"Can one desire too much of a good thing?" asks Rosalind (Bryce Dallas Howard), the heroine in male drag of William Shakespeare's "As You Like It," coming to HBO in a new production directed by Kenneth Branagh. In regard to the works of the man who wrote the play, the answer is: never.
For his fifth Shakespeare adaptation for the screen -- and the first in which he doesn't appear -- Branagh has set the action in late-19th century Japan, where, a title card explains, Western merchants "brought their families and their followers and created private mini-empires where they tried to embrace this extraordinary culture, its beauties and its dangers." This lets him bring in ninjas, sumo wrestling, rock gardens and martial arts -- to have his Zen and his Englishmen too. Still, if "all the world's a stage," as the melancholy Jaques (Kevin Kline) says, then one place is as good as another. Besides, most of it is just set in a forest.
A very beautiful forest it is too, full of shepherds and shepherdesses and aristocratic exiles from court learning the sweet uses of adversity. (The cast includes Branagh favorites Brian Blessed and Richard Briers alongside Alfred Molina, Adrian Lester and David Oyelowo.) Branagh plays up the dark side of this town-in-the-country pastoral -- partly by turning exposition into sometimes violent action, partly by trimming the banter -- to deepen the romance. (He likes a pratfall, though.) Mostly it works.