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From Globe to Hollywood:  Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearean Films

Shakespeare adaptation on film became especially popular in the 1990s.  Kenneth Branagh is certainly the key figure who inaugurated a new wave of Shakespeare on film. His Shakespeare adaptations reconstructed a Shakespeare narrative in the realm of popular culture, which paved the way for an increasingly popular trend of referencing Shakespeare in contemporary filmmaking.  Film scholar Samuel Crowl comments that “Branagh’s 1989 film Henry V has helped to create the most intense explosion of English language Shakespeare film in the century,” (“Flamboyant Realist” 226) and claims that Branagh “fashioned an effective style for translating Shakespeare into the language of film” (Shakespeare 26). Mark Thornton Burnett also points out that Branagh’s cinematic renditions of the Bard for the new century “reveal a movement from an entrenched, establishment-bound veneration for the dramatist to a much freer, more playful engagement with the ‘Scholockspearean’” (83). 

Crowl claims that Shakespeare’s absorption into films by directors as diverse as Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles and Franco Zeffirelli ended in the early 1970s when Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (1971) failed to achieve box office success. He points out that the period stretching from 1971 to 1989, two decades prior to Branagh’s influence on Shakespeare films was “barren wasteland” in which Shakespeare almost completely disappeared from film (Shakespeare 1). This “barren wasteland” was finally revived by Branagh’s success in making Henry V, which not only represented the beginning of a new phase of productivity in the history of Shakespeare on film, but also significantly heralded a distinct change of adapting Shakespeare on screen. Indeed, Branagh promoted Shakespeare in a new, entertaining and comprehensible format that relocated him in a place of popular culture rather than high art, a label of privileged elite culture that had been conventionally attached to the Bard.  Branagh’s Shakespearean films are popular commercial artifacts carefully merged with their literary sources, and he reinterprets the plays with florid acting and direction that speaks to modern audiences.  In order to make Shakespeare accessible to modern audiences, he particularly emphasizes the importance of a big cast, modern English and updated historical background. His huge commercial success with Much Ado about Nothing (1993) creates a climate that enabled the financing and making of other Shakespeare adaptations in the 1990s, such as Richard Loncraine’s Richard III (1995), Oliver Parker’s Othello (1995), Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo+ Juliet (1996), John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love (1998), and Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet (2000). These all parallel Branagh’s filming strategy that mixes Hollywood movie stars with British stage-trained actors, combines British heritage with Hollywood popular culture, and blends English accents with Hollywood’s “nonlinguistic spectacle” (Eggert 74). They all gain success at the box-office and in critical reception. Patently, Branagh led this new generation of Shakespeare directors towards the popular film tradition. His strategy of remaking Shakespeare led contemporary adaptations into a new arena built up by Hollywood stars and mass culture. He transformed Shakespeare, the author most known and read in schools, into a contemporary popular cultural product, as well as changed the politics of representing Shakespeare. Crowl asserts that Branagh proved to be as influential in the history of Shakespeare on film as Olivier, Welles, and Zeffirelli (“Flamboyant Realist” 226).

This paper is about Branagh’s achievement in adapting Shakespeare.  Throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium, Shakespeare adaptation on screen developed across several forms of popular culture, in a fashion that made for a more entertaining engagement with Hollywood. This renaissance of Shakespeare in the 1990s was mainly attributable to Branagh, whose filming style and strategy resulted in a host of interrelated Shakespearean filmic interpretation in the 1990s and afterwards. All this has been widely acknowledged. However, this paper reconsiders the nature of Branagh as a Shakespearean director and interpreter through an exploration of the ways in which he engaged with Hollywood and integrated with popular culture. Through an exploration of how Branagh’s reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s plays fitted them into Hollywood parameters to achieve commercial success, this paper re-examines his achievement in turning Shakespeare into a Hollywood industry and making it popular.  Where Branagh is praised for translating Shakespeare firmly into popular film tradition, and for his merger of art and commerce that resuscitated Shakespeare on film, I would like additionally to reconsider Branagh’s cinematic rendition of the Bard in relation to Burnett’s claim that he “revitalized Shakespeare for a postmodern clientele” (83).  Branagh developed a fashion in filming strategy that other Shakespeare film directors in the 1990s followed closely, resulting in similar Shakespearean filmic representations. 1990s Shakespeare adaptations essentially followed a practice of imitation. On the other hand, Branagh’s adaptations of Shakespeare raised a debate over him as an auteur or a re-maker. They disclosed Branagh’s tight hold over “Englishness,” a feature that not only characterizes his Shakespeare films, but also reveals his quest for an essential English identity. The discussion of Branagh’s pursuit of an English identity leads us to question his “in-between” position as promoter of Shakespeare films within an American Hollywood. His success as an adaptor of Shakespeare throughout the 1990s enhanced the playwright’s cultural currency in Hollywood, providing a premise for discussing Branagh as a “cultural comprador:” a person whom Hollywood depended on for his skills in selling Shakespeare and whom the British also counted upon for promoting their cultural heritage. Branagh's negotiation process promoted Shakespeare by means of a complicated interplay between British Shakespeare productions and Hollywood film hegemony, which in turn placed the Bard in an arguable position at both the center and the margin of cultural capital.

