Saturday, January 23, 2010

As You Like It

Oh, my. This has been sitting on my coffee table for a bit more than two years, most likely. I have loved Branagh's other Shakespeare adaptations - one of my fondest memories of high school was going out to see Much Ado About Nothing with a bunch of friends who were taking the same Shakespeare class, I took the bus to Boston to see Hamlet while going to college in Worcester because the Landmark Theater brought in 70mm projection especially for it, and I remember dragging my brother Matt to Love's Labour's Lost because, darn it, he had to see how gorgeous it was, with Branagh making sure to do things like match the colors of the ladies' dresses and drinks. The soundtrack to that one was in heavy rotation for a while, too, goofy showtunes and all (though I absolutely loved how "You Can't Take That Away From Me" was used in it). I defend Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. If Dead Again were to come out on Blu-ray, I am pretty sure that I would not remember actually purchasing it, because it would be done entirely by my involuntary nervous system.

So, yes, I am a fan. Fan enough to pre-order As You Like It, and then keep it near the TV rather than the shelf of movies in the back room because watching it is a priority, but with the sort of addiction to buying movies much faster than I can actually watch them that keeps me from actually sticking it into a player for over two years. I'm a bit ashamed of that.

Now... Does anybody know where I can find the Japanese HD-DVD of The Magic Flute for a reasonable price? Because that looks like the only version available that I can watch without a region-free player, and the fact that something by Branagh (and Stephen Fry!) has not gotten American distribution in the three-plus years since it started trickling out in other markets is tremendously disappointing.

Next up, as I try to plow through my unwatched DVDs: The fifteen or so unwatched festival screeners I've amassed over the last couple of years. And that's just DVD; there's some VHS ones that I'd have to hook something up for.

As You Like It

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 January 2010 in Jay's Living Room (upconverted DVD)

Thus far, the twenty-first century has not been kind to the films Kenneth Branagh directed. If you blinked, you missed his remake of Sleuth; if you're in North America, you haven't even had a chance to see his 2006 production of The Magic Flute (which, as far as I can tell, has yet to play theaters, television, or home video here). As You Like It fell somewhere between them, premiering on pay cable a month before being released on DVD. I suspect this explains why Marvel has tapped him for their Thor movie - he can use the boost in visibility as much as they can use somebody who can breathe life into things that the general public might assume to be stuffy and boring. Such as, say, Shakespeare, for the fifth time as director.

One of the ways he does this is by taking them out of their Elizabethan setting and placing them in new contexts to show the universality of the ideas behind them. With As You Like It, he moves the action to nineteenth-century Japan, where English traders had set up enclaves in port cities. As the film opens, a well-liked Duke (Brian Blessed) is removed from power by a group of ninjas and ronin in the service of his evil brother Frederick (also Blessed). The Duke and much of his court is sent into exile in the forest of Arden, but his daughter Rosalind (Bryce Dallas Howard) is kept as a companion to her cousin Celia (Romola Garai). This sort of jealousy among brothers appears to be common, as Frederick's ally Oliver De Boys (Adrian Lester) plots to kill his youngest brother Orlando (David Oyelowo). Orlando captures the affection of Rosalind, which enrages Frederick, who banishes her. Celia refuses to abandon her best friend, and they bring court jester Touchstone (Alfred Molina) along with them into exile.

There is more, of course - Shakespeare filled his plays with characters and subplots! So we have a pair of country lovers (Alex Wyndham and Jade Jefferies); the lusty Audrey (Janet McTeer), who hooks up with Touchstone; and the melancholy Jacques (Kevin Kline). Rosalind disguises herself as a boy, as a clown would be small discouragement to any bandits who might attack two women on their own, and teases the lovesick Orlando, who also finds himself in the woods. And if the material that Shakespeare came up with wasn't enough, Branagh fleshes the story out a bit with scenes of his own invention, depicting things which previously occurred off-stage. That's how you get ninjas in Shakespeare.

You can spot those scenes because they have no dialogue - adding one's own words to Shakespeare is just not done, after all. Though he doesn't do that, he is, as usual, well aware that he is adapting the Bard's work to film, rather than simply recording a play. Lines that simply describe what the audience can see are cut, scenes are re-arranged, action is shown rather than related, and the camera follows people around. Characters speak in verse, of course, but it comes across as conversational as well as larger-than-life. And while the story is far from completely modernized, the script manages to excise some of the aspects of the last act that are downright silly and weird without losing sight of the fact that the story is intended to be funny. The whole plot about Rosalind disguising herself as the boy "Ganymede" could fall into that category, but the film manages to acknowledge that without falling into self-parody.

That's in large part due to Romola Garai. Celia is the supporting female role, but this version of the story gives Garai a lot of chances to be more than just the friend Rosalind confesses her feelings to; she's given enough slapstick and double-takes to be near the top of the list of funny people in the cast. Alfred Molina isn't far behind; he delivers Touchstone's lines with the timing of a veteran stand-up, especially when he's allowed to just take control of a scene (or has McTeer's assistance in taking things over the top). Bryce Dallas Howard doesn't get quite so many jokes as them, but she shows a tremendous mischievous charm when in disguise as Ganymede that puts a smile on one's face even though she's not going for laughs as directly as the others.

The actors in more serious roles do well, too. Brian Blessed has shown up in a number of Branagh's films, and he's well-used here; his dual role gives him a chance to use that booming voice to both make the exiled Duke jolly and gregarious and cast Frederick as a frightening maniac. David Oyelowo brings plenty of sex appeal to the part of Orlando (he makes a sumo loincloth work for him early on), and manages to be head over heels for Rosalind without chipping away at his cool too much. And while I suspect that the part of Jacques has been pared down in the adaptation (though it's been some time since I've read the play or seen a different version), Kevin Kline makes up for any lost lines with his body language and general performance, and makes the famous "all the world's a stage" speech sing.

Does Branagh's grasp of what makes a good movie as opposed to a good play, visual flair, and quality multi-ethnic cast yield a version of As You Like It that could appeal to a general audience? Maybe. Truth be told, the cross-dressing plots in many of the comedies become harder sales with every year that passes from the time when only men and boys performed on stage, and the incredulous looks Garai as Celia gives Orlando, Rosalind, and the audience only gets us most of the way to really buying into it. And as nifty as the Japanese setting frequently looks, it often feels like a gimmick that won't bring in as many newcomers as it will alienate purists.

Their loss, if so. Branagh has filmed five of Shakespeare's plays, and all five times he has produced something that is no less an entertaining movie for being an adaptation of four hundred year-old works. As You Like It is no exception.

Also at EFC

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