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As You Like It
cast: Brian Blessed, Kevin Kline, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Alfred Molina

director: Kenneth Branagh

127 minutes (12) 2006
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Lions Gate DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by J.C. Hartley
In the late-1980s into the mid-1990s, Kenneth Branagh could do no wrong, as actor and theatre and film director, he reinvented Shakespeare for a modern audience, hung out with the Stephen Fry's footlights generation, and wooed the acting talent of a previous generation into hitching their wagons to his star. His Henry V (1989) was favourably compared with Olivier's, he got Keanu Reeves and Denzel Washington on board for a Much Ado About Nothing (1993) set in Tuscany, and had Robert de Niro play the creature in Frankenstein (1994). His Dead Again (1991) was hailed as a postmodern existential thriller although critical acclaim cooled over time.

Here Branagh is again plundering the bard with Brian Blessed and Richard Briers in tow from his repertory company. Blessed plays both Duke Senior and his usurping brother Duke Frederick, and any film with Blessed in it can't be all bad, The Phantom Menace and Flash Gordon aside.

Bizarrely, Branagh sets the play in medieval Japan, with some captioned guff about English merchants having their own little feudal set-ups within Japanese society. This conceit allows for Duke Frederick's cohorts to dress up as samurai, and the play to begin with a kabuki/ noh performance, but adds nothing to the interpretation or understanding of the play as a whole. Usurped by his brother, Duke Senior flees to the Forest of Arden followed by various loyal courtiers. In a parallel plotline, Orlando de Boys (David Oyelowo, The Last King Of Scotland), edged out of his inheritance and position by his brother, also seeks sanctuary in the forest accompanied by family servant Adam (Richard Briers).

Duke Senior's daughter Rosalind (Bryce Dallas Howard, Spiderman 3) threatened by Duke Frederick, who resents her popularity over his own daughter Celia (Romola Garai, Atonement), also flees to the now congested forest, accompanied by her faithful cousin and Shakespeare's least funny clown Touchstone, bravely played by the always excellent Alfred Molina (The Da Vinci Code), looking like a cross between Charlie Chaplin and Eraserhead's Henry Spencer.

Once the cast are assembled in the forest the play examines the passage of love and the different responses and attitudes to it by men and women. Alongside this Shakespeare presents the philosophy of the melancholic man, as represented by the character of Jaques, played by Kevin Kline (Trade), one in a long line of American actors who come to play Shakespeare with an obvious sincerity and reverence. At one time American actors clearly felt they must defer to British luminaries such as Branagh, and Trevor Nunn, and Peter Hall, in matters pertaining to Shakespeare; whether this is still the case, with Kevin Spacey enjoying his position as artistic director of the Old Vic, remains to be seen, but the reverence in which Dame Judi Dench and HRH Helen Mirren are held suggests that the British interpretation is still seen as the real deal.

The play, or at least this interpretation of it, comes to life when Rosalind, appraised of Orlando's love for her, dons boyish garb to teach the latter all 'he' knows of women and their attitude to love. This is the pre-eminent running gag in Shakespeare that male actors playing women would then dress up as men to enjoy the freedom to initiate some course of action. The device is given an extra twist in As You Like It by the male version of Rosalind, on the pretext of wishing to evaluate Orlando's wooing skills, encouraging the latter to address him/ her as Rosalind.

Although Rosalind's attempts to disguise herself as a man are frankly pathetic, and wouldn't even fool someone who had never seen a man, one appreciates the delightful subversion of these scenes between Rosalind and Orlando. If, as seems likely from the sonnets, Shakespeare had experienced erotic feelings for his own sex, there was great play to be made in these romantic exchanges between two men, even if one of the men was supposed to be a woman, and a man really under the greasepaint. In a society where homosexuality was a crime on the statute books, but practically ignored if not actually tolerated, such doublethink as enacted on the stage seems an appropriate metaphor.

The broader romance between Touchstone and the shepherdess Audrey, and a courtier and another shepherdess - who, incidentally, falls for Rosalind in her boyish disguise, parallel the courtship between Rosalind and Orlando. At one point Rosalind gives a speech on the fickleness and inconstancy of women; in an RSC touring version of the play in the late 1980s, Celia would at this point bury her face in her hands and quietly sob, before taking her cousin to task for this slander against their sex.

Needless to say, as this is a comedy, all ends well, and all those who should be together come together, and reconciliations are made, even between the two Dukes and Orlando and his brother. This theme of sibling rivalry and betrayal is as prevalent in Shakespeare as cross-dressing, and one can only wish that all those scholars who waste their time in the academic cul-de-sac of trying to determine an alternative authorship would turn their attention to true scholarship, and examine something like that.

Branagh concludes the eventual wedding ceremonies with a skippy dance through the woods, ending up back at Duke senior's court, with falling blossom and cut-price Busby Berkeley camera angles, which is all very silly and obviously just there to fill up a bit of time. Rosalind's epilogue dissolves the fourth wall, as Bryce Dallas Howard, sipping from a styrofoam cup, sashays in civvies through the set on the way to her trailer, while delivering Rosalind's lines on epilogues in general and how as regards plays and attraction you pays your money and you takes your choice. In the aforesaid RSC touring play in the 1980s, after spending most of the play in men's clothing, Rosalind came out to dally with Orlando, while delivering her epilogue, in a dress of such dramatic low-cut that the audience spent the final moments gazing in awe at the actress' perilously balanced cleavage.

It is a fact that a bad production as an introduction to Shakespeare can turn you away from the plays for life. Great things were done on stage to make the plays accessible, through the 1980s and 1990s, by the likes of Branagh, the RSC, and companies such as Cheek by Jowl. Latterly the RSC has collaborated with relatively young companies such as Kneehigh, particularly in their dashing urban version of the 'difficult' Cymbeline in 2006. When caught up in the action of a play expressively staged the archaic language no longer seems to matter, just as while watching a foreign film you can forget you are having to read subtitles. Trevor Nunn's 1996 Twelfth Night is probably the benchmark for an entirely successful screen version of a Shakespeare comedy; As You Like It is not a great production, but it's not bad; 'tis enough, 'twill serve.

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