First of all, we have to ask why Branagh was considered an influential figure in terms of his resuscitation of Shakespeare in the 1990s.  Branagh’s Shakespeare films are not generally considered technically or aesthetically innovative. Unlike Olivier who paid attention to the spoken theatrical texts, Welles who was obsessed with camera angles and continuity editing, or Zeffirelli who centered on visual spectacle and musical romanticism (Crowl, “Flamboyant Realist” 228), Branagh’s major contribution to the genre was to link Hollywood modes of storytelling with Shakespeare. Olivier and Welles proved that Shakespeare and film were not hopelessly incompatible. Zeffirelli verified that Shakespeare did not necessarily clash with a commercial market. However, it was Branagh who pre-eminently confirmed that Shakespeare could be a part of Hollywood culture.  Instead of confining himself within the modes of the theatrical Shakespearean world, Branagh was eager to immerse himself in popular culture and to represent mainstream taste.  As he stated in his autobiography, the collective project of his theatre and film company was “to fulfill its creeds of life-enhancing populism” (Branagh 197).  Mass culture represented by Hollywood was never viewed by Branagh as a lowbrow commercial enterprise that represented a distraction from real art, namely the theatre (White 104).  On the contrary, if Shakespeare films were to be accessible to a modern audience, the integration of Hollywood Production Values—exemplified by a star-led cast, smooth editing, and spectacular visual spectacle—would make Shakespeare adaptations approachable, and transform Shakespeare into an audience-friendly cultural commodity. To have Shakespeare take on popular cultural status so as to attract a larger and broader audience, Branagh alluded to the significance of marketing Shakespeare’s plays as a genre that crosses the line between high art and popular entertainment. Shakespeare becomes incorporated thereby into an entertainment market that achieves a flexible, high-and-popular cultural blend.

Branagh’s conscious engagement with Hollywood and popular culture in his Shakespearean films was evident through casting, editing and Hollywood visual convention. When asked about the relationship between his work in commercial films and Shakespeare, Branagh said that, “Part of the challenge with the Shakespeare films, which remains a sort of backbone to what I do, seems to be necessarily and healthily influenced by exposure to, as a performer and as a director, story-telling in other kinds of genres. Therefore, to be familiar with the ways in which popular cinema tells its stories is very important….  You have to see if there’s anything you can pick up from that to ask… ‘How can we make [Shakespeare] more available?’ or ‘How can we open up the plays more?’” (qtd in Crowl, Shakespeare 9). The way in which Branagh made Shakespeare more “available” to the public was to take Hollywood films as a model and quote Hollywood genres. He confessed that he was not embarrassed to count on Hollywood devices to define his style (Crowl, Films 170). For him, the Hollywood form was equally significant to a Shakespearean text as to anything else. In his Henry V, the battle scenes at Agincourt displaying bloody heaps of bodies in the mud charge the film with a sweeping battlefield panorama, like a Hollywood war epic such as Platoon (1986). The battle scenes are given a detailed portrayal; in particular that of Agincourt is shot in slow motion, with a fixed camera focusing on the blood flowing onto the mud, the fallen soldiers, and the corpses piled in a trench. King Henry is seen to carry injured boys and encourage his soldiers. Like Platoon, which is Hollywood’s belated response in the 1980s to the Vietnam War, Henry V is Branagh’s recounting the effects of the Falklands War. Having a strong stage production as inspiration, Branagh’s version is based on Adrian Noble’s 1984 RSC production, which, as Branagh himself said, had captured something of contemporary anxieties about the war fought between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the Falklands in 1982.  In Much Ado about Nothing, one of the most financially successful Shakespeare films ever released, the witty and amusing romanticism prevails, reminiscent of a similar atmosphere in the Hollywood romantic hit Pillow Talk (1959). The opening shot of Much Ado about Nothing that pans though each character with slow motion is apparently the director’s tribute to John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven (1960). Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000) is registered with the convention of 1930s to 1950s musicals, as the culmination of Branagh’s journey moves toward translating Shakespeare into a Hollywood genre (Crowl, Shakespeare 38).  This film adaptation pays homage to Hollywood musicals with many references to their music and dance, such as Swing Time (1936) and Singing in the Rain (1952), and to MGM musical stars, in particular Fred Astaire, Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers (Eggert 76). Love’s Labour’s Lost is replete with ideas that emerge from Branagh’s interest in Hollywood song-and-dance materials, an adaptation that shows how much Hollywood signified for Branagh, and how he appropriated traditional forms to create a new prospect for the genre of Shakespeare films.  Branagh’s fifth screen Shakespeare, As You Like It (2006), unconventionally staged in Japan, is a transposition from the Forest of Arden in France to a late 19th-century Japanese garden, at a historical moment of the Meiji period when Japan was forced to open the country to foreigners for trade.  It is a creative adaptation in which Japanese modernist décor mixes with lush Victorian costumes, British imperialism is translated into the samurai spirit, and sumo wrestling and kabuki dancing are highlighted as aristocratic entertainments. This cross-cultural setting exposes Branagh’s appeal of linking Shakespeare with Hollywood mainstream commercial films, and his multiculturalist fantasy of making Shakespeare films for the world.

