“We are not all alone unhappy”
As the fifth of his big screen Shakespeare adaptations, there’s a slight sense of Kenneth Branagh chomping at the bit, determined to do things differently whether they work or not. Not content with mutating Love’s Labour’s Lost into a 1930s musical, he then turned his hand to a more beloved play in As You Like It and adopted another approach, relocating it – notionally at least – to the striking world of late 19th century Japan.
There, the characters are turned into merchants seeking a foothold in the newly opened up trading routes and the battle between Dukes Senior and Frederick is over control of the family business. But aside from the wrestling match being turned into a sumo contest, there’s disappointingly little real purchase in this new world. Once in the forest, it could be any old Arden and the opportunity to explore something differently culturally is abandoned.
Which is a shame as there’s some cracking performances in here. Bryce Dallas Howard makes an appealing Rosalind (her epilogue is inspired) though they could have made more effort to boi her up. Romola Garai brings her customary exemplary talent to a bright Celia, David Oyelowo and Adrian Lester tangle nicely as the De Boys brothers and Alfred Molina’s Touchstone is a beautifully restrained clown. Chief among the pleasure for me though is Brian Blessed’s brace of Dukes, he’s such a good actor when focusing on subtlety and nuance and he’s just lovely here.
But there’s too little comedy to brighten up the goings-on in this As You Like It, Janet McTeer is wasted as an abrasive Audrey and Kevin Kline’s Jaques is one-dimensionally flat, and not really enough chemistry between Howard and Oyelewo to really drive the film forward, to give it the giddy charge that can make it a real joy to watch. And as a final jig becomes a swirl of kimonos in a typically Japanese-styled room, the sense of cultural appropriation becomes a little too strong, especially since no Japanese actors are given any substantial roles here.