26 September 2018 | JamesHitchcock
As You Dislike It
Like Justin Kurzel's recent treatment of "Macbeth", this 1992 version of "As You Like It" proves that it is possible to do something which for many years I believed to be virtually impossible, namely to make a bad film of a Shakespeare play. I will not set out the plot at any length because it is so well-known, but (like "The Tempest") it revolves around the usurpation of a ducal throne by the reigning Duke's younger brother. The exiled Duke Senior takes refuge in the Forest of Arden with a handful of loyal courtiers, and the main plotline deals with the romance between Senior's daughter Rosalind and Orlando, a young man of good family who has been deprived of his inheritance by a spiteful elder brother, although there are several other romantic entanglements.
This is a modern dress production, set in a contemporary United Kingdom. The usurping Duke Frederick's court becomes a grandiose neo-Classical building reminiscent of a bank, and the Forest of Arden becomes a bleak urban wasteland. This was a mistake. It is certainly true that Shakespeare's play both belongs to and subverts the "pastoral" genre of literature which was very popular in the late 16th century. This was a genre which celebrated the joys of country life, seen as simpler, purer and happier than life in the cities and at court, but Shakespeare subverts it by pointing out the hardships of the rural existence, especially poverty and the harshness of the elements. In order for this contrast to work, however, country life has to seem at least superficially attractive. In the original play, Senior's preference for the Forest of Arden over the corruption and treachery of life at court might be naïve and misguided, but at least it is idealistic. In this film, his desire to live the life of a down-and-out on a burnt-out rubbish tip seems less like idealism than like rank stupidity.
Most of the cast seem to have no idea of how to put over Shakespearean blank verse. There are a few honourable exceptions such as Celia Bannerman as Celia, Cyril Cusack as Orlando's elderly servant Adam and the experienced James Fox as the melancholy courtier Jaques, but few of the others can match them. I couldn't really see the point of the gimmick of casting the same actors as Senior and Frederick and as Orlando and his brother Oliver. Griff Rhys Jones was virtually inaudible as the jester Touchstone, a particular disappointment to me as I have often enjoyed Rhys Jones's work as a comedian. (His comedy partner Mel Smith was later to give a wonderful performance in a Shakespeare film, as Toby Belch in Trevor Nunn's "Twelfth Night").
The critics, understandably, largely disliked the film. "Time Out", using a line drawn from Jaques's celebrated "Seven Ages of Man" speech, called it "Shakespeare sans teeth, eyes, taste, sans everything". In the 1990s Britain produced some great Shakespeare adaptations, including Kenneth Branagh's "Much Ado about Nothing" and "Hamlet" as well as the aforementioned "Twelfth Night". This film does not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath. I disliked it even more than Kurzel's "Macbeth". 3/10