The profusion of Hollywood conventions within the Shakespeare film genre as popularized by Branagh continues in other 1990s Shakespeare film productions and defines this generation of Shakespeare filmmakers. Other directors learned from Branagh’s use of star casting and the mix of actors from both sides of the Atlantic, and his embrace of Hollywood popular film models and techniques.  For instance, Richard Loncraine’s Richard III (1995), starring Ian McKellen, Annette Bening and Robert Downey, Jr., references Hollywood gangster films and John Woo’s action movie spectacles (Crowl, Shakespeare 11), reimagining a modern version of King Richard III in the 1930s through abundance of visual detail. Oliver Parker’s Othello (1995) captures the idea of Hollywood melodrama, particularly underlining the romantic spectacle and love-hate relationship between the main characters, along with starring Branagh himself as Iago. Being praised for its blend of popular culture and mass media savvy and theoretical sophistication (Donaldson 59), Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo+ Juliet (1996), a romantic crime film starring Leonardo DiCarprio and Claire Danes, is “filtered through John Woo’s Hong Kong action movies, and the hip-hop and gangster rap of MTV, yet the characters speak in Elizabethan English” (Rothwell 229). Rothwell points out that it is Luhrmann’s intention “to make this movie rambunctious, sexy, violent, and entertaining the way Shakespeare might have if he had been a filmmaker” (229). Visually loaded with images of postmodern urban life, Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet (2000), sharing Luhrmann’s postmodern perspective, builds a rich visual structure to reposition Shakespeare’s text. Set in contemporary New York City and shot from odd angles to provide an imaginative style, Almereyda’s film is inflected by Hollywood noir, giving Shakespeare a distinctively American taste. 

This resurgence of Shakespeare films initiated by Branagh challenges us to look at his achievement in a different light. His attempt to revive cinematic Shakespeare could be seen as a postmodern auteur’s practice of copying or appropriating the style of other (artistic or filmic) works.  Samuel Crowl also points out this side of Branagh; paraphrasing Ihab Hassan’s comments on the Branagh phenomenon, Crowl argues: “Branagh is a product of the postmodern moment dominated by a sense of belatedness─ a sense that originality is exhausted and that only parody and pastiche and intertextual echo remain. Rather than finding such a condition enervating, Branagh’s work seizes on its possibilities. Branagh is, in Hassan’s term, a reconstructionist; an artist who creates out of the bits and shards of the postmodern moment.” (“Flamboyant Realist” 227). According to Fredric Jameson, postmodern form implies a collage or pastiche of images drawn from high and popular modes of representation.  From his point of view,  “because the modernist ethos of ‘unique style’ has been subsumed by the random stylistic allusion to and mimicry of  ‘dead styles,’ postmodern cultural production has no recourse but to develop a penchant for ‘pastiche’” (Lehmann, “Much Ado about Nothing?” 3). Based on this, Courtney Lehmann has a sustained argument about Branagh’s pastiche style. She argues that “Branagh markets himself as a postmodern auteur, deploying pastiche as his preferred mode of populism in his effort to resituate the ‘high’ modernist notion of artistic production within a ‘low’ postmodern mode of mass cultural reception” (“Much Ado about Nothing?” 3). What Shakespeare offers Branagh is the possibility of taking on the function of postmodern auteur, to develop the penchant for pastiche in films. Simply put, Branagh has reinvented Shakespeare in the form of pastiche. His reinvention conspires to reconstitute authorship as a pastiche strategy that leads the 1990s Shakespeare adaptations into a practice of imitation. Viewed in this way, the 1990s Shakespeare film adaptations are, as Burnette observes, the “screen progenies” of Branagh, as they are in a way like Frankenstein, a figure reinvented by his auteur Victor Frankenstein (83). Whether or not Branagh became a victim of the fashion he established, as he had to compete with other Shakespeare films that imitated his filming style, his filmic practice that engaged with Hollywood and was so eager with pastiche offers a rich ground to re-examine the 1990s Shakespeare resuscitation as a result of his influence.

