What a difference a decade makes. Kenneth Branagh reached the pinnacle of his directing career in 1996 with his epic four-hour adaptation of Hamlet, in which he headlined a staggeringly talented cast that included Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie, Kate Winslet, Brian Blessed, Rufus Sewell, Charlton Heston, Jack Lemmon, Billy Crystal, and Robin Williams (with the likes of Judi Dench and Gerard Depardieu in cameos). Hamlet was nominated for four Oscars and earned rapturous reviews, but it grossed just over $4.5 million—only a quarter of its $18 million budget.
This week HBO premieres Branagh's most recent Shakespearean outing, his 2006 adaptation of As You Like It. HBO Films had originally intended to release the movie theatrically through Picturehouse, its joint distribution venture with New Line Cinema, and As You Like It did indeed have a short run last year—in Italy. But it's bypassing American theaters. In concept and execution it's a pale reflection of Branagh's earlier work, suggesting that the director himself, like Shakespeare's wanderers in the Forest of Arden, may have gotten lost in the woods.
Branagh launched his movie career in 1989 with his acclaimed Henry V and returned to the Bard in 1993 with Much Ado About Nothing. Unlike Henry V, which remained faithful to its source material and featured an overwhelmingly British cast, Much Ado had an updated setting (Renaissance Tuscany) and an all-star mix of British and American actors, and its bouncy pacing was deliberately borrowed from the madcap comedies of the 1930s. Its financial success set the pattern for all Branagh's subsequent Shakespeare adaptations. In Hamlet, set in Denmark near the turn of the 20th century, Branagh's most obvious influence is David Lean; the panoramic shots of Blenheim Palace and of Fortinbras's advancing armies recall both Doctor Zhivago and The Bridge on the River Kwai. Love's Labour's Lost plays like a time capsule from 1939, laced with songs by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and the Gershwins and dance numbers that aspire to the grace of Astaire and Rogers (though they more often bring to mind Ruby Keeler's earnest hoofing).
As You Like It is set in Japan in the latter half of the 19th century, after the country has suspended its centuries-long policy of isolation and opened its doors to Western trade. American thespians Bryce Dallas Howard and Kevin Kline are well matched by Brits Alfred Molina, Janet McTeer, and Romola Garai. The movie sticks close to the narrative of Shakespeare's pastoral comedy, but the principal characters have been transformed into wealthy merchants living in coastal shipping ports.
The old Duke, a cultivated man enamored of Japan's fine arts, is usurped by his younger brother, Duke Frederick (both played by Blessed), a brute whose taste in the arts runs to the martial. Duke Senior takes refuge with some loyal retainers in the Forest of Arden, while his daughter, Rosalind (Howard), is held hostage by Duke Frederick so that she might keep his daughter, Celia (Garai), company. When Frederick banishes Rosalind from his home, the cousins don disguises—Celia as the maiden Aliena, Rosalind as the young man Ganymede—and head for Arden to seek Rosalind's father. There Rosalind encounters her admirer, Orlando (David Oyelowo), who doesn't recognize her; taking advantage of her guise as a man she devises a scheme by which they will be wed.
Although it's far from the worst thing I've ever watched on the small screen, this As You Like It is notable chiefly for Branagh's puzzling creative decisions. While his fin de siecle Hamlet used the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Europe's slide into world war as the backdrop for the protagonist's existential dilemma, As You Like It employs its period and locale only as window dressing. The movie opens with a Kabuki performance (by one of the film's few Japanese actors, Takuya Shimada) that's disrupted by Duke Frederick's takeover of his brother's estate. Interiors follow the lines of traditional Japanese architecture, but nothing is made of how rooms influence the lives of those within them. (Contrast that with the many mirrored doors and hidden passageways in Hamlet, where the production design fits the court intrigue like an expensive glove.)
There's another sibling rivalry in As You Like It, between the brothers Oliver (Adrian Lester) and Orlando. Oliver is in league with Frederick, and the two put Orlando up to a fight with the ruler's champion. Orlando prevails (as in the play), but asking a movie audience to buy that the slender Oyelowo (a Brit of Nigerian ancestry) could realistically win a match against a 300-pound Japanese sumo wrestler is a bit much.
That there are so few Asians in the cast only points to a missed opportunity: why set the story in Japan during its emergence from feudalism yet not acknowledge the role race played among the Western orientalists who pushed Japan into the modern era? Branagh's color-blind casting—the heroines are white, their suitors black—is laudable, but his total avoidance of the historical tensions that existed between the Japanese and their new visitors makes the movie less piquant. As You Like It is just another in a long line of Anglo-American films (after Memoirs of a Geisha, for one) that merely appropriate exotic cultures for the entertainment of Westerners.
It's unfortunate that this uninspired concept distracts from the considerable artistry of the performers. Howard and Garai not only look enough alike to pass as relatives but they strike a girlish bond that poignantly underscores the vulnerability of their gender in a patriarchal society. As Duke Senior's clown, Touchstone, Molina is a tangle of jutting limbs, sporting a riotous pompadour that would have done Seinfeld's Kramer proud. He finds his soul mate in the equally tousled Audrey (McTeer), whose plain-spoken earthiness balances his caustic cynicism, and the directness of their courtship throws into relief the artifice of Rosalind's charade with Orlando.
Best of all is Kevin Kline, who brings his long experience as both a movie star and a Shakespearean stage actor to bear in his exquisite rendering of Lord Jaques' soliloquy, "All the world's a stage." But Branagh forfeits the scene's psychological texture by filming it in a circular panning long shot, going in close on Kline only toward the end—what a waste.
HBO is a division of Time Warner, so maybe synergy was a factor in Warner Home Video's decision to release a terrific two-disc special-edition DVD of Hamlet the week before As You Like It airs. But watching Branagh maximize every bit of the 70-millimeter format with dynamic compositions and sweeping choreography only makes his latest foray into Shakespeare look sadder. It's not that Hamlet is the greater play, though it is—it's that the Branagh of ten years ago was bolder, unconstrained by fears of Hollywood's bottom line. All the world was his stage, and he knew exactly how to fill it.