I’ve been a Kenneth Branagh fan ever since seeing the joyous trifle Much Ado About Nothing on a date with my first girlfriend in high school. Probably to my date’s dismay, it was also the moment I fell passionately in love with Emma Thompson. Later, I enjoyed his down and dirty Henry V, the Hitchcockian noir Dead Again, the over-the-top-and-beyond bombast of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and even met another future girlfriend at Hamlet. But As You Like It is decidedly lacking in Branagh’s proven flair for translating theatre to the medium of cinema. In the US at least, it was originally intended for theatrical release through Picturehouse, but went straight to HBO.
Having never read the play nor seen it performed, I’ll cop to having done a little cramming on Wikipedia, the 21st Century answer to Cliff’s Notes. Branagh has relocated the action from a duchy in France to an enclave of expatriate Europeans in 19th century Japan, but to what advantage? There is little sense of a European community abroad in an alien land; in fact very few Asian actors appear at all, even in the background. A silently-staged ninja attack is a promising opening, but ultimately disappointing to arthouse audiences with highbrow wire-fu expectations raised after Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Obviously a low-budget film, As You Like It suffers in ways that similarly-priced movies made virtue. Stanley Tucci’s The Impostors, for example, made the cheap sets part of the fun, and beat Branagh by a few years to the device of an epilogue featuring an ensemble cast breaking the fourth wall by literally walking off-set and behind the camera.
Other miscellaneous disappointments:
• There’s an over-reliance on long, clumsy steadycam takes, especially one fumbled shot in which Kevin Kline’s face is obscured throughout most of his delivery of the play’s most famous monologue: “All the world’s a stage…”
• With a private English garden standing in for the forests of Japan, the overcast weather mutes the color palette. The most vibrant colors are the occasional blossoming tree and the pretty frocks worn by Rosalind (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Celia (Romola Garai).
• Brian Blessed (a regular in Branagh’s company) doesn’t do nearly enough of his trademark shouting. Perhaps he was afraid to rupture the delicate Howard’s eardrums.
• The omnipresent score is really, really bad.
• And finally, As You Like It sports what must be the cheapest fake lion in cinema history; it was probably possible to stage something more convincing on the stage in Shakespeare’s day.