Branagh must have realized that in order to offer Shakespeare for everyone and make him for the world, he had to avoid being marginalized from the film market; to prevent that, he had to stick to popular cultural genres and secure Shakespeare in the mainstream marketplace. His strategy of survival was to translate Shakespeare into a postmodern expression of popular film. When speaking of postmodern culture, Jameson claims that stylistic innovation is no longer possible, and all is left is to remake in a new kind of way, to imitate dead styles (“Postmodernism and Consumer Society” 7). Jameson’s remark on postmodern culture is instructive here in explaining why Branagh makes his Shakespeare films repeat already existing territory, but with variations.  His mixing of different cultural elements, such as the combination of British stage actors and Hollywood A-list stars, as well as literary classics with popular culture, continuously deployed in his Shakespeare adaptations, became his unique style that allowed him to thrive in Hollywood.  Such a style, embedded in the pastiche ethos of postmodern culture, not only provided him with a formula for his auteurist fantasy, but also and notably marked him as a mere “re-maker” (Lehmann, Shakespeare Remains 172).1  In addition to allusions to images from other films, Branagh was also dependent on his predecessors in theatre. In casting, in flair for the theatrically dramatic and in attention to Shakespeare’s language, he revealed his debt to the domain of theatre. His Henry V is inspired by Adrian Noble’s stage production, in which he played the title character, a version that remains very much an adaptation of theatrical experience. The full-text version of Hamlet, again revised from his Renaissance Company’s radio production and then Noble’s RSC production in 1992, retains the nature of stage performance but gives emphasis to the epic dimension of the narratives.  Branagh was adept at combining the theatrical with the filmic, mingling the traditions of the stage and the film, and piecing together different film genres and auteurs. His appropriation of good ideas from others but revising them and representing them in different ways make him a postmodern filmmaker.

Branagh is deemed a postmodern artist through his deployment of numerous thematic, stylistic and intertextual strategies. His dependence on quotations from theatrical experience, his imitation of Hollywood genres, and his mixture of high and popular modes of representation extend our perception of postmodern authorship. Branagh’s remakes of Shakespeare demonstrate how filmic Shakespeare could be a collage of images drawn from popular modes of representation, and how filmic Shakespeare could be a hybrid of high and low in global consumer culture. However, Branagh’s translating of the Bard into the idiom of popular culture, not necessarily so positive as he claims, was done so as to produce Shakespeare films that “belong to the world.” (qtd in Crowl, Shakespeare 29). It could be as Lehmann suggestively argues, a distinctive tribute to his Irish heritage (Shakespeare Remains 173); his choice of Shakespeare is, in Lehmann’s words, an obvious reflection of his quest for a quintessential English identity (173). Born in a working family in Belfast and later moving to Reading, Branagh came to realize that he straddled two cultures: the English and the Irish. In order to attenuate his Irish origin and construct his English identity, Branagh dropped his accent, adopted Shakespeare as his surrogate father, and developed his acting career through RADA and RSC experiences in England (173). The essential Englishness of Shakespeare led him continually to adapt Shakespeare. He realized that doing so not only bleached his Irishness, but also helped him to claim an English identity. Branagh's search for a proper English identity via Shakespeare was clearly revealed in his autobiography, in which he recalled his return to Belfast to perform Hamlet, where the local audience were so happy to see his involvement with Shakespeare; they were proud that “he showed the English how to do it.... and the recurring uneasiness he felt about his Irishness was beginning to disappear” (Branagh213). It seems that Shakespeare served to piece together Branagh's fractured identity and to legitimate his pursuit of Englishness, a point that is reflected in his films; Hamlet being the most notable case. In addition to the fact that Branagh used the entire text of Shakespeare’s play, he and Derek Jacobi, who plays the role of Claudius, are the only two figures who have dyed their hair blonde, with a military flat-top style, which emphasizes their difference from other darker haired actors (Lehmann, Shakespeare Remains 183). The film establishes the resemblance between Hamlet and Claudius, which not only denotes their (step)father-and-son relationship, but also suggests Branagh’s succession to take on this quintessential English role.  Branagh stated openly that he was strongly inspired by Jacobi to become an actor when at the age of fifteen he watched the latter’s Hamlet performance.  His acting career was for a long time affected by Jacobi, who had impressive experiences when it came to Shakespeare in theatre, and who in many ways appeared like a father figure for Branagh to emulate. By April 1996 at the end of shooting Hamlet, Jacobi held a special ceremony in which an old copy of Hamlet was given to Branagh. It was a copy that had been passed from actor to actor over the previous century. Each recipient was considered the best Hamlet for the next generation, as the copy passed from Johnston Forbes-Robertson to Henry Ainley, then on to Michael Redgrave, Peter O’Toole and Derek Jacobi himself.  In giving this copy to Branagh, Jacobi was clearly showing his approval of the quality of Branagh’s performance as Hamlet (White 206). The tribute from Jacobi certainly authenticates Branagh’s becoming a great Hamlet (see figure 1).  Equally important, Jacobi’s gesture confirmed Branagh’s acquired Englishness, for which he had long striven.

