The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 18.0560 Tuesday, 28 August 2007
From: Robert Projansky <
Date: Monday, 27 Aug 2007 08:30:27 -0700
Subject: 18.0551 Branagh's _As You Like It_
Comment: Re: SHK 18.0551 Branagh's _As You Like It_
Virginia Heffernan's review in the NY Times is ridiculously wrong. She
says, "Ms. Howard makes a passable Victorian young man." But that's
only true if 80% of success is just showing up, because that's about all
you can say for her performance.
"As You Like It" certainly proves how powerful a filmmaker Kenneth
Branagh is. I mean powerful enough to command millions to make a really
awful film, one made awful by his refusal to follow what seem to me to
be some simple directions.
There are very few redeeming features in his AYLI. The camera does
sometimes swoop around the grounds nicely and we do see some pretty
pictures; those blue flowers (bluebells? hyacinths?) are lovely, and I
know many of the actors are pretty good because I have seen them do
things well -- just not in this film.
But -- Japan? Huh? Whatever for? What does that, as applied, do for
William Shakespeare's play? Answer: less than nothing. And in this Japan
we are focused on this bunch of gringos (sorry, I don't know the
Japanese word for them) while the real Japanese are just extras. And he
shot his Japan in the UK in the spring, to get those pretty daffodils
and bluebells or oxlips or whatever-they-ares. So you're looking at the
landscape equivalent of a boy playing a girl. If you know this it nags
at you throughout the picture. I don't mean at your suspension of
disbelief -- that's out of the question -- but it just makes you wonder,
Why? For the sake of those pretty flowers his English Japan is all gray
skies with plenty of mud. Couldn't he have had the same nice gray skies
and mud without calling it Japan? I suppose he made it Japan for the
same reason directors misplace any Shakespeare play: they like the
design and costume opportunities without regard to some necessary
Question of the play.
Some of Branagh's casting, as in all of his films, is incomprehensible:
Keanu Reeves was completely incompetent in Much Ado, Jack Lemon, though
appealing enough, was over seventy when he was a soldier on guard duty
in Hamlet, and now here's a Phebe far too cute for her role, one who
seems to be quite OK for all markets. Maybe I'm just dumb, but I've
always thought Phebe, in the shallow world of the play, should be so
plain-looking (or worse) that she should be glad to have a Sylvius after
her. Although Branagh is to be commended for his racial daring, in this
Japanese-ish context these sons of old Sir Roland make it all look even
weirder. And although WS wrote that Celia/Aliena is said to be "browner
than her brother", Romola Garai's Aliena is as blonde and fair as any
woman on earth.
Branagh has truly set the bar for his Rosalind flat on the ground: not
the slightest attempt to show us a woman pretending to be a man. Her
way of playing a man is to wear pants and a man's hat, except when she
isn't wearing the hat -- or the pants. Superman does a better job of
disguising himself with Clark Kent's eyeglasses than Rosalind does in
this flick. Doesn't Rosalind need to be able to butch it up and swagger
around interestingly? Isn't that charade the backbone of the play? The
better she can do that the more entertaining it is when she faints away
at hearing of Orlando's hurt, no? Although Rosalind claims as her
principal qualification for her role that she is more than common tall,
this one is not. In all, Branagh and Ms. Howard turn the greatest female
comic role in the canon into just a silly very ordinary young woman.
Maybe she could actually play Rosalind if turned loose, but he probably
got exactly the Rosalind he wanted.
The Rosalind problem is just one of many, many bad choices. We don't get
Touchstone's disquisition on the seventh cause, a perennial audience
favorite, unless it happened when I stepped out to the kitchen. Branagh
has Touchstone hurt William, not just threaten him. He ruins the "And I
for no woman" scene by the camera purposelessly making several orbits
around the four actors, who are all in a clump, losing the sequential
focus needed for the scene to work. Onstage, if you line them up like
soldiers in the order in which they speak -- Sylvius, Phebe, Orlando,
Rosalind -- you can't go wrong, the audience howls, but no, Branagh is
far too clever to just line people up, so the scene's an utter dud.
One of the saving graces of even the worst Shakespeare productions is
that you get to hear Shakespeare's words. Here, not so much. Kenneth
Branagh knows there is nothing quite as boring as talk, talk, talk all
through a movie, so he often chooses to show you English Japanese woods
set to music rather than give you Shakespeare to listen to. Scenes
start with and are separated by these wildwood tours and nature hikes,
all of which would be swell except that every four and a quarter
seconds of this audiovisual Wonder Bread means one more line by William
Shakespeare has been mercilessly amputated. Whatever "Shakespeare's
text" may mean to SHAKSPERians, it doesn't much matter here: I don't
believe there is more than a third of the play in this thing, maybe as
little as a quarter.
Because film frees him from the limitations of the stage, KB throws in
lots of things for us to look at that WS didn't write to take up the
space of what he did. One of these is Orlando sort-of-catching Rosalind
bathing in a stream. Hmmm. A moment later she is galumphing along with
him through the woods, fully dressed, without us having seen the
resolution of this unnecessary predicament. He needlessly shows us the
lioness v. Orlando skirmish, the director apparently figuring,
Shakespeare didn't write the scene because Shakespeare couldn't get a
lion, but I, Kenneth Branagh, can get a lion from HBO. So he did. And
I was under the misapprehension that there's verse to be found in AYLI.
Not in this one. Most of what little verse remains is almost entirely
unrecognizable as such. It's abominably played: prosified, the meter
trashed and broken, everything drawn out, with grunts and chuckles and
huge pauses thrown in to improve poor old Bill's clumsy attempts to
The worst thing about this AYLI is that it will eat up all the air.
Nobody will make another As You Like It for years to come.
Nancy Charlton asks, "Is it a sign of the witlessness of these latter
days that no one seems to be able to play this play decently?" Yes, I
think it is. "Or am I a finicky fussbudget hopelessly out of the loop?"
No, you're not, it's the loop that's defective. Almost nobody wants to
produce or direct Shakespeare today as written, and Branagh's AYLI is
worse than most only because he had more resources in the service of his
artistic wrongheadedness to make it worse.
Last night, just twenty-four hours before seeing the mess aforesaid, by
happenstance I caught only the last scene of a local cable channel's
showing of a Twelfth Night performed by students in an Oregon middle
school, kids of 12, 13, 14. The obviously nonprofessional video was shot
from the back of the flat-floored school gymnasium/ auditorium, so the
audience was a silhouette that always occupied half the frame. The kids
were mostly amateurish, the blocking was elementary, and the stage was
cluttered, full of many gentlemen, ladies, attendants, and servants,
apparently all the Drama Club overflow. The school-show costumes were
nothing special. The production was all in all pretty unremarkable
except for its being done by children. I liked it just fine. Their
clumsy-colt enthusiasm and energy with this spectacular language was
wonderful. They knew their lines and delivered them with good accent and
good discretion. The funny stuff was funny. Where WS shamelessly draws
out and milks the Viola/Sebastian recognition scene it built just as it
should until she finally said "I am Viola" and it was every bit as
moving for me as it was meant to be. That teacher director had done her
best to bring the play faithfully to life on the stage (I think the text
of the scene was uncut), and those kids -- and Shakespeare -- came
through very nicely. Their hubris-free performance -- what I saw of it
-- even without allowances for its built-in limitations, delivered more
on its promises than Mr. Branagh's latest effort.
Apologies for the length of this.
Best to all,
S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List
Hardy M. Cook,
The S H A K S P E R Web Site <http://www.shaksper.net>
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