I’d rather have a fool to make me merry than experience to make me sad.
— Rosalind (Bryce Dallas Howard)
To adapt Shakespeare for today’s audiences means entering into a conversation with one of the great dramatic minds of history. It’s difficult to overstate the challenge of revising 400-year-old language and imagery while maintaining their beauty. And yet Kenneth Branagh, who has brought Shakespeare to the screen five times, is up for the attempt. In As You Like It, the writer-director makes some inspired, insightful cinematic choices. However, the play’s untidiness — it’s one of Shakespeare’s most mischievous — virtually guarantees a final product distinguished by individual performances rather than dramatic consistency.
Branagh’s version showcases what he calls the play’s “deliciously frivolous quality”. Set in 19th-century Japan, in one of many so-called “treaty ports” established by English merchants and ruled as fiefdoms, the film’s epigraphic haiku neatly captures a central premise:
A dream of Japan,
Love and Nature in disguise,
All the world’s a stage.
Branagh adds, “I wanted to put it in a potentially violent place, but also in a place that addressed the other themes within the play, which are the notion of romantic love — boy meets girl.” In a remarkably effective, virtually wordless opening scene, Branagh introduces this world with — what else? — a stage. The port’s benign ruler, Duke Senior (Brian Blessed), attends a traditional Japanese theater accompanied by his daughter Rosalind (Bryce Dallas Howard), her best friend Celia (Romola Garai), and several courtiers. At the same time, Senior’s brother, Duke Frederick (also Brian Blessed), readies his army for attack.
The violent coup (the scene is not in the play) establishes a dark tone. In the court, it’s literally brother against brother. Duke Frederick usurps his brother, banishing him to the forest of Arden, while Orlando De Boys (David Oyelowo) confronts his own brother, Oliver (Adrian Lester), about his rightful inheritance. Though he falls in love with Rosalind at their first meeting, that love can only blossom after they leave the city (separately) and meet again in the forest, where Rosalind has disguised herself as a boy named Ganymede.
The first 45 minutes of the film reveal the port settlement as a place of social machinations, betrayals, and power grabs, as the forest remains free of politics. Exile is, as Celia puts it, fleeing “to liberty and not to banishment.” The court is paper walls, artifice, and shadows, while Arden possesses natural nobility, where the ousted Duke Senior hears “sermons in stones” and reads man’s “true nature” in the trees.
In the forest, particular performances come alive. Rosalind, by turns naïve, worldly, playfully manipulative, and shyly vulnerable, embodies the contradictions of first love. Howard plays her as a forest nymph, all bright eyes and coy energy. Kevin Kline’s Jacques the Melancholy, quietly proud and world-weary, provides the perfect foil to her near-manic liveliness.
As the forest is transformed into a seeming community of lovers, the play observes the concept of all-consuming heterosexual passion. Orlando’s courtship of Rosalind begins when he nails bad poems to the trees, and Ganymede promises to heal him of his “sickness.” Ganymede similarly has to “cure” Sylvius (Alex Wyndham) of his slavish devotion to Phoebe (Jade Jefferies) and his own romantic ideals. (The lover, he believes, must be constantly sighing and swooning, overcome with emotion.) Such “cures” come quickly, with the overdramatic, swooning suitors soon replaced by ardent but also pragmatic lovers.
Yet for all its critique of the ideals of Romantic love, As You Like It concludes on a very Omnia vincit Amor note. Love, in its many forms — whether though overblown artifice or clear-eyed commitment — does conquer all. Orlando and Oliver reconcile. Duke Frederick gets religion and turns the port over to his brother. The film concludes with four weddings, followed by a pastoral musical number that rhymes with the opening scene. The sunlit musical romp through the forest of Arden, where there is “good in everything” according to Jacques, are fading into distant memories. And we know the Duke plans to return to his court. Love’s reign, no matter how absolute, is only temporary.