From Globe to Hollywood:  Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearean Films, I-fen Wu, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1. Branagh’s succession to take Hamlet, this quintessential English role from Derek Jacobi, legitimates his pursuit of Englishness.


On the one hand, Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations revealed his anxiety about having a double identity. On the other hand, they characterized him as a postmodern artist enmeshed in postcolonial practices. His promotion of Shakespeare in Hollywood provides an entry for placing him in a similar in-between position as a “cultural comprador”— Hollywood depends on his knowledge and taste in Shakespeare to sell Shakespeare, and the British count on his presentation of Shakespeare to promote their cultural heritage. Here Shakespeare represents the authentic and high English cultural art adored by the world, whose image endorses a vision of “Englishness” to be reckoned with abroad. Branagh is aware that Shakespeare film productions are labelled for the Hollywood market in terms of their English cultural appeal—English history, English monarchy, English landscape, English accent, and English stage-trained thespians—and therefore transforms Shakespeare into a marketable English product for consumption. The palpable appeal of English heritage is overwhelming in Branagh’s appropriation of Shakespeare, forming a powerful visual mode of Englishness that is rich in appeal to its audience, especially to Americans. In a BBC interview about his shooting of Love’s Labour’s Lost, Branagh spoke of the set design:

“it is a kind of fantasy Oxbridge. It’s actually inspired by some colleges at Yale University, where in fact, having built their college several hundred years after most of the Oxbridge colleges, they then distressed them. They actually poured acid down the walls and made them all much older looking, so there is a certain ye olde thing which is also redolent of some kind of movie college sets that we wanted to evoke for this musical” (qtd in Eggert 78).

Although Eggert meant to point out that even American kitsch becomes “classic” (79), I put emphasis on the set design that intentionally resembles Oxbridge, and that emphasizes the old history of Oxbridge. Branagh knows well that Shakespeare represents the traditional and high English culture adored by Americans obsessed with old history and monarchy, the selling point that he negotiates with Hollywood. This process of negotiation is a process of commodifying Shakespeare, a process that transforms cultural value into a market value. The process of negotiation between Branagh and Hollywood not only “exports” Shakespeare to America, but also promotes a fascinating heritage image of England. Branagh’s adaptations of Shakespeare are characterized by the glamor of English monarchy and history that satisfies American people’s imagination of “old England.”  They are well attuned to Hollywood’s search for a high cultural taste.  Via the scenarios of English culture, the American audiences are taken to an old England in which they are catered for with accounts of aristocratic tradition and fascinated by a history they do not have. The positive reception of Branagh’s featuring of seemingly authentic Englishness in Hollywood productions suggests that the audience are entertained by a filmic representation that bears the traces of England’s flourishing past, a history that the Americans consider themselves as lacking, thereby culturally inferior to the British.

