As you Like It
I’ve liked all of Kenneth Branagh‘s Shakespeare movies, even the one the critics all hated, the musical version of Love’s Labour’s Lost, where he took considerable liberties by adding musical numbers from the great songwriters of the 1930s performed by non-pro singers and dancers. While I enjoy adaptations set in the proper period, like his Henry V, or my favorite, Much Ado About Nothing, I also like old wine in new bottles. One of my favorite Gilbert and Sullivan performances of The Mikado takes place in an English seaside resort in the 1920s. The director’s explanation? “The Mikado has nothing to do with Japan.” He’s right, any more than Hamlet has anything to do with Denmark … and Branagh’s Hamlet takes place in the 19th Century in a palace that could be anywhere, but is really Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire.
But I was a little puzzled at first by his setting this in one of the trading enclaves of Japan in the 1800s, shortly after its opening to the West. The cast was still all Brits, though the rationale for Duke Senior to appear in full Samurai armor was apparently that he had “gone native.” And the first few minutes were a little baffling, too, as ninjas appeared and began breaking necks. I didn’t recall anything at all like that from the one other time I saw the play. And wasn’t this supposed to be a comedy? Turns out this was a flashback to the violent coup that deposed Duke Frederick before the play begins. I’m not sure that was a good idea. But then the wrestling match began, and I decided the reason Branagh chose Japan was so he could make them into sumos. It was a great scene, I’ll grant him that.
Then the action moved to Arden Forest, and everything was all right. A forest is a forest, and from that point on there was no reason to think you were in Japan at all, and I didn’t. So I was able to once more revel in a piece of Shakespeare wonderfully staged and performed by a great cast, including Brian Blessed, Kevin Kline, Alfred Molina, and Bryce Dallas Howard, who managed to do well by the part of Rosalind, one of the Bard’s best female roles, in the company of much more experienced players. (She is the daughter of Ron Howard.) What a silly, silly story! And what brilliant language. “All the world’s a stage …” Yes, some scenes were cut, and some were rearranged, some parts brought up and some toned down. I do not believe that Shakespeare has to be performed in its—let’s fess up, now, shall we?—sometimes too-long entirety. Shorter versions are the almost universal norm on stage; why not here? In fact, Branagh’s Hamlet was the first time the entire play was ever filmed, so he’s paid his dues. I am hoping this film will mark his return to the genre, and though there’s no hope he could ever get though all 38 (and again, some of them are not really worth filming), I’d like to see his take on Macbeth, Richard III, or The Tempest. And King Lear, of course, but he still needs to wait a bit for that one.
Actually, I just checked at the IMDb, and it seems that Shakespeare is alive and well on the big screen and the small one as well. There are almost 700 versions of the Bard’s plays listed there, including 9 in production. Some of them sound rather dubious, of course (Eddie Murphy in Romeo and Juliet told from the parents’ point of view?) but I don’t care, Keep ‘em coming!