Fair readers, I present to you part the third of my ongoing love letter to the awesomeness of Kenneth Branagh and his work with Shakespeare. Take a look at the trailer and then on to the review.
The film begins with some title cards establishing the setting in 19th century Japan and the merchant settlements that were established during that time. We then get a haiku that concludes with “all the world’s a stage” (which conveniently is five syllables) and then we get some truly beautiful establishing shots. Branagh has made the choice to actually show the deposing of the Duke by Duke Frederick, so we get to see the court as they watch a sort of silent play (I’m poorly versed in Japanese culture so I’m sure there’s a name for this but I don’t know it) intercut with shots of warriors creeping towards the house ominously (there’s even a scene with moving bamboo straws in the pond, I thought that trick only worked in cartoons). We then see the Duke deposed, and move into the play proper. Branagh has shifted a few scenes around in the first act to make it flow a little better for film and fit with his opening, but otherwise the film is very faithful to the text.
The casting of this film is, of course, brilliant. Bryce Dallas Howard is a brilliant Rosalind and Romola Garai takes the smaller role of Celia and brings a brilliant level of comedy to it. The two actors cast as Orlando and Oliver are super attractive and have wonderful screen presences. Alfred Molina makes Touchstone amusing to watch, if only for the epic hairdo. Brian Blessed plays the dual roles of the deposed Duke and Duke Frederick and makes the one sweet and sympathetic and the other truly menacing. The other actor of note is Kevin Kline as Jacques, who brings the right dose of melancholy and delivers the “All the world’s a stage” speech with a great level of gravitas.
The locations, sets, and costumes for this film are absolute gorgeous. IMDb informs me that the film was shot in England, and the locales are beautiful. While there is the general feeling that it is inhospitable without being truly harsh. The costumes run the gamut from late 19th century British garb to more Asian influenced kimonos and military garb. Branagh lets the setting creep into the play in several ways to make some of the details more acceptable for a modern audience. Charles is now a sumo wrestler, which makes Orlando’s defeat of him even more impressive. And the lion attack seems far more likely in the wilds of Japan than in France (although in both cases, I still think it’s pretty slim. The major suspension of disbelief required is that anyone believes that Rosalind is actually a boy. While her clothes hide her curves pretty well, her face is still so feminine that she just looks like a woman in period clothes and a ponytail. But she’s so pretty and charming, it’s easy to let it go.
The film rolics along and with some of the silent touches makes the alterations in characters like Oliver and Orlando, more believable. Branagh makes the decision to imply that Duke Frederick has beaten Oliver to get information about Orlando’s whereabouts out of him. Also, the mildly scary scene of the lion attack depicted in the film makes Oliver’s willingness to forgive Orlando far more believable. Additionally, both he and Celia manage to really sell the love at first sight angle and make it truly charming. As for Duke Frederick’s conversion, Branagh makes a point throughout the film of having every group of characters that enter the forest to encounter a monk that sits in front of a tree. Thus, when Duke Frederick encounters him we’re prepared for his sudden conversion to pacifist.
The conclusion of the film is beautiful with all four couples in their wedding finery and tall white flags with red and pink streamers fluttering in the background. And in the true amazingness that is Branagh directing Shakespeare, he makes the concluding song part of the film without it being ridiculously over the top or annoying. Of course, I could have just been distracted by how pretty everything was.
Next week we’re on to All’s Well That Ends Well. Until then, fair reader.