The ninjas, attacking a house in Japan where a group of English are playing at being shoguns
In the 19th Century.
English ninjas led by a fat Englishman dressed like Baron Harkkonen.
It didn't work for me, and deeply marred an otherwise brilliant effort. Superb cinematography, especially the night scenes and close-ups. Excellent casting, extra props to Brian Blessed for playing dual roles - the Harkkonen-like bad guy and the mild-mannered, wise brother whom he has exiled to the Forest of Arden. Howard does indeed show a lot of acting talent as Rosalind, though Branagh should have spent more time helping her learn how to mimic a young man. In Shakespeare's day, the part would have been played by a young man, it doesn't work very well if the audience has to stretch to suspend disbelief in that direction. Romola Garai as Celia has her moments, but too many of them are Dumb Blonde moments. There are several clowns in this play, she's not supposed to be one of them. Her love-at-first-sight look is worth the price of admission, however.
So I'm looking at Jaques (pronounced Jay-queeze in the Shakespearian tradition) and thinking it's pretty typical of Branagh to cast himself in the best role. As I'm listening to the Seven Stages of Man speech, the little bulb lights up in my head and I realize this is not Kenneth, it's Kevin. Kevin Kline. He is brilliant in this role, though it would have helped if he had done the French accent.**
Since most of the action takes place in the forest, one would think there would be a reprieve from the Nipponification, but no. Branagh has built carefully raked Japanese pebble gardens, and thrown up what some English set designer imagined to be Japanese rural archways made of bundled sticks. Except for a couple of Japanese extras, everyone in the forest is dressed in 19th Century British garb. If they are in Japan pretending to be Japanese, they should be dressed as Japanese. Using a Japanese harp to accompany the English country songs was pretty stupid, too. The soundtrack just plain sucked - it had no focus, background music was very Hollywood, and the finale where the whole cast is dancing around not moving their lips, but we hear a chorus singing an English country song, well, gag me.
Casting was highly non-traditional, and I have no problem with that. David Oyelowo is amazing as Orlando, Adrian Lester is okay as his big brother Oliver, and the romances between them and the very not-of-color Howard and Garai had convincing chemistry. However, casting a Chinese little person as a Japanese rube and shoe-horning him into the role of William was just too Wrong. William, in the original, is a fool who is also a rival for court jester Touchstone's love, Audrey. Alfred Molina plays Touchstone, in a horrible hairdo and totally wrong costume, with a rude way of mumbling his punch lines. Janet McTeer was costumed a tad too slutty for Audrey, and delivered her lines about being an Honest Woman in a most confused manner. It's a tongue-twisty part.
The epilogue was cutely done by Howard, walking through the on-location trailer park as if shooting has just wrapped up.
I'd like to see most of this cast in a straight version of the play, with more attention on nuances and less on trying to fit a size 12 shoe into a size 4 zori.
**My first time seeing As You Like It was in 1975, in Bangkok, where I ran the light board for Bangkok Community Theater's production. BCT is an English-language group, drawing from many nationalities, as English is spoken in most of the many embassies and consulates there. Our Jaques was from France, and I can still hear in my head his excruciatingly melancholy rendition of the Seven Stages speech.