In Direct Relation to Modern Life
Kenneth Branagh's "As You Like It" is his fifth Shakespeare film. Tony Howard looks back over his distinguished contribution to Shakespeare on screen

Around the Globe, Spring 2008

It is the boldest-ever entry into Shakespearean film. Music swells, a vast door opens in darkness, creating a rectangle of gold light, and slowly a silhouetted figure looms toward the camera. Then we become that advancing intruder as, in close-up, medieval barons bow to us one by one, some suspicious, some deferential, all craving eye-contact. And finally, revealed, perched on a dwarfing throne with the pudding-basin hair and whey face of a twelve-year-old, there is Henry V. Kenneth Branagh. This sequence dramatized not only the Elizabethan myth of kingship but also the 1989 debut of a new Shakespearean actor-director, claiming Olivier's throne.

Drawing on his experiences in Adrian Noble's post-Falklands production of "Henry V" for the RSC of five years earlier, Branagh brilliantly reveals in the opening sequence that the war against France is triggered bv Church/State hostilities, by the usurping royal family's belligerence, and by the disastrous diplomatic misjudgements of the French. But added to this, Branagh shows Henry grow up before our eyes. The soft, almost inaudible, voice strengthens; the young king insists on 'conscience', asserting a hidden moral passion; and the Dauphin's insult unleashes a rhetorical force that physically propels Henry out from the dark chamber into war - and into film history.

"Henry V" remains Kenneth Branagh's best, most realistic, most complex film. Always conscious of Olivier, he retained stark political scenes Olivier's "Henry V" had left out and in others underlined their psychological significance. Treason triggers an hysterical sense of personal betrayal; Henry's threats to Harfleur's citizens when he claims that it is they, not he, who will be guilty if he unleashes his troops to rape and massacre them, dredge his unconscious and unleash images of horror that cost him dearly. Branagh and Noble had discovered these emphases at Stratford; the film explores them in smoke-choked, rain-sodden close-up. Branagh's camera immerses us in the conflict.

Equally important - and a more lasting characteristic - Branagh's casting imported into the film studio the ensemble ethic of contemporary British theatre. He assembled an astonishing company, including Paul Scofield, Judi Dench, Derekjacobi, lan Holm, Geraldine McEwan, Robert Stephens - all of them attracted by Branagh's belief that the actors' creative experience and authority in Shakespeare should be given more scope. They embraced their roles, while Branagh's close-ups and dense reaction-shots took us deeper into "Henry V" than ever before.

For nearly two decades Kenneth Branagh has continued to film Shakespeare, his five films - "Henry V", "Much Ado About Nothing", "Hamlet", "Love's Labour's Lost" and now "As You Like It" - leaving Olivier, Welles and Zeffirelli each trailing two films behind. He listed his principles in 1996:
A commitment to international casting;
a speaking style that is as realistic as adherence to the proper structure of the language will allow;
a period setting that attempts to set the story in a historical context that is resonant for a modern audience...
Above all we have asked for a full emotional commitment to the characters, springing from a belief that they can be understood in direct, accessible relation to modern life.

Kenneth Branagh has not only made more Shakespeare films than anyone, he has filmed three of the comedies, which, with the exception of Zeffirelli, who tackled "The Taming of the Shrew", all his major predecessors avoided. That is important. "Much Ado About Nothing", he once wrote, 'speaks loudly and gloriously about love, one of humankind's permanent obsessions. The cruelty of it, the joy of it. The question of tolerance in love and the danger of judging others.' It's hard not to believe Branagh's dedication to comedy reflects his legendary niceness - and his commitment to the principles of openness and sharing that underpin theatre work.

He reflects the artifice of comedy with stylised settings and an uncompromisingly theatrical aesthetic. "As You Like It", set around a Western enclave of 19th-century Japan, follows the Italian hillsides of "Much Ado About Nothing" and the 1940s Oxbridge and Hollywood of "Love's Labour's Lost". Branagh continues to provide strong visual frames for character, language and action, but he has abandoned the realism of his "Henry V" and in his latest offering there's less sense of subtext or emotional complexity. This is a pity: he and Emma Thompson's Benedick and Beatrice are magnificent because the actors - quite apart from their skill and charm - movingly suggest an unspoken shared history.

But "As You Like It"'s long-delayed release is a moment to celebrate. Think of the achievements. Branagh has added a new internationalism to Shakespearean film, building on the colour-blind casting of multicultural Britain and embracing the variety of global film culture. His aim has been to mix 'complementary styles and produce a Shakespeare film that belonged to the world.' Meanwhile he maintains his commitment to Shakespeare's language, with Birmingham University's Russell Jackson guiding actors through the patterns of the text.

It's hard not to believe Branagh's dedication to comedy reflects his legendary niceness - and his commitment to the principles of openness and sharing that underpin theatre work
Clarity remains Branagh's watchword. He describes his screenplays as 'verbal story-boards', laying out the relationships in great detail. He has often recalled the first time he encountered particular plays and was drawn into their imaginative web. He has pictured himself as 'a Belfast boy' surprised by an ITV "Hamlet", then gradually discovering that 'Shakespeare wasn't only for swots'. He remains an enthusiast - insisting on an uncut "Hamlet", or tap-dancing the lines in "Love's Labour's Lost" to show the principles of blank verse - and that's why, whatever the box-office fortunes of individual projects or the shifting allegiances of the press, his films will continue to be popular on DVD. It is typical that after providing the first Shakespearean director's commentary for "Love's Labour's Lost" he has now provided the longest - this time for his four-hour "Hamlet". At their weakest, his films fail his ideas technically, or his ideas do scant justice to his passion. But at their best, Kenneth Branagh reminds us why Shakespeare lives: not because of the academics' commitment to unearthing new contexts and interpretations, but because when living characters cry, we care.

"As You Like It" is currently available on DVD in the USA.

Tony Howard is Fellow of Creativity at the CAPITAL Centre, Warwick University. His book Women as Hamlet (Cambridge University Press) was selected as the Shakespeare's Globe Book of the Season 2007.

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