When Kenneth Branagh films Shakespeare, he usually pulls the Bard down to earth. Not only are his adaptations of "Much Ado About Nothing," "Hamlet," and "Henry V" caked with dirt and burnished with natural beauty, they're pitched at a contemporary level of understanding. Branagh strips Shakespearean speech of its declamatory theatrics and uses breathtaking cinematic language to support the storytelling; and yet within all this casualness and accessibility, the Shakespearean spirit of wit and feeling survives.
"As You Like It" is his latest Shakespeare effort, and it's a likable one, marred only by some awkward abridgement. Co-produced by the BBC and HBO, the pastoral comedy did not make it to theaters (except in Italy), perhaps because moviegoers seem increasingly unlikely to embrace such wordy fare, particularly after the financial failure of Branagh's last Shakespeare movie, "Love's Labour's Lost." Also, "As You Like It," which premieres on HBO tonight at 9, doesn't have any box-office-boosting star power, with Bryce Dallas Howard, Kevin Kline, and Alfred Molina as its biggest names.
The first thing you need to know about Branagh's take on this charming and often silly romance is that he has set it in late 19th-century Japan, among a group of wealthy British merchants. This setting adds an exotic and picturesque flair, as the movie opens during a Noh performance, Orlando goes mano a mano with a sumo wrestler, and Orlando's love notes to Rosalind are written in Japanese calligraphy. But it also adds a hint of historical moment to the motives of the nasty Duke Frederick (Brian Blessed), when he drives his brother, the older Duke (also played by Blessed), into the Forest of Arden. Is Frederick the last gasp of a feudal country on the verge of Westernization?
I can't say Japanese history much matters in the midst of such a fluffy story, but then it doesn't detract, either. And then once the action moves to Arden, with its thick trees and happy blue skies, civilization -- Japanese or otherwise -- is but the faint memory of a bad dream.
The second thing you need to know about "As You Like It" is that, as Rosalind, Howard is a pleasure from start to finish. She holds the movie together, as the secondary characters have been cut nearly out of existence. She prances mischievously through the forest testing her lover's heart in disguise as a man named Ganymede, and she holds the camera effortlessly in her many close-ups. She's a dynamo, and she is well-matched by David Oyelowo as Orlando. Branagh's colorblind approach to casting is as pleasing as always: Both Rosalind and Orlando and Celia (Romola Garai) and Oliver (Adrian Lester) are mixed-race couples.
Howard is also effectively backed up by the rest of the cast. Garai is sweetly hammy as Celia, Rosalind's loyal cousin, and Molina is all blather and pratfall as Touchstone. Kline, as the melancholic Jaques, is arresting as he delivers the "All the world's a stage" soliloquy, making the most of each sad word. And yet he never darkens the play's sunny business, as he ironically notes, "I can suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs."