Branagh’s fifth foray into celluloid Shakespeare brings us this rather stodgy version of the Bard’s wise comedy of old Japan. Shakespeare, of course, didn’t set it in the Far East, but Branagh’s conceit is that a Japan in transition with the arrival of foreign traders makes an ideal background for a story reliant on transformation and disguise. As a metaphor, you can see what he’s getting at, but in terms of drama the idea’s surely more constricting than liberating. Indeed, the paucity of oriental faces in the cast, the obviously English locations and occasionally naff art direction make this more ‘Mikado’ than Kurosawa, and distracting.
So it’s samurai armour and slashing screens to the fore as good Duke Senior (Brian Blessed) is ousted by bad Duke Frederick (Blessed again), the former’s daughter Rosalind (Dallas Bryce Howard) finding herself wandering the countryside to be reunited with her dear old dad. Donning male garb for safety’s sake however also means that fugitive nobleman Orlando (charismatic David Oyelowo), for whom she’s previously fallen at first sight (and vice versa) no longer recognises her. On stage, we accept the device, since it facilitates the typically Shakespearean jest of turning our perceptions upside down before restoring a subtly altered order, but close-up on celluloid it’s harder to take, possibly because Branagh really does allow this mid-section to sag, plodding through the plot complications, and smothering everything in a glutinous Patrick Doyle score. Hobbled by Howard’s Rosalind tackling every scene with the same full-on gush, this really should have been better, expert support from the likes of Alfred Molina and Kevin Kline notwithstanding.