Kenneth Branagh’s fifth foray into Shakespeare alights in the sheltered gardens of HBO, where the whimsical, romantic “As You Like It” seems better suited than, say, withstanding the challenge of a theatrical release. Filled with some of the bard’s more memorable lines but also one of his most convoluted plots, this latest adaptation takes notable liberties — beginning with situating the action in 19th-century Japan — not all of which work. Still, it’s a handsomely mounted production that will surely be welcomed by English majors the world over, especially those who would rather watch their homework than read it.
Assembling a top-notch cast, Branagh opens with a haiku that helps explain the location shift, centering on a community of European traders residing in Japan. The idea yields a striking opening — as ninja-like warriors descend on Duke Senior (Brian Blessed) and drive him into retreat — but beyond that and Patrick Doyle’s lovely Asian-influenced score, the device doesn’t amount to much, and there’s a dearth of Japanese-looking faces.
Synopsizing “As You Like It” has confounded better critics than this one, but the primary thrust hinges on Senior’s daughter Rosalind (Bryce Dallas Howard), who falls madly in love with the disinherited Orlando (David Oyelowo) after watching him defeat one of the court’s wrestlers (now, of course, a sumo).
Like her father, Rosalind, too, is banished by her usurping uncle Frederick (also Blessed), fleeing into the Forest of Arden with Frederick’s daughter Celia (Romola Garai) and the court jester, Touchstone (Alfred Molina). To ensure their safety, they adopt the ruse of having Rosalind masquerade as a boy, Ganymede, and in that guise she encounters Orlando, testing the obviously farsighted lad’s love for her.
Orlando, meanwhile, is being sought by his jealous brother Oliver (Adrian Lester), who later falls instantly in love with Celia. Throw in Touchstone’s comical liaison with the goat herder Audrey (Janet McTeer), and the web of interlocking relationships and mixed-up identities all build toward a joyous, multimatrimonial ending.
If there’s a weak link in the sprawling ensemble, it’s Howard. Rosalind is a tricky role given her gender-bending fits of exasperation, jubilation and cunning, and at times those swings simply feel beyond her.
The midsection also drags, perhaps inevitably, though to his credit Branagh does put his cinematic canvas to good use — from the few action sequences to the sumptuously shot (by cinematographer Roger Lanser) scenes of Arden at Wakehurst Place, a park managed by the Royal Botanic Gardens never before captured on film.
This adaptation nevertheless represents an ideal HBO project — offering major stars an opportunity to engage in classy work that would likely possess marginal appeal if forced to meet the ruthless demands of weekend box office or network ratings.
Placed in that context, Shakespeare got it half right: All the world’s a stage, but perpetuating a certain image — more so than the play — ah, that’s truly the thing.