Thursday, October 11, 2007

As You Like It

I’ve been on a bit of a Kenneth Branagh kick lately, as I’m sure my regular readers will have noticed, given that I’ve been critiquing all his films I’ve seen here. As such, it should be no surprise that I greedily snatched up his latest Shakespearean adaptation as soon as it made its way to DVD. In an interesting bit of synchronicity, not only is this the first of Shakespeare’s comedies Branagh has attempted (well, okay, the first he's made that I’ve seen), but it also happens to be my favorite, so it wasn’t really likely to meet with an unreceptive audience here.

I’ll assume that everyone that would be interested in this already has some passing level of familiarity with Shakespeare’s works, so I’ll spare any plot details and just go into the differences, and how it was pulled off. The big difference here, of course, is how Branagh changed the setting from Rennaisance-ish England to 19th century Japan. This may seem like a curious decision at first, but Branagh clearly has his finger on the pulse of America, for he uses it to throw some goddamn ninjas into a Shakespearean play. It is a thing of brilliance, I say. After that, it almost seems to go without saying that Orlando and Oliver would show their dislike for one another by kung fu fighting. After all, what else were they going to do?

All this is done at the start, of course, to help shore up what’s an admittedly weak opening to the story. Once the cast all arrives in the Forest of Arden it really takes off, with Branagh's camera perfectly capturing the pastoral delight of the forest, softly following the characters as they verbally spar with one another (this is quite possibly Shakespeare’s best play for his trademark verbal wit, and it’s pulled off well here). One touch I thought was particularly nice is how, considering Shakespeare’s long tradition of utilizing cross-dressing in his plays as disguises for his characters, the sheer ridiculousness of it all is fully called out here, as Bryce Dallas Howard’s Rosalind, when disguising herself as a man, still fools everyone despite not bothering to change her face or voice one iota. Alfred Molina also shines in this as Touchstone, my favorite character from the play; always eager to try to verbally abuse everyone he meets, but perpetually cursed to only meet people smarter than him.

If this isn’t as good a film as Branagh’s versions of Frankenstein or Hamlet, well, the source material isn’t quite as good either, and doesn’t lend itself as well to his rather bombastic directing style. Still, it’s a superior Shakespearean film all the same, and is ideal for one of those rainy days when you’re stuck at home wishing you could just be traipsing through a sunny forest without a care in the world.

Rating: *** ½

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