The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 18.0560  Tuesday, 28 August 2007

From: 		Robert Projansky <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
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 
kabuki too.

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 
please you.

  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,
Bob Projansky

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