Kenneth Branagh's As You Like It, set in Meiji era Japan, is a strange mishmash of a film. From the beginning, the director prepares us for inconsistencies with a haiku that tell us he has envisioned a "dream of Japan," and yet the film is lacking the sense of heightened reality one would normally associate with a dream. Instead, we are given a vastly misguided attempt to approximate a culture that the filmmakers apparently did not research in any great depth. The end result is a series of stereotypes and gross errors that sadly diminish the Japanese and their culture.
While I do understand Mr. Branagh's desire to situate his characters in a place that is both foreign and potentially mysterious, I am at a loss to explain the fundamental choices he made regarding the plot and various elements of Japanese culture. The film opens with Duke Frederick storming Duke Senior's home while the latter is idyllically enjoying a dance performance in his "court." That Brian Blessed plays both Dukes (Frederick in black and Senior in white) is an interesting concept, but unfortunately the black/white dichotomy has the unfortunate effect of stereotyping, which is never explained nor justified. It also suggests that there is something fundamentally nasty about Japanese samurai culture on one hand, while the ninja are so laughably sloppy and flatfooted they make a mockery of martial arts.
There are many other ways that Branagh misrepresents Japan, all contributing to the sense that the filmmakers were just making things up as they went along. Among the most glaring mistakes includes the Japanese peasant who finds Rosalind (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Celia (Romola Garai) in the forest. He backs away and gestures to them to follow with hand movements that are clearly Western (the Japanese gesture for "come here" has the palm facing down, not up). Other inconsistencies incorporate scenes of the refugees doing tai chi on the hillside (tai chi is Chinese, not Japanese), and finally, Phoebe (Jade Jeffries) is dressed to look like a Japanese peasant, but behaves like a spoiled valley girl. Of course, the fact that the plot requires a wild lioness to jump out and attack Orlando doesn't help matters since lions are hardly native to Japan, but even if one can suspend disbelief enough to accept Branagh's premise that the entire film is a dream, the film remains riddled with so many inconsistencies, they appear to be caused by ignorance rather than design.
What does hold the film together are energetic and charming performances by Bryce Dallas Howard as Rosalind and a virile, unpredictable, and suitably over-earnest David Oweleyo as Orlando. While both actors overplay their parts in a way that sacrifices depth of character, they speak their lines beautifully and with a certain forthrightness that newcomers to Shakespeare will appreciate. Romolo Garai's Celia is deeply touching in some of the earlier scenes, but she sadly descends into slapsticky physical comedy once she and Rosalind reach Arden, and then only serves as comic relief.
Alfred Molina does nicely as Touchstone, playing him as an understated version of the Victorian fop stock character. Indeed, most of the characters in this film are also overplayed as though comedy requires superficial style rather than depth. One notable exception is Adrian Lester, who nearly burns off the screen as Orlando's hostile older brother Oliver, and it is deeply ironic that he is the only actor on the screen who seems to have mastered the Japanese trait of appearing intensely powerful, but also very still. Particularly disappointing is Kevin Kline as Jacques. Kline mumbles and shuffles his way across the screen until one wonders why he even bothered to show up. He acts as neither counterpoint for the comedy nor philosophical commentator since he is too disengaged to even seem relevant.
It is a shame that such a fine cast has been wasted on what finally amounts to a superficial and sloppy artistic vision, especially when Branagh is so well-known for his attention to detail in other Shakespeare films such as Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, and Hamlet. In the end, As You Like It is an unfocused, misguided, and meandering mess. A shame, really, because at its heart lies a core group of actors who bring a lot of joy and freshness to the table.