Branagh’s productions of Shakespeare plays are not simply a product of a cultural milieu but also the repository of Englishness, which aspires to shape the popular imagination about England and its culture, and thus is a great force for the presentation of the country.  His use of British Shakespearean actors, the employment of British accent, and the choice of adapting Shakespeare’s plays constitute a form of articulation that needs to be reckoned with, for they lead to the effective assertion of a concept of Englishness assumed by Hollywood. What they reveal is Hollywood and Branagh’s collusion in the creation of Englishness, a reinvention of ideology that allows Branagh to conquer Hollywood and evidences Hollywood’s cultural obsession with old England. For Hollywood and for Branagh, the value of Shakespeare lies in his genuine Englishness and his eminent cultural status. “Old,” “traditional” and “English” are perceived and emphasized by Hollywood as a locus of value to promote Shakespeare. This value transforms Shakespeare into a commodity to be marketed, revealing the role played by Hollywood as a collector and by Branagh as a cultural comprador. The popularity of Shakespeare, as evidenced by the success of Hollywood’s adaptations, proves the negotiation of value and the process of commodification, suggesting that Hollywood has played a dominant role in constructing a conceptual framework of Shakespeare adaptation. Hollywood, which has created a new dimension to the genre of the Shakespeare film, leads to an effective reassertion of the contemporary Shakespeare adaptation and situates the specific cultural phenomenon of Shakespeare.

Branagh’s Shakespearean films label him as a connoisseur of Shakespeare, a reputation, for better or worse, gained from his reinterpretation of Englishness with a Hollywood paradigm of Shakespeare as part and parcel of marketing strategy to appeal to its audiences. Hollywood’s Shakespeare adaptation, translated into an American popular idiom, indeed allows some openness to Shakespearean texts that endows the plays with a renewing power. We find Branagh’s Shakespeare films have become the new standard of American Shakespearean presentation, as they gratify an American taste for dumbed-down spectacles, which triumph over British stage productions of Shakespeare in the late twentieth century (Eggert 74). Branagh used the Hollywood market to promote Shakespearean texts and plays, to the extent that he was influenced by the market in his directing and presentation of the plays. His increasing turn towards American stars, the adherence to use of modern language, and the setting of a multicultural context resonant for a modern audience indicate that his films were inevitably pervaded with concern for the box office, since while the act of taking them to Hollywood granted him a larger audience, it had the quid-pro-quo of requiring profit-driven values in the productions themselves.

Branagh’s last Shakespearean film, As You Like It, is an example to illustrate how his Shakespeare adaptations perform a range of commercial and cultural politics. The film opens with the credits of HBO Films, BBC Films and the Shakespeare Film Company, followed with a presentation of European ideas of Japan penned on a backdrop of Japanese paper with origami art, ukiyo-e paintings and cherry blossom drawing. Shortly after, a haiku─ “A dream of Japan / Love and nature in disguise / All the world’s a stage─” appears on screen, which compresses the play’s location, its themes and the first few words of its most well-known monologue into the seventeen words. Branagh says that “he got the idea fifteen years ago (1990) walking through a temple in Kyoto and being struck by the possibility of setting As You Like It in Japan” (qtd in Hilton). His idea is elaborated as a prologue appearing at the beginning of the film:

In the latter part of the nineteenth century Japan opened up for trade with the west. Merchant adventurers arrived from all over the world, many of them English. Some traded in silk and rice and lived in enclaves around the ‘treaty ports.’ They brought their families and their followers and created private mini-empires where they tried to embrace this extraordinary culture, its beauties and its dangers…

Proclaiming his interest in Japanese culture, Branagh claims that nineteenth-century Japanese society is a mirror of the main themes of the play─ “the tension between the hurly burly of city life, and the alleged tranquility of nature” (Cambridge Evening News, July 9 2009). Partly from his idea of shaking up Shakespeare in order to stick to his theatre company’s faith in “life-enhancing populism,” Branagh stages this film in Japan and mixes Japanese and Western elements in the sets, the props and the score, attempting to set the story in a cultural context that is fresh for a modern audience.

Although the audiences are notified that the film is set in Japan, it is hardly convincing why. The cast is mainly American and British. No major role is given to Japanese (or Asian) performers, except a few marginal ones, such as a kabuki geisha and sumo wrestlers, which reduces the impact of Branagh’s choice of Japan as the magical Forest of Arden, and raises a question of racism.2 The preference for transatlantic actors would seem to conflict with Branagh’s proclaimed “dream of Japan,” only to confirm his dream is no more than a dream. It seems that Branagh plays into the Western exotification of Japan, trying to make Japan work as England by creating a Japanese environment with the decor of tatami mats and shoji screen doors, and with English colonial merchants replacing the nobles and sumo fighters standing for the wrestlers. But his version of Japan is an impressionistic one that is intentionally planned to bring an oriental feel, so as to achieve the consumption of a Japanese imagery (see figure 2).

From Globe to Hollywood:  Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearean Films, I-fen Wu, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2. Tatami mats and kimono dress― the Japanese imagery in Branagh’s As You Like It.

