As You Like It (review)

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As I Like It

“All the world’s a stage…” We’ve all heard that quote from Shakespeare, and this is the play it’s from: As You Like It, a wonderfully convoluted pastoral romance about the love-games people play and the power of love. Which is pretty much how all of Shakespeare’s comedies could be described, probably, and that kind of enduring universality is part of what keeps drawing us back to the Bard. But how ironic is it that it’s this play-turned-movie, Kenneth Branagh’s fifth film to remind us how relevant and necessary Shakespeare’s words remain, that will not get a theatrical release in the United States? Oh, it has been in Italian theaters and will play on the big screen in Britain, but in the U.S., it goes straight to TV. All the world’s a multiplex these days, and there’s no way this charming, sprightly, intelligent film could compete on a “stage” where, at least here in the States, dick jokes and massive explosions and a boffo opening-weekend box office are the only things that matter.
So, no, there’s no way that a movie that forces you to really listen to what the characters are saying — and worse, actually think about what they’re saying — could survive that kind of vicious competition. It’s really too bad, because Branagh and his cinematographer, Roger Lanser, have given us verdant arboreal settings that could never be this gorgeously lush on any stage, and deserve to be seen in the best possible viewing situation. (Reuters notes that the forest scenes — which make up 90 percent of the film — were shot at
Wakehurst Place, “a West Sussex park of outstanding natural beauty that dates from the 13th century.” And it is indescribably beautiful. I’m so glad I got my widescreen HDTV!) But thank god for HBO, which did, at least, pick the film up and give us a chance to see it. Because anyone who thinks that Shakespeare is a chore to be suffered needs to see how fresh and refreshing and sweet and enlightening and simply pleasant his wicked-sharp words can be, when done right. And as with all of Branagh’s Bard flicks (I even adore his almost universally panned musical adaptation of Love’s Labour’s Lost), it’s done oh so right here.

Branagh transfers the action of 19th-century Japan, where Westerners flocked for a taste of the exotic and to make money on the burgeoning trade with the newly opened nation — imagine if Gilbert and Sullivan mounted the play, and there you go. But after the initial setup of the action, when court intrigue gets nobles banished to a royal forest, and others follow, there’s not much Japanese-y about it, just the infinite looping of romantic maneuvering as Rosalind (the lovely Bryce Dallas Howard [Spider-Man 3, Lady in the Water], who steals the show), disguised as the boy Ganymede and traveling with the girlishly engaging Celia (Romola Garai: Rory O’Shea Was Here, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights), tests the love of Orlando (David Oyelowo: The Last King of Scotland, A Sound of Thunder). Accompanying the ladies is Touchstone, one of the Bard’s clever fools — Branagh decided not to reprise his recent stage performance in this role so that he could work with Alfred Molina (The Da Vinci Code, Spider-Man 2), and that was a fantastic decision, for Molina, who is always wonderful, does perhaps his best work yet here. (Touchstone gets to dally with the country lass Audrey, to whom the ever luscious Janet McTeer [The Intended, Tumbleweeds] brings a hilarious bawdiness.) And the indispensable Kevin Kline (A Prairie Home Companion, De-Lovely) is Jaques, the melancholy philosopher, a wise-fool counterpart to Touchstone, who puts it all in perspective for us, turns all the passionate shenanigans into something far more profound.

It’s the naturalistic ease with which everyone plays their complicated characters and delivers their twisting lines that uncomplicates and untwists it all for us. No one is declaiming or speechifying: they’re just opening their hearts and minds for us to discover that hey, they’re real people, and we’re just like them after all.

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