In directing a new version of William Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” Kenneth Branagh fosters a giddy sort of freedom in his actors.
Branagh’s adaptation (premiering Tuesday night at 9 EDT on HBO), at first, sounds like it’s taking liberties just for the sake of taking them. The story is transplanted from the Forest of Arden to 19th-century Japan, and begins with some kabuki theater, a samurai invasion and a sumo contest.
But once the story gets going, and the characters seek solace in the nearby woods, the Japanese elements either fade away or get absorbed nicely, and the actors - and Shakespeare’s playful words - take center stage.
Bryce Dallas Howard, the star of “The Village” and “Lady in the Water,” is given the best role yet of her young career - and she’s nothing short of a revelation here. TV has given us one great Rosalind before this, when Helen Mirren played her in the “Shakespeare Plays” complete cycle in the late-‘70s, but Howard is just as much in command of a character that’s as complex as it is comic.
Rosalind, after all, is a woman who disguises herself as a man, then feigns portraying a woman. Howard manages it all, without seeming too boyish, too girlish or too artificial. And she does a lot of it in unbroken long takes, as Branagh’s directorial style is, for many scenes, the challenging Shakespearean equivalent of a “West Wing”-style “walk-and-talk.”
Kevin Kline, as the philosopher Jacques, gets to perform the famous “All the world’s a stage” soliloquy in the opposite manner: He sits still, and the camera rotates all around him. But it’s still one unbroken take, and it’s just as mesmerizing, and pleasantly theatrical.
Other standout performances include Brian Blessed in a dual role, playing the kind Duke and his mercenary brother; Alfred Molina, as the quick-tongued court jester Touchstone; Romola Garai, a delightful discovery as Celia, Rosalind’s cousin, and David Oyelowo, the embodiment of pure passion as Orlando.
“As You Like It” is effortlessly entertaining from start to finish - and don’t miss the finish. After the closing credits, Howard delivers Rosalind’s epilogue while wandering back to her film-set trailer - and those last words you hear, after she shuts the door on her final, unbroken speech, are Branagh, saying, “And ... cut!”