clips. Unlike the main feature there are no optional subtitles for any of the special features, whilst the ‘making of’ comes at a ratio of 1.33:1 with the clips presented in 1.78:1 (further demonstration that this is the correct framing?) without anamorphic enhancement. The disc, as is typical of a Lionsgate release, also opens with a variety of trailers for some of the label’s other titles.