Kenneth Branagh Takes Longest Leap With New 'Frankenstein'
Associated Press, November 25
by Bob Thomas
Kenneth Branagh always has possessed
a young man's confidence in challenging popular beliefs - he
proved it when he directed and starred in the film "Henry
V" at age 28.
Laurence Olivier was 37 when
he directed and starred in a lavish film version of "Henry
V" in 1944. It became an instant classic, considered the
best Shakespeare ever filmed. Most filmmakers dared not attempt
the play again.
Undaunted, Branagh, who had appeared
in two movies and directed none, undertook "Henry V,"
portraying royalty and commoners alike as a scruffy, unwashed
replica of what they probably had been. The results were critical
huzzahs and Academy Award nominations for best actor and best
picture of 1988.
Shakespeare's tragedy is a hard
enough sell in the film marketplace; with the exception of "The
Taming of the Shrew," his comedies have been almost totally
neglected. Yet, last year, Branagh made an all-star version of
"Much Ado About Nothing" that charmed critics and did
acceptable box office.
Branagh has directed two modern
films: "Dead Again," a film-noir murder story, and
"Peter's Friends," a kind of British "The Big
Chill." Neither was well received by critics or the public.
However, the Northern Irish Branagh
faced his biggest challenge with "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein."
Although remade with variations ad finitum, the 1931 version
directed by James Whale with Colin Clive as Frankenstein and
Boris Karloff as the monster remains in every film buff's mind.
Branagh reviewed the earlier
films and was not deterred.
"I was familiar with the
James Whale versions (he also directed 'The Bride of Frankenstein'),
which are the ones I know best of all. The (British-made) Hammer
films I was quite familiar with as well, and I didn't enjoy them
very much," he said in an interview.
"One of the things that's
happened to the genre, I suppose, is that after the Whale films,
the whole genre has been thought about as B-picture, especially
the Hammer ones. I reminded myself about all these films to think
about where we should go. There would be no point if our film
should look like the others and sound like the others.
"I checked out all the films,
including my favorite, Mel Brooks' 'Young Frankenstein.' It really
is the summation of every parodic response to the story itself
and to the brilliant ways it has been made in the past. Having
seen that, I knew what we couldn't do."
The Karloff makeup, with its
platform shoes, high dome and bolt through the neck, has long
been copied and parodied. Branagh aimed to avoid comparisons
with his monster, Robert De Niro.
"We wanted to have a patchwork
man, someone put together with bits from other people, which
is what happened in the book," Branagh said. "We talked
to surgeons and other advisers about what sort of stitches would
have been done then under the pressure of time that Dr. Frankenstein
would have faced.
"We wanted him to be somebody
who was in pain, as though he was covered with sores and cuts
that even as you watched him you knew were sore.
"We also faced the problem
that anybody in the story does: to make sure (the makeup) was
vivid, but within it the actor could be seen and could convey
his performance in a way that would touch us, so it wouldn't
be too much of a mask."
Branagh, who will be 34 Dec.
10, published his autobiography, "Beginnings," at age
28. He is serious about his work, but he is also affable, his
boyish Irish face often widening in a smile.
He and his Oscar-winning wife,
Emma Thompson ("Howards End"), met in 1986 when both
were cast in a BBC miniseries, "Fortunes of War." She
has said: "I didn't know his work, but I did know that he
was sort of a young lion in the British theater. It was sort
of keen interest at first sight."
Interest turned to romance, and
three years later they were married. Even though they have worked
closely, no signs of friction have appeared. Both seem to lack
the ego of such high-powered performers.
Branagh's actors adore him. Says
Helena Bonham Carter, who portrays his lover and wife in "Mary
Shelley's Frankenstein": "He has plenty of humor, and
for actors he is ideal because he knows how delicate our confidence
is. So he's incredibly tactful."
Branagh was born in Belfast.
His family moved to England when he was 9. As a boy he became
enamored with American movies. His all-time favorite was "The
Great Escape," which had an all-star cast led by the late
"I can do scenes from it
... Donald Pleasance and James Garner stealing the airplane ...
Charles Bronson in the boat with James Coburn ... a touching
story that really engaged you," said Branagh.
His passion for drama brought
him to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, where he dazzled everyone
and walked off with the highest prize, the Bancroft Gold Medal.
He immediately was cast in Julian Mitchell's play, "Another
Country," then joined the Royal Shakespeare Company. His
Henry V at 23 drew critic raves.
Branagh surprised the theatrical
community by leaving the RSC to form his own Renaissance Theater
Group. His productions were electric, similar to Orson Welles'
Mercury Theater in New York in the late 1930s.
With his film, "Henry V,"
reviewers made allusions to Welles, who had filmed "Citizen
Kane" at 25. But Branagh seems to exhibit more stability.
And with a bit of Irish luck, he may have a longer, more productive
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