Branagh and the Bard
Fairfield Weekly, February 7,
By Roger Moore
Here's a cheeky question for
Kenneth Branagh, the leading modern film interpreter of Shakespeare.
Is there a bad Shakespeare play?
Branagh, the star of Henry V,
Much Ado About Nothing, Othello and Branagh, version of Hamlet,
''Well, even the bad ones have
good things in them,'' he said. ''Henry VIII has a great part.
Pericles has one great scene in it, at the end, where father
and daughter meet. A very hard play to get right, I think.''
Branagh stopped rubbing his chin
''But that's nitpicking. If I
could write a play as good as Shakespeare's worst play, I'd be
a happy man.''
Branagh's latest film, Hamlet,
is scheduled to open in the Triad on Friday.
Since he first came to film fame
with his bloody, audacious and Oscar-nominated adaptation of
Henry V, Branagh has gladly worn the mantle of his generation's
great popularizer of Shakespeare's plays. That places him in
esteemed company. Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles and John Gielgud
also worked to bring Shakespeare to the masses. For Branagh,
the way to do that is to film the playwright's works in a vivid
and realistic fashion, not in the stylized, arch manner that
has long been associated with Shakespeare productions.
''The naturalism thing is very
important to me, the feeling that this is happening before your
very eyes,'' he said. ''I strive for a naturalism in performance,
people sounding like human beings, not actors `reciting Shakespeare.'
Welles and Olivier, great though they were, were of their time,
and there's a distance to the characters they played because
of that. Acting now seems more human.
''And yet, that has to be done
understanding what's being said in the lines, and those lines
have to be delivered crisply and clearly, yet lightly. It's all
a sleight of hand, balancing that against this overenunciating
you hear so often.
''The goal is a kind of effortlessly
entertaining movie that hits every target, compels from moment
to moment, has enough variety in it -- visually, aurally and
in every other way. You understand every single word and you're
emotionally caught up in the acting, which is widely different
and marvelous and multicultural.'' Branagh sat back in his chair,
his thesis on how to film Shakespeare complete.
''A lot of ambitious targets
to hit, and I certainly haven't hit all of them in three films
(he did not direct Othello), and I won't even in a lifetime of
Branagh, 36, came by his love
of Shakespeare as a boy of 14. That's when he first saw Derek
Jacobi play Hamlet on the stage. Branagh, a native of Belfast,
Northern Ireland, soon abandoned his plans to become a journalist
and took to the stage. After college at the Royal Academy of
Dramatic Arts, he co-founded Britain's Renaissance Theatre, which
is where he first played Hamlet. He got hundreds of performances
in the role under his belt before doing a full-length radio adaptation
for the BBC in 1992.
That was when Branagh decided
that this play, so often whittled down to a manageable length
by stage and screen directors, can best be appreciated in all
its uncut glory. Though Hamlet has been filmed almost 50 times
over the years, Branagh's is the first to give audiences the
full play, all four hours' worth.
''Cumulatively, by the end of
the show, there's an emotional weight to this Hamlet that you
don't get in shorter versions,'' he said. ''The characters become
more complex human beings in this longer version. I think it's
easier to follow, uncut. The dimensions you get, the Norwegian
conflict (which is often cut) puts more at stake. It's not just
a family story, uncut. It's the end of a dynasty, two complete
families wiped out, a new ruler is on the throne, all springing
from a single act of treachery. All of that makes it a bigger
Branagh speaks of Hamlet as a
living, breathing thing, a play with its own life-rhythms. He
said that restoring all of Shakespeare's dialogue, characters
and scenes makes it all make more sense. It's no longer just
a play with sex, blood and the occasional big speech.
''There have been excellent filmed
versions of Hamlet . . . versions that don't show us Polonius
(Ophelia's father) spying on his son, enjoying his mistress,
the things which make that character much more sinister thanhe
is often played. You cut that scene and you get a funny Polonius,
he is often played. You cut that scene and you get a funny Polonius,
which, considering that this guy is the king's right-hand man
-- `the head is not more native to the heart . . . than is the
throne of Denmark to thy father' -- is wrong. This guy's a silly
old man who lectures his boy on `to thine own self be true'?
Nooooo. This guy is an ace politician, who spies on his boy,
sets him up with a whore, all after that sweet speech about `thine
''The scene after the `To be
or not to be' speech is usually cut to ribbons. It's jarring
for the audience and hard on the actors. The rhythms are wrong.
Hamlet has time to reflect on things, to work himself up into
a state for killing.''
Branagh said that as his understanding
of Shakespeare's works deepens, he learns how much he does not
know. After acting in most of the plays on the stage and directing
three films based on Shakespeare plays, Branagh's big, lush Hamlet
has earned glowing reviews and spawned talk of more Oscar nominations
For Branagh, every Hamlet reflects
the era in which it is produced. ''Maybe it's the level of self-absorption
that's the real response of our times to Hamlet,'' he said. ''The
way in which we, as individuals, in some post-Freudian half-informed
psychobabbleze, happily persuade ourselves that we understand
the workings of the human mind. We are forever searching, through
whatever means, to `love the child inside ourselves,' or blame
toxic parents for our lives. We look to be working on ourselves,
and this (Hamlet) is the story of a man doing a lot of work on
Branagh's first film, his 1989
adaptation of Henry V, earned two Oscar nominations. That might
have seemed like heady stuff for a 29-year-old Brit who was unknown
in this country before Henry V came out. But then, Branagh and
his now-estranged wife, Emma Thompson, were the first couple
of the English theater. Branagh had already written a first installment
of his autobiography (Beginnings). People were calling him''the
New Olivier.'' Seven years, a handful of films, including Dead
Again, Frankenstein, Much Ado About Nothing, Peter's Friends
and A Midwinter's Tale, a separation, and an altogether more
glamorous, jet-setting lifestyle make one wonder if he has ''gone
''I haven't literally gone Hollywood,''
he said with a smile. ''I did one film there. I've had many opportunities
to go and work there, and I've chosen not to. But I'm very glad
I can do films over here, in Boston or Savannah.''
Even over here, even Branagh's
non-Shakespearean acting has taken on a touch of the Bard. The
movie he just finished filming in Boston is called Shakespeare's
''It's a drama set in 1935,''
Branagh said. ''Wealthy couple, Madeleine Stowe and William Hurt,
who have everything but children. They decide to use a surrogate
father, and all sorts of things go wrong. A Catholic priest,
played by me, discovers the skulduggery and becomesembroiled
in a situation where he finds himself related to one of them.
. .. Tragedy, mayhem and muuurrrr-derrr ensue. _Duh duh duh_.''
Branagh just started shooting
a film of John Grisham's The Gingerbread Man in Savannah, Ga.,
directed by Robert Altman. ''I just read Midnight in the Garden
of Good and Evil,'' he said. Branagh described that book, set
in Savannah, as the perfect primer for working in that city.
''I'm working with an accent
coach that I've had for a month or so," Branagh said. ''I
started this long-distance correspondence course on the American
legal system. I'm trying to read some of the things that lawyers
read, all through law school. I'm talking to lawyers, trying
to establish the sorts of things they might have on their desks.
Some of the lawyers have done lines from the movie for me, on
tape. I sit there with my little Walkman and listen to me tapes
and read me script.'' And after that, there's always time for
more Shakespeare. Branagh said he has a couple of possibilities
''I'm mulling about the idea
of Love's Labour's Lost or the Scottish play (Macbeth). Of course,
if we did it, Love's Labour's Lost would be a musical.''
Back to Articles Listing
Back to the Compendium