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?