Japan, the 1880s. Duke Senior (Blessed) is ousted by brother Frederick (Blessed) and flees into the forest. Seniors daughter Rosalind (Dallas Howard) and Fredericks daughter Celia (Garai) set off after him, where Rosalind meets the man she loves (Oyelow
The first thing that strikes you about Kenneth Branagh’s version of As You Like It is how similar Romola Garai and Bryce Dallas Howard look. The second thing that strikes you is that it’s set in 1880s Japan, and you’re not quite sure if that’s a good idea.
You can’t fault the casting. Garai and Howard play cousins Celia and Rosalind, and Brian Blessed both their fathers: evil Frederick and his kind brother Senior, whom he ousts. Alfred Molina is perfection as Touchstone, the pompous court jester who accompanies the cousins during their pastoral explorations. And David Oyelowo gives good lovestruck as Orlando, although the fact that his mixed-race relationship with Rosalind raises no eyebrows in 1880s Japan feels odd even given Branagh’s perennial colour-blind casting (Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves as brothers, anyone?).
Then again, very little in Shakespeare’s comedy rings true, especially when seen with a modern eye. Rosalind’s male disguise fools Orlando even when she simperingly asks him to pretend she’s Rosalind. Branagh’s screenplay largely ignores the homoerotic implications of this request, drawing out little of the intended humour.
Some of the Bard’s dialogue has stood the test of time better: “Do you not know I am a woman? When I think, I must speak,” gabbers Rosalind.
Garai is very funny as the swooning Celia, quite the spoiled princess as she petulantly struggles to hike through the countryside. Howard is first-rate as the strapping young drag king, proffering a convincing English accent and maintaining the audience’s warmth and attention long after it might otherwise have waned.
Kevin Kline fares less well as eccentric sage Jaques, his self-satisfied character feeling like an unnecessary irritant in an already crowded cast. Really, you just want to see Celia and Rosalind have some fun, and Rosalind and Orlando get together, without all the contrived misunderstandings: romantic obstacles have been more compelling both in Shakespeare and Hollywood.
In the case of As You Like It, modern-day comedies might be better off not looking to Shakespeare for inspiration. And we’re still not sure why Branagh set it in Japan.
While diverting in parts, this struggles to make a convoluted plot engaging. Were still loving Romola Garai and Bryce Dallas Howard, though.