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Keeping the best of the Bard within reach

In 'As You Like It,' Kenneth Branagh again works to bring linguistic elegance down to earth.

August 19, 2007|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

Though it's a bit of an overstatement to declare all the world's William Shakespeare to Kenneth Branagh, there's no doubt that the Belfast-born actor-director-writer is one of the most accomplished interpreters of the Bard.

Whether it be in theater or film, the 46-year-old Branagh has taken over the mantle from the late Laurence Olivier.

He's made four feature films based on Shakespeare's plays including his landmark 1989 "Henry V," for which he received a best actor and director Oscar nomination, and 1996's "Hamlet," the first movie version of the tragedy using the complete text of the play. He also scored a hit with his 1993 version of "Much Ado About Nothing."

And along the way was, however, his woefully misguided 2000 refashioning of "Love's Labour's Lost" as a 1930s musical comedy. "It ought to be delightful but isn't," wrote Times movie critic Kenneth Turan. "Worst of all perhaps is 'Lost's' smug air of pleasure at how clever it thinks it's being . . . ."

His fifth Shakespeare adaptation, "As You Like It," is going straight to the small screen. The comedy starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Kevin Kline and Alfred Molina premieres Tuesday on HBO, which purchased the film while Branagh was editing it. It will play in theaters, however, in England.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, August 21, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part Page News Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Kenneth Branagh: An article about Kenneth Branagh in Sunday's Calendar section said that HBO had purchased his film adaptation of Shakespeare's "As You Like It" while he was editing it. HBO Films was involved from the beginning of the production.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 26, 2007 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part Page Calendar Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Kenneth Branagh: An article about director-actor Kenneth Branagh last Sunday said that HBO had purchased his film adaptation of Shakespeare's "As You Like It" while he was editing it. HBO Films was involved from the beginning of the production.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 26, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part Page News Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Kenneth Branagh: An article about Kenneth Branagh in the Aug. 19 Calendar section said that HBO had purchased his film adaptation of Shakespeare's "As You Like It" while he was editing it. HBO Films was involved from the beginning of the production.

Branagh has set the romantic comedy (which examines the power of love), in Japan in the latter part of the 19th century, an era when the country opened its doors to Western merchants, many of them English. These merchants and their families lived in enclaves called "treaty ports."

Branagh devised the idea of setting "As You Like It" in Japan about 15 years ago after visiting Kyoto, where he became besotted with the landscape and culture of the country.

Relaxing in his suite at the Beverly Hilton during a recent visit to Los Angeles, the easygoing Branagh admits it took a long time to ascertain what would and wouldn't work if the play was moved to Japan. "How do we resolve the idea of Westerners? Do we have Japanese actors, if any? You are trying to analyze whether fundamentally it can seem organic and whether you are paying a bit price for certain moments where perhaps you feel the play is fighting or straining [against the concept]."

He recalls a conversation he had with a former mentor, one in which Branagh told him he was going to do a production of "Romeo and Juliet" set in contemporary Belfast. "He said it's absolutely fine to do that, but if you are exploiting a religious feud, letting that be part of what makes it contemporary, unfortunately you have got to bear in mind it's a household feud and there will be a price to pay for turning it into a religious one."

Branagh recently had played the role of the fool Touchstone, portrayed by Molina in the film, for more than a year on the London stage as well as on tour throughout the country. Branagh opted not to appear in "As You Like It," the first time he has not starred in one of his Bard movies, because he had long wanted to work with Molina -- "I thought he would be a wonderful Touchstone" -- and it was a very tight shoot and schedule.

One of Shakespeare's most enduring plays, "As You Like It" is set in the magical Forest of Arden, where the beautiful Rosalind (Howard), the daughter of a banished duke (Brian Blessed), is forced to flee her uncle's (also Blessed) court. Accompanying her on her journey is her cousin Celia (Romola Garai). Fearing she'll be discovered by her uncle's men, Rosalind disguises herself as a boy. The guise proves advantageous when she decides to test the love and devotion of her admirer Orlando (David Oyelowo), who has also been exiled from the court with his jealous brother (Adrian Lester) in pursuit and trying to kill him.

Kline, who has played such Shakespeare heroes and villains as Falstaff, Hamlet and Richard III on the New York stage, plays the lonely, melancholic philosopher Jaques, who Shakespeare scholars believe represents the playwright himself.

Though Branagh returned to Japan on fact-finding trips before the start of production in 2005, he didn't shoot the film there but at Wakehurst Place in West Sussex.

"It's a sister garden to Kew Gardens in London," explains Branagh. "It's a great center for the preservation of rare species and has Asian flora and fauna. It hadn't been shot in before. We weren't trying to do a historical documentary but, rather, to allow this story to emerge through an impression of the period."

He also made some changes in the text, including showing the brutal takeover of the duke's court, as well as beefing up the role of the evil brother

"Scene order is what is subject to a little bit of change," he adds. "There is sometimes redistribution of dialogue. We have compressed some of the wooing of Orlando and Rosalind. She is the longest part in Shakespeare, and she does go on a bit. . . ."

A modern approach

As with all of his Shakespeare pro- jects, Branagh strove to make the playwright accessible to contemporary audiences.

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