True, the competition isn’t very stiff, but Kenneth Branagh is the closest we’re likely to get to an heir to the late Sir Laurence Olivier, that champion of the Bard. Because of that, we’re not going to belittle the actor-director’s new small-screen adaptation of As You Like It — little as we liked it. To the contrary, we’re going to assume that all the belabored whispering and watery eyes had something to do with allergies prompted by filming in the woods. We’re also going to forgive his pointless transporting of the action to nineteenth-century Japan, a Japan nearly bereft of Japanese actors, mind you, and remind ourselves instead how his reinvention of Love’s Labours Lost as a big Hollywood musical was nothing short of swoon-inducing.
So what if Bryce Dallas Howard is no Alicia Silverstone and Alicia Silverstone is no Emma Thompson? We’re not about to compare his leading ladies and note how each one has been a step down since Much Ado About Nothing. In fact, we’re not going to compare this latest effort with his earlier endeavors at all, even if Henry V, his first big-screen Shakespeare adaptation, remains his most ambitious. No. Simply put, we’re going to judge this made-for-TV movie on its own merits alone. To wit: It’s as awkward and slow-moving as left-handed scissors. And without Kenneth himself in a starring role, the film lacks the bravado that’s made every other adaptation so irresistible. The greatest honor one could pay to Branagh’s inestimable talents is to turn off the HBO movie and pop in a DVD of his Hamlet instead. —Drew Pisarra