Kenneth Branagh‘s Shakespeare adaptions kind of petered out after Hamlet in 1996, but it’s hard to top a four-hour version of one of the Bard’s most iconic plays. The comedies are meant to be light, fun, and somewhat silly, and Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing (1993) still stands up as a delightful film. But 2000’s Love’s Labour’s Lost was a 1940s-ish musical mess, and then there’s his final Shakespeare film, As You Like It (2006), which is not entirely successful either.
He chooses Meiji-era Japan so the British trader-colonists of the story’s “court” can take refuge in an unspoiled forest populated by “native” Japanese peasants. Right there, you might be able to tell how odd this is and how it hasn’t aged well. That’s before you dive into it and see how the play and characters have been chopped up haphazardly. Rosalind, who should be the center of the story, gets short shrift. Which is sad, because usually adapting Shakespeare’s text is Branagh’s strong suit. It’s not terrible to watch, but the best parts are undeniably Alfred Molina as the court fool, Touchstone, and David Oyelowo as the main protagonist, Orlando de Boys.
As for the inspiration, in Saturday Telegraph Magazine, Branagh said:
“I had wanted to do As You Like It in a Japanese setting since I spent an afternoon in a garden in Kyoto in 1990, where I had a wonderfully calm and meditative experience. It seemed to me that the play is, in part, about the effect that nature can have on us and that this would allow the audience to experience it in a different way.
During my research in Japan I went to see everything pertinent, from calligraphers to bonsai gardeners, and the film attempts to evoke some of these cultural elements of Japan and to celebrate them.”
I don’t know that much of this “research” shows up in the film because it just occasionally seems like it’s set in Japan. Only the very beginning court scenes and the final wedding scene have distinctive Japanese touches, which is ironic since the forest is supposed to be the natural Japanese setting. And those outdoor scenes were filmed at Wakehurst Place in Sussex, just because it has a collection of Japanese plants.
The two main female characters, Rosalind (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Celia (Romola Garai), have are little touches of Asian textiles in their gowns, which bring to mind the Meiji adoption of Western fashions starting in 1870s. The only kimono and full Japanese clothing are on the few Japanese characters and at the wedding scene.
Only those couple bustle gowns show a particular Asian fusion style. The rest are standard-issue Victorian stuffs.
The there’s the outlier of Audrey (Janet McTeer), who wears this strange mishmash.
Silvius (Alex Wyndham) and Phoebe (Jade Jefferies) are a peasant couple in the forest who serve as a foil for cross-dressed Rosalind. They’re the only Japanese characters that figure into the plot.
At the wedding, almost everyone’s in kimonos.
What do you think of Branagh’s As You Like It?
I feel bad for admitting it, but I had a heck of a time telling Romola and Bryce apart, even with different hair colors. It didn’t help that I was only vaguely familiar with the plot (actually through “Never Been Kissed”). It was a very pretty film, but not one I’ve ever felt like rewatching. Sorry, Ken.
This movie looks like a huge misstep, representation wise. The de Boys brothers are also wearing kimono drag.
I gave this one a miss having been very disappointed in Love’s Labour Lost.
Self indulgent bs.
I’ll keep the BBC production with Helen Mirren and Angharad Rees.
It’s too bad this is such a dud, because “Shakespeare in Japan” can (and has!) been done in really interesting ways. Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood” (inspired by “Hamlet”) and “Ran” (inspired by “King Lear”) are both amazing movies, and it would be great to see something more like that. The fashion of the Meiji Era would opens up sooooo many doors you rarely see in western cinema, and it is hard not to feel like we got cheated out of a much more interesting (visually and otherwise) movie with this.
Just one little correction- Throne of Blood was inspired by MacBeth. There are elements of Hamlet in another Kurosawa film – The Bad Sleep Well – set in contemporary times. All worth seeing!!
I can’t comment on this movie because I’ve never seen it. Over the years I’ve thought about giving it a chance and I’ve always been like, “meh…” This post keeps me in the “meh” mindset. To be fair, I’m also “meh” about the play itself, so there’s that. Though I love Kenneth Branagh, David Oyelowo, and Romola Garai. Maybe one day… I’ll just re-watch one of my ALL-TIME FAVORITE movies, Kenneth Branagh’s A Midwinter’s Tale, about a troupe of actors trying to mount a production of Hamlet in small-town England. That film definitely wasn’t a misfire!
I’ll second Midwinter’s Tale. Wonderful little film!
Thank you for the memories of Midwinter’s Tale- which is a lovely film that I highly recommend. I hadn’t thought of this in years but I saw it on a first date in 1998 and while that particular relationship never went anywhere as a romance, the man I saw it with became one of my closest friends. He was killed by a drunk driver at ten in the morning on a Sunday in 2015, and I miss him so much.
This is a deeply untidy (even messy) film, but I liked it too much to dismiss the production entirely: this may stem from my crush on Ms. Bryce Dallas Howard, my abiding love of Ms. Romola Garai and/or my delight in seeing Mr Brian Blessed get to play Jedi AND Sith in one film.
… now I’m disappointed all over again that, to the best of my knowledge, Mr Blessed has never been allowed an excuse to chew scenery in a STAR TREK production opposite Sir Patrick Stewart (Whom I understand to be an old friend of his).
Anyway, I cannot call this film the Best Possible Version of itself, but I love it a little anyway.
Also, the fact that Ms. Howard and Ms. Garai bear a surprisingly strong resemblance to each other does make me wonder if their fathers – apparently twins – married another set of twins.
Wow. I’m so underwhelmed. And with all his ‘research’ he still didn’t get the kimonos correct. I cannot see a single kimono that looks correct.