Besides, As You Like It was sponsored by HBO Films and, not gaining a cinematic release, its premiere was exclusively shown only on HBO channels. The spectatorship was thus limited to the USA. It is likely that Branagh’s fifth stab at Shakespeare was in order to fascinate an American audience, given the special plan of an American actress (Bryce Dallas Howard) playing the lead, the unusual layout of setting being presented as overtly “Oriental,” and the amplified display of freshly exotic foreign culture. Branagh’s idea that late nineteenth-century Japan “opened up for trade with the West” apparently overlooks the power struggle between the East and the West at the time, idealistically believing that Europeans tried to “embrace this extraordinary culture, its beauties and its danger” without considering Japanese people’s opinion about opening their country to the West. Branagh seems to privilege a Western point of view to interpret Japanese culture while claiming its cultural significance. As a result, Branagh’s “dream of Japan” realized in his adaptation of As You Like It becomes superficial.  Ninja-like soldiers with Kendo (Japanese martial art) masks, the kabuki geisha with heavy oshiroi (white powder) make-up, the sumo match taking place in a circle ring, and the Japanese characters decorated in the accessories (Rosalind’s necklace offered to Orlando), etc., are all stereotypical to satisfy his dream of Japan, and to meet the audience’s love of lush spectacles and settings (see figure 3).

From Globe to Hollywood:  Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearean Films, I-fen Wu, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3. Branagh’s dream of Japan― a Japanese wedding takes place in the Forest of Arden.

Branagh’ As You Like It in many ways is a film of mere spectacle, overwhelmed by Hollywood popular entertainment without too much concern with the depth of Japanese culture that it aims to reflect. Richard Burt argues that “Shakespeare sans la lettre has become the new and paradoxically cool gold standard of American Shakespearean presentation” (qtd in Eggert 74). Responding to Burt’s comment, Eggert points out that Shakespeare productions that provide an American taste for spectacle and distaste for original Shakespearean language are now considered the superior ones (Eggert 75).  She reads Branagh’s reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s plays that fits into American taste and copes with Hollywood parameters as, culturally and economically, a compromise. Her argument points to a post-colonial relation between America and Britain; she says: “British producers of Shakespeare films are to be found not fending off the barbarians at the gates, but rather absorbing and repeating the customs of the new overlords” (75).  This inverse colonial relationship, according to Eggert, is “a nostalgia, a mockery, and an affection” that British Shakespearean reactions ironically respond to the American film hegemony (75). This response indicates a nostalgia because it manifests Britain’s wish to regain its cultural influence and reclaim its legitimate ownership of Shakespeare. It denotes a mockery because it is Britain’s parodic imitation of Hollywood, which produces an “almost the same but not quite” version to de-authorize Hollywood, showing its proficiency in competing with Hollywood. It also suggests an affection because Britain truly adores Hollywood productions for their charismatic ability to attract audiences. Accordingly, British productions of Shakespeare, in a position to strategize for a cultural totem, “bear the traces of a nostalgia for England’s ascendant past, and of a recognition of its current subordinate status” (Eggert 75). This remark about British Shakespeare productions might partly explain Branagh’s infatuation with and dependence on Hollywood sources, such as its actors, techniques and market, which, despite reflecting his consistently positive attitude towards making Hollywood films (White 104), in a way discloses his awareness of Britain’s subsidiary status.

Hollywood film productions of Shakespeare have become dominant and enjoy cultural popularity worldwide. In fact, Hollywood’s repackaging of Shakespeare back to Britain from America, which assumes a post-colonial relation between the two places, had appeared already in a 1980s Shakespeare adaptation. Paul Mazursky's Tempest (1982) is a modern comedy about a successful New York architect, Phillip Dimitrius, who plays out his midlife crisis on a remote Greek island as a means of finding himself. The film modernizes the original story and language, and Americanizes Shakespeare in a sense that the story’s background has been moved to the New World, and its use of language has been translated into contemporary American vernacular. This film cuts much of the dramatic materials inherited from the Shakespeare play by trying to render the action reasonable in a modern world. The colonial assumption inherent in the Prospero-Caliban relationship has been inverted, as Mazursky displaces rich Americans (Dimitrius and his family) to explore the island in the Old World inhabited by one Greek European (referring to Kalibanos/ Caliban.) The inversion that the Americans explore the Europeans for knowledge and resources shows the transatlantic shift in the locus of colonial power that has taken place since The Tempest was written (Buchanan 173, 170).  Mazursky’s remake of The Tempest evinces that the trend of Americanized Shakespeare adaptations seems to have emerged before Branagh, and that the reverse colonial relation between Britain and America had been realized at least as early as the 1980s. Here I am not prompted to speculate if Mazursky was suggesting a post-colonial relation by choosing a New York American to explore the remote Mediterranean island, and by placing Kalibanos as a cultural other to the New World. It is most intriguing that, as Buchanan first observed, the uneducated, vulgar Kalibanos is portrayed as reclaiming some profit and power through opportunistic flattery of tourists from the First World (170). Kalibanos is on offer as a figure submitted to and exploited by his new American master from the First World, in a relationship that likewise echoes that between British Shakespeare productions and the Hollywood film industry.

