Directed by Kenneth Branagh. 2006.


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Seeing As You Like It, William Shakespeare’s romantic comedy of mistaken identity brought back memories of an amateur production of the Carousel Theater here in Vancouver many years ago in which my son David played a small role. It was a wonderful presentation that thoroughly captured the genius of Shakespeare’s delightful imagination. Unfortunately, the new filmed version by Kenneth Branagh with its big budget and professional cast is not in the least bit as convincing or entertaining. It is miscast, over produced, over acted, and simplistic with its multi-layered plot made easier to follow than Sesame Street.  

Set in Japan in the 19th Century after the country was opened to the West as a trading partner, the royalty of England have been reinvented as wealthy merchants living on the Japanese seacoast. Neither the opulent backgrounds nor the conceit of the script, however, has any impact on either understanding or enjoyment of the play and the setting seems to be simply a marketing decision not an artistic one. The film opens with a kabuki scene at the court of Duke Senior (Brian Blessed). His brother Frederick, also played by Blessed with black hair, interrupts the proceedings to forcibly overthrow his brother’s dukedom and the elder Duke is banished to the Arden Forest. Orlando, played by the Nigerian born David Oyelowo, and his brother Oliver (Adrian Lester) then proceed to fight over their position in the court.  

Oliver, aligned with Frederick, entices his brother to take on a 300-pound sumo wrestler to all but certain doom but, as the script will have it, the underdog prevails in spite of a weight differential of about 150 pounds. In addition to being victorious at sport, he also falls for one of his well-wishers, the attractive Rosalind (Bryce Dallas Howard), daughter of Duke Senior. Fearful of her safety at the court, Rosalind, pretending to be a man and, taking the name of Ganymede from the handsome cup bearer to the Gods in Greek mythology, sneaks out with her cousin Celia (Romola Garai) and the clown Touchstone (Alfred Molina) to seek out her father in the Forest of Arden. Soon they are joined by Orlando who also fears for his life after a fight with his brother Oliver over their inheritance. 

Before long, a bunch of other personages wander into the film including a melancholy philosopher named Jaques (Kevin Kline) who is described as “an exiled courtier”, a young shepherd Silvius (Alex Wyndham) who pursues his reluctant girlfriend Phebe (Jade Jefferies), and others. Curiously, there are two characters named Jaques and two named Oliver, something that most writers would go to any length to avoid. The play is best noted for the cynical soliloquy chronicling the seven ages of man, “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts”, delivered with properly dour expression by Kline.  

It would not be a Shakespearean comedy without some gender confusion and Rosalind, after noticing Orlando’s love poems neatly positioned on trees all over their neck of the woods, knows that Orlando loves her. Approaching Orlando in her boy disguise as Ganymede, Rosalind endeavors to teach him the finer points of courtship if he would just pretend that he is a she. She uses her charm to seduce Orlando, but also is drawn reluctantly into a relationship with the shepherdess Phebe. In Elizabethan conventions, this meant that a boy playing the girl Rosalind would dress as a boy and then be wooed by another boy playing Phebe. 

Quite naturally, this being a comedy and all, everyone ends up happy, (dramatized in a finale of the utmost silliness by Branagh) except for Jaques who, in character, decides not to return to the court. All the pieces are in place for the film to be successful but there are key elements that work against it. For the play to work at all, Rosalind has to be believable as a young man. If she is not, Orlando looks like a complete fool, and the play is robbed of its intended homoerotic playfulness. In this case, Branagh does not even attempt to have Rosalind look masculine and the scenes with Orlando in which he/she is teaching him how to express his love are unconvincing (unless you read it that Orlando goes along with the ruse and the author is simply making a statement about role playing, the masks people wear (himself?) in life, and the inauthenticity of self). 

Rosalind is supposed to be pure, innocent, perhaps a little naïve but definitely virtuous. Howard, however, is very un-maiden like in appearance and manner and lacks any noticeable chemistry with her lover. She tries so hard to put the correct inflections in the words that she robs them of whatever poetry they might have had, conveying the impression that she is trying out eagerly for a grammar school play. This is Branagh’s fifth attempt to put Shakespeare on film and I’m sure it won’t be his last. After achieving considerable artistic but not financial success with the first three, he has opted in this latest film for less of an artistic statement than an overtly commercial approach. Love’s Labours Lost was an unmitigated disaster – scorched by the critics and shunned by audiences. Unfortunately, As You Like It may follow in its path.  



As You Like It is normally dated around 1599 or 1600 and is based on the novel “Rosalynde” by Thomas Lodge written in the euphuistic style which in plot is almost identical to Shakespeare’s version (though Touchstone and Jaques do not appear in the novel). It is generally considered to be one of Shakespeare’s best, though some critics have thought otherwise. Swinden calls it “the most perfect” of the comedies, Gardner “the most refined and exquisite,” and Ward cites its “most extraordinary elusive subtlety”. The play romanticizes a life close to nature and Edward Dowden has written that Shakespeare “has written no happier play”. There is little action, however, and, according to one critic, “the characters spend much of their time talking, simply talking”, yet the dialogue is so sprightly and witty that it never appears to be overly “talky”.  

The play is consistent with the aristocratic approach of most of Shakespeare’s plays, stipulating that good manners are learned at court and nowhere else. Touchstone is asked how he likes this shepherd’s life and he replies “If thou wast never at court, thou never sawest good manners; if you never sawest good manners, then thy manners must be wicked.” It is also noted for an unusual interaction between Audrey, a local wench, who is wooed by the clown Touchstone and another pursuer, a country fellow curiously named William. It should be noted that writers do not normally give characters their own name, especially not to an apparently unimpressive character like the bumpkin portrayed here. It is also interesting that the consensus author William of Stratford would have been 25 years old in 1590, the age that William in the play says that he is. 

Touchstone, after asking William a few questions, declares enigmatically, “drink, being pour’d out of a cup into a glass, by filling the one doth empty the other; for all your writers do consent that ipse is he. Now, you are not ipse, for I am he”. The dialogue in this scene makes no sense in reference to anything else in the play and there has been much speculation about its meaning. As Alex McNeil has pointed out, “it is not quite accurate to say that “ipse is he.” “Ipse” connotes something more than merely “he.” It is “he himself,” or “the emphatic he, the man himself, the very man”. “Writers” could refer to the ancient Latin writers or to Latin grammarians, but also to the author’s contemporaries, suggesting that his fellow writers knew that Touchtone (he himself), not William, personified the true author of the works. So the passage adds more fuel to the authorship controversy and the debate continues.

Howard Schumann
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