In directing a new version of William Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” Kenneth Branagh fosters a giddy sort of freedom in his actors.
Branagh’s adaptation, premiering tonight, at first sounds like it’s taking liberties just for the sake of taking them. The story is transplanted from the Forest of Arden to 19th-century Japan, and begins with some kabuki theater, a samurai invasion and a sumo contest.
But once the story gets going and the characters seek solace in the nearby woods, the Japanese elements either fade away or get absorbed nicely.
Bryce Dallas Howard, the star of “The Village” and “Lady in the Water,” is given the best role yet of her young career — and she’s nothing short of a revelation here. Howard is in command of a character that’s as complex as it is comic.
Kevin Kline, as the philosopher Jacques, gets to perform the famous “All the world’s a stage” soliloquy in the opposite manner: He sits still, and the camera rotates all around him.
But it’s still one unbroken take, and it’s just as mesmerizing and pleasantly theatrical.
Other standout performances include Brian Blessed in a dual role, playing the kind Duke and his mercenary brother; Alfred Molina, as the quick-tongued court jester Touchstone; Romola Garai, a delightful discovery as Celia, Rosalind’s cousin, and David Oyelowo, the embodiment of pure passion as Orlando.
“As You Like It” is effortlessly entertaining from start to finish — and don’t miss the finish. After the closing credits, Howard delivers Rosalind’s epilogue while wandering back to her film-set trailer — and those last words you hear, after she shuts the door on her final, unbroken speech, are Branagh, saying, “And ... cut!”
‘As You Like It’ airs 9 p.m. today on HBO.