*. Look, I get it. You always have to find ways to make Shakespeare new. We’ve seen these plays transferred to every imaginable place and time: Victorian England, colonial Africa, Nazi Germany, 1930s Chicago. But doesn’t there have to be some kind of point?
*. A series of titles introduces us to the setting here, which is a treaty port in late nineteenth-century Japan. Things start with a bang, quite literally, as a squad of ninjas break into a kabuki performance to overthrow Duke Senior. But what does all of this add to our understanding of the play? And how well does the translation to this exotic environment work? Is Duke Senior a duke? A merchant? Who are these ruling families?
*. I can’t help but think that the change has been made just to indulge in some Japonaiserie. But even given this excuse, the nods to Japanese culture remain superficial. The film wasn’t shot in Japan. Few of the actors wear Japanese costumes. The only Asian actor with any lines is Paul Chan, who plays William: a tiny part that could, and probably should have been cut, wherein he is mocked and physically abused by Touchstone. The only other Asian actor is Nobuyuki Takano, the sumo wrestler who plays Charles, but all of Charles’s lines have been either cut or given to other actors.
*. So it isn’t a movie that has anything to say about Japan, or English mercantilism in the nineteenth century. Which leaves us with Shakespeare, again.
*. I really like the play, but I think it has to be approached a certain way. That way is not through realism. Shakespeare’s woods are enchanted places: the “green world” of magic, liberty, and transformation, where all the tensions initially introduced by the plot can be resolved. As You Like It is very much in this vein. Nothing that happens in the forest of Arden is remotely plausible, and attempts by a production to finesse the improbabilities can only go so far. That Orlando can’t recognize his beloved in her feeble disguise is just one example. Then there is the whole pastoral convention of an artificial country life, and the fairy-tale plot contrivances like everyone’s sudden conversion at the end. Given that there are no lions in England, or France, or Japan, why even bother showing us the lion scene and trying to make it look realistic? In the play it’s just described.
*. This is a problem because Kenneth Branagh really only has the one approach to Shakespeare, and that is through realism. I’m not talking about the mud and blood of Henry V that he burst on to the big screen with, but more his penchant for playing Shakespearean speech naturalistically. When you listen to his characters speaking he never wants you to feel like you’re listening to someone deliver lines. Everything is done to make the dialogue project as perfectly normal, fit for the dramatic situation. This isn’t a knock against him, but it is something that’s consistent through all his adaptations, and it shows his desire to ground the language of the plays in the rhythms of contemporary speech. Even if you just had the soundtrack, you’d know you were listening to a Branagh production because of how it sounds.
*. He’s consistent visually as well, though this isn’t as important. In particular he likes long takes, and is hooked on extended tracking shots and a circling camera. This is something that has become more pronounced in his movies as time has gone by. I thought it first became a bit too much in his Hamlet, and here it’s definitely overdone.
*. The long, circling camera movement in to Kevin Kline’s Jaques as he delivers his “All the world’s a stage” speech is one example. It’s a repeat of an earlier shot in the movie, and here it doesn’t add anything at all to the lines. It just seems as though Branagh can’t think of anything else interesting to do with his camera, but that he feels like he needs to be doing something. It seems to me he could have just let Kline play it without any adornment, but that’s just not where Branagh is as a filmmaker.
*. These kinds of decisions — the setting in Japan, the realistic or naturalistic presentation, the now predictable camera work — take all the wind out of the sails of what should be a breezy lark of a play. Even the score, by Branagh’s usual collaborator Patrick Doyle, doesn’t add anything this time out.
*. This is too bad because the young cast here is pretty good and I got the sense they weren’t being used well. A good example is Bryce Dallas Howard’s Rosalind. Howard is a decent actress, but her Rosalind is played wrong here, too giggly and giddy for the part. And without a dominant Rosalind the play has no rudder. I can only assume that such a characterization was Branagh’s decision. It actually plays against a loose convention of playing Rosalind, which often has her role taken by an older actress paired with a younger man as Orlando. This reflects the level of maturity Rosalind has in the play, which is mostly missing here.
*. I guess what I’m saying is that this is a movie that needed a lighter touch. It should have embraced the play’s spirit of artifice and fancy. The truest filmmaking is the most feigning.