His latest adaptation, As You Like It, is no exception. For those unfamiliar with the play, it's basically a romantic comedy, with a bit of political drama thrown in for good measure. Here the action is relocated from Middle Ages France to 19th century Japan (stay with me), when the country was being opened up to the West. A small group of Western settlers have more or less set up their own private kingdom here. You can find a detailed plot synopsis elsewhere on the web I'm certain, but I'll try and summarise it anyway: Rosalind (Bryce Dallas Howard) is the daughter of Duke Senior (Brian Blessed, with long white hair), who is usurped by his own treacherous brother, Duke Frederick (Blessed again, with dark hair this time, doing the usurping in a neat wordless sequence). Senior is exiled to the forest with his followers, while Rosalind is forced to remain and keep Frederick's daughter Celia (Romola Garai) company. Frederick becomes paranoid though, and banishes Rosalind as well shortly afterwards. Celia, best friends with Rosalind, decides to accompany her; naturally, both are forced to disguise themselves, which causes complications when the one Rosalind loves, Orlando (David Oyelowo), declares his undying love for her.
Bright, breezy and instantly accessible, Branagh has come up trumps. Staying behind the camera this time out, the cast is led by Bryce Dallas Howard, in a performance that will surely (if there is any justice in the world) attract awards attention. The part of Rosalind is one of the most popular and sought after female roles in all of Shakespeare. She is sweet and kind, but not simpering - she's quite decisive too. She is the dynamic behind the play's actions, and Howard seizes the role with everything she's got. The supporting cast are uniformly excellent too - the legend that is Brian Blessed is always great value, and he does well here in his dual role, particularly the evil Frederick. David Oyelowo is also excellent, while Alfred Molina is very funny in the comic relief role of Touchstone, the court fool. Look out too for Patrick Doyle, the film composer who provides the score here but also performs on screen in the singing role of Amiens.
Obviously the unique spin on this adaptation is the setting. The play is mostly set in the forest of Arden, so nature is a prominent theme throughout. Branagh highlights this by moving the action to pre-20th century Japan, where beauty and peace can be readily found in nature. The film is gorgeous to look at, not only in the forest settings, but also in the 'court' during the first act's coup d'etat - the sets and costumes look brilliant.
I won't try and argue that this is going to be the best film of 2007, because I'm sure that would be nonsense. The film has faults, although some of these might be attributed to the source material (with which I'm not familiar) - one or two characters seem to disappear halfway through, while Duke Frederick's fate is a cop-out even by Shakespeare's standards. But the important thing is that Branagh has made the play very easy to follow, very humorous and also given it a contemporary edge, as well as making an entertaining film in its own right. And for that, he surely deserves a cheer at least.
I urge anyone to seek the film out, whether you're interested in Shakespeare or not, because it is simply great fun. Here's hoping Mr Branagh continues to get his films funded and made.