However you look at it, this really is a terrible film: bad cinema, bad Shakespeare, bad everything. Over the past twenty years or so Kenneth Branagh has a made a selection of accessible, popular, well-made and generally enjoyable adaptations of Shakespeare for cinema. It is hard to guess what went so dreadfully wrong this time. Where the previous films were light, witty and textually acute (if a little over-fond of flashback and visual underlining) his As You Like It is turgid, unfunny and lazy.
The action of the play is relocated to 19th Century Japan for no readily discernable reason. This new location sheds absolutely no fresh light on the play, and indeed causes innumerable problems with the text. The Forest of Arden is still spoken of as a location in England and a majority of the cast are still English; a fact explained away in a brief pre-title gloss about how Japan was opening up to trade in the 19th century and many Brits made private fiefdoms there. It might have been more honest to explain that modern Japanese funding and markets suggested the location and leave it at that. Far sillier still is the re-imagining of Charles the Wrestler as a hulking Sumo champion, while retaining the line later that describes him as “sinewy”.
It is perhaps significant that Branagh himself does not appear in the film. His previous ventures have at least always been able to boast his very able central performances, even when some eccentric casting decisions (Keanu Reeves, anyone?) haven’t quite cut it. Without Branagh or his erstwhile leading lady, Emma Thompson, the cast appear a little at sea. Indeed, the film manages to make the usually excellent Adrian Lester (as Olivier de Boys) look inept, while relative newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard (Happy Days’s Richie Cunningham’s daughter, folks) makes a terrible fist of Rosalind. All the brilliant ambiguity of the play’s central romance between Orlando and Rosalind - who is dressed as Ganymede, who is “playing” Rosalind - is rendered incomprehensible by the fact that, pretty though she may be, no one could possibly imagine Ms Howard’s attempts on masculinity even faintly credible. David Oyelowo as Orlando gets around this by apparently not making a single decision about what his character thinks, remaining utterly, blankly unreadable. This might pass for enigmatic in some films, but with this many lines (even after the unsympathetic evisceration that the script has suffered) it simply doesn’t cut it. All the potential levity, playfulness and even, dare I say it, potential for an erotic frisson is reduced to a near-pantomime of simpering and gushing. Romola Garai as Celia fares slightly better, playing Rosalind’s cousin as a kind of kooky cross between Peaches Geldof and Ophelia. It’s an appealing enough performance and in a better production with competent direction might have worked well.
Brian Blessed as both exiled Duke Senior and his nasty brother Duke Frederick displays the full range of his abilities from SHOUTING with slicked-back hair (Duke Frederick) to talking very quietly while, curiously, dressed as Karl Marx (Duke Senior). Kevin Kline’s Touchstone is one of those performances in which an actor seeks to underline just how serious they (and their character) are by saying all their lines very. slowly. indeed. with. a. good. deal. of. thinking. in. between. each. word.
Beyond this, the cinematography is unbelievably bland. Even running the whole thing through Photoshop and upping the level of contrast would improve it severalfold. As it is, the characters frequently risk merging into the uniform leafy background. There is some nice use of tracking shots where whole scenes are followed by a single handheld camera, but even these have the feel of a good idea imperfectly executed more than a genuine achievement. It feels almost as if the film is trying desperately hard to iron out all the play’s wonderful strangeness and turn it into something more akin to Jane Austen in Japan. With a running time of 205 minutes and no possibility of escape, I really did try to enjoy this film, and wholly failed. Purgatorial. Avoid at all costs.
Here's the trailer, incidentally, which covers at least a few of the sins I've mentioned, and also serves to remind me just how godawful the soundtrack was.