I should have been warned when I looked at the DVD sleeve, declaring that the play was written by Kenneth Branagh AND William Shakespeare - a bit of hubris that the gods of theatre rightly punished. The conceptual stuff was all over the place; it was supposed to be set amongst the European trading community in 19th Century Japan, but, once Duke Senior had been ousted by Ninja warriors, we went back to 16th Century Europe - well, England, actually, and a Renaissance court. The "Japanese" concept was just used to give some pretty sets, and litter the Forest of Arden with over-large Japanese love-notes.It also required the audience to believe that Orlando would best a sumo wrestler who only needed to sit on him to crush him to death! Oh, and it made for pretty wedding dresses - but what on earth was the point??? It didn't even do what it said on the tin!
The Blessed Brian - sorry, Brian Blessed - was believable as both Dukes, dark and light, but the forest itself was far too pretty, making a nonsense of Orlando's comment "I thought that all things had been savage here." Kew Gardens is probably more dangerous. Amiens' speech about Jaques mourning a wounded stag - a mirror of the usurpation by Duke Frederick of his brother's rights -is completely cut, and in its place, we get the short comment from Duke Senior to Jaques about hunting venison of - "I know you like it not." Worse, when they actually come to eat, the Duke lifts the lid of the pot to prove to Jaques that it is meat-free, turning the melancholy philosopher into a sort of 16th Century vegetarian hippy.
The "Seven Ages of Man" speech really did not work for me; it was filmed from long-range, Kline speaking away from his "on-stage" audience - none of whom appeared to be listening anyway, and Kline's Jaques sounded as if he'd need Prozac to get to the end of it. I am a huge fan of Kevin Kline's, but it is only when the camera zooms into close-up on the "Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything." that the shiver down the spine reminds you of what a superlative actor he really is. Despite the SAG Award, this production wastes him.
The performance that almost moved me to tears was Richard Briers as Adam - pathos personified, and utterly riveting. For the rest, Romola Garai as Celia very nearly out-acted Bryce Dallas Howard's Rosalind. But, all in all, it was a messy, conceptually confused, production; Branagh seemed not to have the courage EITHER to up-date it OR to retain the original time period. In the end, I was just glad I'd borrowed it, not bought it!