"As You Like It" is one of my favorite plays. Grounded in the tradition of Greco-Roman pastoral, the play asks the following question, via Jaques: If man, who is trying to escape the intrigues of court, escapes to the green cabinet of nature, will he not consequently bring the intrigues of court with him, and therefore ruin nature? Shakespeare answers this question, which seems very timely in our warming world of globalization, in the affirmative.
This film, which is peerlessly acted, gains nothing by its Japanese setting, which, admittedly scrumptious to behold, is merely distracting. I fully expected a mincing Gilbert & Sullivan chorus to break into "If you want to know who we are, we are gentlemen of Japan, on every vase and jar, on every screen and fan." I have no objection to updating, nor to removing the setting to another location--or as Shakespeare would say, to another part of the forest. Such a removal was successful in Trevor Nunn's "Twelfth Night," which was set in a Cornish "Illyria." It was also done with delightful tongue-in-cheek in the 1960s' "Midsummer Night's Dream," which focused on a stately British home, labeled "Athens." Furthermore, I even suspended my disbelief when Brannagh set "Much Ado about Nothing" in Tuscany (partly because I love Italy). In none of these cases, did the change of setting disrupt the illusion. By placing "As You Like It"--most of which takes place in the fantastical "Forest of Arden" (to which the characters refer repeatedly)--in the historical context of a violent nineteenth-century Japan, Brannagh disrupts the magic as irrevocably as if he had placed the first scenes in the 1930s' Leni Riefenstall-inspired glamor of the Third Reich and then had everyone escape to the Forest of Bavaria, still calling it the Forest of Arden.
Because Brannagh has already burst the bubble of Shakespeare's magic, his final metatheatrical conceit, of having Rosalind deliver the epilogue (full of gender-bending innuendo, since the part was originally played by a boy playing a girl playing a boy) among the actors dressing-room caravans, falls flat. I also think that Brannagh's moving scenes around, his making cuts (Touchstone, one of Shakespeare's greatest clowns, got lost somewhere in the forest), spoiled the rhythm of the play which takes on an incantatory magic in the "And I for Phebe, And I for Ganymeade, And I for Rosalind, And I for no woman" scene between the pastoral Silvius and Phebe, and the lovers Orlando and Ganymede/Rosalind.
I am also cross with Kenneth Brannagh for recycling the ending which was delightful and far more effective in "Much Ado" ("Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more!"), complete with the actors dancing in circles--all viewed from above among cascading rose-petals (Perhaps they were cherry blossoms this time.).
On the plus side, English subtitles were available, and, as I said, the acting is excellent and Rosalind is more than lovely to look at, as are the costumes.
Although I am generally a great fan of Kenneth Brannagh, I do wish he had left the Forest of Arden in its magical land of nowhere.