Saturday, September 22, 2007

AS YOU LIKE IT - I love you, "Bob"!

First, some context for this review. I have some limited experience of Shakespeare, having attended a school where our literary education consisted of little else from the age of eleven. I even took specialist Shakespeare examinations to enter University and before my Masters degree, even though I was applying for a different discipline in each case. I would also count myself as a great admirer of Kenneth Branagh's adaptations of Shakespeare, and I consider his Hamlet and Henry V amongst the best films of the past twenty years. So it was with increasing dismay that I realised how much I disliked his new adaptation of AS YOU LIKE IT.

AS YOU LIKE IT is, in his defence, a particularly problematic play, and not in the same way that, say, HAMLET is problematic. In the latter case, Shakespeare gives us such complex and fascinating imagery and action that we can pick out differing interpretations. AS YOU LIKE IT is problematic in the same way as COSI FAN TUTTE - it has such a frothy, convoluted plot that depends on conceits so alien to reality that it is difficult to know how to present it to a modern audience. On top of this structural complexity, I simply do not think it is one of Shakespeare's better plays. The comedy is not as broad as in his best and most vulgar comedies, the strain of melanocholy is not as integral and developed as in his darker plays, and, simply put, the language is not as beautiful.

The play opens with two sets of warring brothers and closes with four weddings. In between we have a pastoral comedy reminiscent of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM and TWELFTH NIGHT. Duke Senior has been usurped by his brother Duke Frederick and banished to the Forest of Arden. Soon after, their daughters Celia and Rosalind also flee the court for the forest, accompanied by the fool, Touchstone. Meanwhile, young Oliver is feuding with his younger brother Orlando, who has also fled to the forest. Orlando loves Rosalind, and she tests his love in the guise of a young boy called Ganymede. Phoebe, a young shepherdess falls for Rosalind/Ganymede, and scorns the love of Silvius. Oliver will eventually be redeemed by his love for Celia. Phoebe will eventually content herself with Silvius when she realises that Ganymede is a girl. And Touchstone will eventually marry a doltish goat-herd called Audrey.

Such a plot is testing for a cinema audience. Watching this sort of gender-bending from a distance in the theatre we can just about suspend our disbelief. But celluloid close-ups demand that the actress roughs herself up and takes on the physicality of a boy. I think the most successful example of this that I have seen is Felicity Kendal in the 1980 TV adaptation of Twelfth Night, but Sienna Miller is also convincing in Lasse Halstrom's CASANOVA. In Branagh's film, there is no attempt to make Bryce Dallas Howard look convincing as a boy and she certainly makes no attempt to alter her voice or physicality. Indeed, I didn't much like the way she performed the Shakespeare at all. It seemed very deliberate and self-consciously theatrical and, like Kevin Kline's performances as Jacques, arguably better suited to the stage. I found Alfred Molina (Touchstone), Adrian Lester (Oliver) and David Oyelowo (Orlando) gave the most natural and therefore the most convincing performances.

So, I don't particularly like the source text and I found the performances of mixed quality. But I was most surprised by my complete dislike of Kenneth Branagh's directorial decisions. In particular, I thought the device of staging the play in 19th century Japan utterly contrived. It added nothing to my understanding of the text and seemed motivated by the desire for novelty in the costume department. (I also hated the staging of the songs and the cheap Busby Berkeley ariel shots of people dancing in formation.) The Japanese conceit led Branagh to stage an Ang-Lee-esque opening action sequence involving samurai taking over the court. This proved that Branagh cannot choreograph an action scene and that his DP does not have the requisite skill to create depth of colour and contrast in a night scene.

AS YOU LIKE IT was released in Italy and Greece in 2006 and in Hungary in 2007. It was premiered on HBO in August and is currently on theatrical release in the UK.

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