Tuesday, April 26, 2016

As You Like It (2006)

It is the quadri-centennial of William Shakespeare's death and the Bard is still going strong. Not marble, nor the gilded monuments of princes shall outlive his powerful rhymes. Oh, there will be set-backs. Al Pacino and Anthony Hopkins can't seem to get their respective productions of King Lear to be produced, but that's only because Ian McKellan cut such a wide swath through the role a couple years ago. But no, as long as Kenneth Branagh or Patrick Stewart draw breath, there will be a Shakespeare film made, and even if not under his name or title, he can be found as dependable source material—The Lion King is Hamlet, Forbidden Planet is The Tempest, Kurosawa made versions of MacBeth and King Lear in feudal Japan. Whether you believe Shakespeare wrote the plays or not—and scholars seem to be basing their theories on correspondence and bills (what, authors didn't consider their audience back then?) the entity that created the works in those folios was a dramatic genius, one who still enthralls, confounds, and moves in this step-step-step-step-step-step-generation and into the conceivable future.

This week, we'll look at a handful—a sampling—of Shakespeare films. Most of them will have to wait 'til we get that "Now I've Seen Everything: Orson Welles" piece done (and that's a film or two away). But, for now, we will brush off our Shakespeare...reviews.

As You Like It (Kenneth Branagh, 2006) Branagh's films run hot or cold--his Henry V and Hamlet and Dead Again being good, and over-heated messes like his version of Frankenstein and 2007's Sleuth being where he just can't manage the material, or, in an attempt to light them up a bit, he starts being a bit too fusty with them, bringing in a swooping camera amid histrionic performances. Those are the Branagh movies where you want to grab him by his ascot and say, "why don't we call it a night, let everyone get some sleep and think things over."

Happily, As You Like It is not one of those over-baked Branagh's, but it feels a bit underdone as well, where the setting and the text don't seem to mesh as well as the director thought they might.
This Shakespeare comedy is set, by the director, in feudal Japan where a warlord sets another Duke and entourage out into the forest--a classical japanese garden--to talk over matters and wait until the complications abate and everyone can get married and live happily ever after in a nice frothy frolic, very much like his ending for Much Ado About Nothing. A lot of Branagh's past collaborators are here--Richard Briers, Adrian Lester, and Brian Blessed (playing both Dukes--and far less boisterously than one is accustomed to seeing him), Kevin Kline gets the "All the World's a Stage" speech, Alfred Molina plays Touchstone (looking like Brian Bolland's Mr. Mamoulian), and the lead of Rosalind is played by Opie's kid, Bryce Dallas Howard. Now, Howard has previously been cast in roles where she was merely meant to be frail or other-worldly, so to see her in full command and making As You Like It her own is something of a great triumph, acknowledged by Branagh by giving Howard the afterword, as she strolls through the trailers, bottled water in hand, and takes her bow, before going to her trailer.
Now that's updating Shakespeare.

This film never saw a release in America, but instead went directly to HBO, no doubt due to the poor performance of Branagh's Love's Labours Lost in theaters. Too bad. Branagh seems to be at his best adapting Shakespeare and breathing some life into it for modern audiences, and at his worst doing something else.

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