As previously mentioned, Eggert suggestively responds to British Shakespeare productions’ imitation of Hollywood style as a white-on-white version of the colonial mimicry, where the colonial power desires an “almost the same but not quite” version of itself3 (75). Colonial mimicry, though expected by colonial authority to reform, regulate and discipline its colonial subjects, also de-authorizes that authority. Colonial subjects prove their capability to represent or repeat the authority. British Shakespeare productions’ imitation of Hollywood style is recognized by Eggert as a mockery to de-authorize the dominance of Hollywood’s hegemony. Eggert’s recognition provides an interesting viewpoint to examine contemporary Shakespeare adaptations, including Branagh’s; however, I would suggest that the tendency of Hollywoodized Shakespeare productions shows America’s confidence about its status as a cultural imperial power, fully aware of the reverse of colonial identification of British imperial culture. Hollywood’s representation of an “almost the same but not quite” version of a marked British past (I adapt Eggert’s argument here but with a notable difference from her) is Hollywood’s mockery of the former colonial power. By promoting and representing an appealing version of England’s glorious past, American Hollywood declares its status as the new overlord of British Shakespeare films, forming another facet of Hollywood’s position as the major “neo-colonial” cultural force in the realm of cinema.

Branagh’s Shakespeare films that blur traditional binaries between high and low, art and mainstream, and British heritage and Hollywood popular film, did indeed place Shakespeare in Hollywood and brought about a resuscitation of Shakespeare adaptations during and subsequent to the 1990s. He turned Shakespeare on film into a cultural phenomenon, an achievement that, in Burnett’s words, “made the popular respectable” (102). Branagh’s achievement formed a starting point for this paper; namely, to explore his nature as a Shakespearean director and interpreter. He actually embedded his Shakespeare films in a postmodern cultural logic and promoted himself by means of a complex network of postcolonial cultural practices. By his branding of Shakespeare as a postmodern phenomenon in the 1990s, Branagh’s achievement leads us to reconsider the impact of Hollywood film culture on him, and subsequently to inspect his postcolonial export of Englishness to Hollywood, which in this paper is taken to mean the pastiche of English cultural heritage, a quality perceived by Hollywood as a marketing asset. While Branagh is generally praised as having contributed to the Shakespeare renaissance in popular culture, we should reconsider the negotiation process of his promoting Shakespeare in Hollywood, which suggests more controversial issues concerning his postmodern and postcolonial characteristics. What unfolds behind Branagh’s contribution is the complicated interplay between British Shakespeare productions and Hollywood film hegemony, which places the Bard in an arguable position at both the center and the margin of cultural capital, and consigns Branagh to a disputable site of either an auteur or a mere re-maker, entailing further debates on Branagh’s achievement in adapting Shakespeare.


1  It seems that Branagh himself is not against the idea of “stealing” things. He says: “I do it all the time—from life, or from other actors. It’s just that a really good actor will put such borrowings into his own soil and make them his own.” See Branagh 57.

2  The role of William is played by an Asian actor, Paul Chan. This choice raises a critical comment from Christopher Tookey, a Daily Mail commentator, who writes: “another Japanese gets to play William, which makes the taunting of him by Touchstone (Alfred Molina) and Audrey (Janet McTeer) unpleasantly racist instead of funny.”  See Tookey, “As YOU like it.”

3  The terminology of “mimicry” is here borrowed to describe the interplay between British Shakespeare productions and Hollywood film industry.  Homi Bhabha proposes “mimicry” as a strategy that the colonial power deploys to reform its colonial Other as “a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite.” It is ambivalent, according to Bhabha, as mimicry can actually be subversive or empowering, when it involves the imitation/coping of colonial authority. It is considered subversive when members of the colonized society have to imitate the language, dress codes, and cultural attitude, etc. from their colonizers. Mimicry could be empowering because, by copying the people in power so as to look like them, it allows the colonial subjects to gain access to power. See Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man.”


I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments on my paper. I would also like to thank Taiwan’s Ministry of Science and Technology for its research funding (99-2410-H-032-061). I am very grateful to Professor Peter Hulme, Professor Jonathan White and Dr. Shizen Ozawa, for their generous critical advice and their warm encouragement.

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