Thursday, October 25, 2007

As You Like It

You may barely have heard about Kenneth Branagh's new Shakespeare film, since HBO Films decided to skip theatrical release, debuted it a couple of times on TV in August, and sent it straight to DVD. Herewith follows my disappointed little Amazon review:

'Beautiful' seems to be the word of praise most used for this movie, and visually gorgeous it certainly is. It is probably worth watching for that alone. But this comedy, usually hailed as the most witty and sparkling of Shakespeare's comedies, turns into a sort of fest of overblown emotions without the wit to leaven them. It's not helped by its leading lady, Bryce Dallas Howard, who is a gorgeous and well-spoken Rosalind without a lot of range or irony. Only in the epilogue does she really show much spark. Simply speaking, you wish that the characters were taking themselves a little less seriously.

Branagh is, as always, a superb director, but it's the adaptation that's lacking slightly here. The much-debated Japanese setting is not terribly illuminating in any way, unlike his Hamlet transposition which skilfully used the 1848 pan-European setting to provoke reflection on the political and philosophical volatility of the time period and of the text -- a true feat. Here, a few title cards are thrown up with some vague historical background which is then forgotten; the film could just as well have taken place in a quasi-Japanese fairytale world (the equivalent of, oh, let's see, the English Forest of Arden!) without any feeble explanation. It's just pretty. [To elaborate here, it would have been a hell of a lot less unsavory to have a bunch of white people romping around quasi-Japan than Japan. I can think of ways it could have worked really interestingly, so that the Europeans living in their little enclave learned from venturing outside it, etc., but... it did not.]

Romola Garai is a hilarious Celia, so much so that I found myself wishing she had played Rosalind. The other standout was Adrian Lester, who managed to convey a believably villainous but then instantly sympathetic Oliver. Branagh fans were hoping wildly for him to play Jaques or Touchstone; you'll be wishing that afterwards, too, as Kevin Kline was a good but rather monochromatic Jaques (if Branagh had cut the monologue before 'All the world's a stage,' it might have helped), and Molina's Touchstone was not often funny. (Really, that's what I keep coming back to--I ought to have been laughing my head off, and barely ever cracked a smile.)

The DVD is set at low volume, so be prepared to jack it up. Sadly, no director commentary, as I would have loved to hear Branagh talk about his creative shot choices and movement in detail. Instead, there's a crap 5-minute featurette that tells you nothing much about his creative process, but at least provides some behind-the-scenes shots of the genius at work to keep his fans satisfied.

The bottom line: a must-see, of course, for Shakespeare and Branagh fans, who will enjoy critiquing it and/or adoring it. Will probably do well for period-film-lovers based on its visual beauty.

I should warn you all that regardless of my disappointment with this film, I have been on a big Branagh kick lately, so expect more of him.

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