Tuesday, September 18, 2007

As You Like It / *** (PG)

Rosalind: Bryce Dallas Howard
Orlando: David Oyelowo
Celia: Romola Garai
Oliver: Adrian Lester
Touchstone: Alfred Molina
Jaques: Kevin Kline
Audrey: Janet McTeer
Duke Senior/Frederick: Brian Blessed
Corin: Jimmy Yuill
Phoebe: Jade Jefferies

HBO Films and BBC Films present a film directed and adapted for the screen by Kenneth Branagh. Based on the play by William Shakespeare. Running time: 127 min. Rated PG (for violence and some sexual material).

It seems the great bard William Shakespeare was a man like any other, a man both fascinated and plagued by woman. To watch and understand the romances of Shakespeare is to see a portrait of women as bountiful muses and nearly mad slaves to anxiety. The women of Shakespeare, from the enlightened and progressive ingénue to the dimwitted harlot, cannot simply love a man; they must meddle with and manipulate any situation in which they find themselves dealing with men.

Shakespeare’s romantic comedy “As You Like It” presents one of his many plots involving a forbidden love complicated further by mistaken identities and genders. The celebration of the passions of love is elevated here by the inclusion of not just two lovers, but with love multiplied by the power of four. Eight lovers are set about to confound and confuse each other as to just who loves who, how much and why. Meanwhile, it’s up to the audience to keep score—not such an easy task for modern film audiences as it might have been back in the bard’s day.

Another signpost of Shakespeare’s desire to further stir the pot is the inclusion of a much darker melodramatic subplot. “As You Like It” opens as Duke Senior (Brian Blessed, “Alexander”) is banished from his kingdom in a coup by his own brother Duke Frederick (also played by Blessed). Senior’s daughter Rosalind remains in the kingdom at the request of her cousin Celia. Another sibling rivalry exists between Oliver and Orlando, the sons of Sir Rowland de Boys. To prove himself to his older brother, Orlando bests a wrestler of Frederick’s with encouragement from Rosalind, whom Frederick banishes in retaliation.

This introduction is dark and heavy, and serves mostly as a prelude to a much lighter story. It almost plays like one of those false starts to a “Simpsons” episode, where you think the story is going to be about one thing but ends up being about something altogether different. Once all are banished to the Forest of Arden—Rosalind with Celia in tow—the film passes through some magical portal where the fear and terror of the Duke’s court melt away into a pastoral paradise. Director Kenneth Branagh (“William Shakespeare’s Hamlet”) makes a clear distinction between the settings. The Duke’s court is dark and claustrophobic with its cubical interiors, while the forest makes for one of the more beautiful natural locations ever seen in a Shakespeare adaptation. Even the meager architecture that does exist in the forest blends in with the landscape, looking both natural and exotic. Note the winding bridge outside the grotto where Rosalind and Celia are hiding out as peasant brother and sister.

Rosalind (Bryce Dallas Howard, “Lady in the Water”) dresses as a man to conceal their identities in the forest. This of course leads to an awkward situation when Orlando (David Oyelowo, BBC America’s “MI-5”) follows Rosalind to pursue his deepest feelings for her and finds a boy – albeit a very attractive boy – named Ganymed instead. While in the guise of Ganymed, Rosalind also catches the eye of Phoebe (Jade Jefferies) who is being hopelessly pursued by the boy Silvius (Jimmy Yuill, “Ladies in Lavender”). Frederick also dispatches Oliver (Adrian Lester, “Primary Colors”) to find his brother, and therefore find his daughter with Rosalind; but when Oliver’s eyes first fall on Celia (Romola Garai, “Amazing Grace”) yet another romance ensues.

Along with the lovers, Shakespeare also throws a couple of his fools into the mix. One is Touchstone (Alfred Molina, “Spider-Man 2”) who, for all his courtly wisdom, feels he must wed in order to bed the wench Audrey (Janet McTeer, “Songcatcher”). He makes this his singular mission. The second is Jaques (Kevin Kline, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”), one of Senior’s attendants, who finds himself in a deep depression after the fall of his lord’s court. Jaques’s melancholy says more than I ever realized back in college when I participated in a staging of this play, speaking to present day events in a way that allows this seemingly innocent romance to become a poignant reminder of just why we need such entertainments. Jaques’s famous “All the world’s a stage…” speech remains powerful in a world where former sports stars, once acquitted of murder, can again find themselves headlining the evening news.

Just keeping the characters and storylines straight in a Shakespeare can be as mind boggling to the modern viewer as the iambic pentameter; but Branagh juggles them well while his cast makes the language sing, if not drop as easily as a rhyme by Kanye West. Branagh makes the interesting choice of setting his version in 19th century Japan, if only as an excuse to place his cast in exotic attire to compliment the beautiful woodland backgrounds. And both Howard and Garai are perfectly cast as the leading ladies, whose little schemes are as charming as they are maddening.

In another decade, “As You Like It” would have been a theatrical release. There has rarely been a hand to guide audiences through Shakespeare as clear and confident as Branagh’s. He stuck it out in the theaters for longer than the studios probably wanted to bother with him; but he may have finally found a welcoming home in HBO, which has made a point of trying to bring culture to their feature film projects. I hope so, because it would be a shame to lose touch with work as profound as Shakespeare’s. Even his little comedies about meddling, maddening women are more than what they would seem. And they are a lot of fun, if you’re just willing to watch.

But it: Shakespeare films

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