Branagh's Mad Science
Boston Globe, November 1994
by Jay Carr
The timing couldn't have been
better, Kenneth Branagh was saying, explaining his involvement
in ``Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,'' which opens Friday with Branagh
as director and title character and Robert De Niro as the monster.
``It came and found me,'' Branagh says, slimmer than ever, ginger
hair longer than ever, eyes dancing -- and speaking of the script,
not the monster. ``I was playing Hamlet at the time, a man preoccupied
with death and what life means, what the point of anything is.
Although you may laugh and say, `Oh, big deal, what an original
thought to have! A bit of existential despair!' -- well, `Frankenstein'
was full of things I was preoccupied with.
``And it makes so much more sense
today. People can almost create life now, can't they? We've got
test-tube babies, we can choose the sex of our own children,''
Branagh says, warming to the picture of every-man-his-own-Frankenstein,
reveling in the fact that the film's grand staircase (to the
studio's distress during shooting) literally and metaphorically
contains no safety handrail. ``The fact that we're only a short
step away from creating life means you suddenly have a different
reaction to the story. You have to be a little more personally
involved in that moral dilemma, which, probably, we're not that
far away from facing.
``We are, in a sense, just like
in Shelley's time. They were facing the Industrial Revolution
and a period of great uncertainty about what was going to happen.
And I think partly the way we did this picture was a thing about
that. Maybe in five years we'll be watching movies on a box or
with virtual-reality helmets. Maybe there won't be that many
chances to make big epic pictures with massive scores, so we
decided to sort of just go for it.''
Branagh adds that reading Mary
Shelley's original 1816 novel was what clinched the decision
for him. ``A sort of feverish quality runs through the book.
You put it down and you think, `Whoa!' It really takes you over.
And I thought, `It should be made.'
``There were times when I thought
I was going crazy when it came to the creation sequences and
planning to shoot them. It was a very confined set. I knew the
camera had to swoop around a lot, beyond cranes and steadicams
and flying cameras and things like that. I used to just go in
at the weekends and go onto the set, thinking, `How do I do this
big creation thing?' I guess the obsession and the determination
to get it right was gonna feed in naturally to playing Victor
Frankenstein, who had that same kind of mad drive. I think I
must be driven in some pretty powerful way. I don't think of
myself as a workaholic because I still find it hard to conceive
of what I do as work in the sense I grew up knowing work. There's
a great Noel Coward song called, `Why Must the Show Go On?' He
makes a point about actors getting terribly upset, emotional
and tortured about how difficult their lives are, and he just
does a lot of comparing with doctors and nurses and miners. I
still think of my lot as pretty remarkable.''
Surprisingly, the 33-year-old
Branagh, who moved with his family from his native Belfast to
Reading, England, when he was 9, had more American movies in
his mental data bank than the American De Niro had. That knowledge
certainly shows in Branagh's work: His ``Dead Again'' was a tribute
to gumshoe noirs, and his play ``Public Enemy'' is about a Belfast
murderer obsessed with Jimmy Cagney (it's getting a fine, crackling
staging off-Broadway at the Irish Arts Center, with an electric
performance by Paul Ronan). And avoiding echoes of earllier takes
on Frankenstein didn't preoccupy De Niro nearly as much as it
bothered Branagh: ``He wasn't intimidated by Karloff,'' Branagh
says of his star. ``I don't think he felt as intimidated by those
movies as I did.''
Both acknowledged one irony,
he recalls: All actors have a bit of Frankenstein in them, given
any actor's way of piecing together a characterization from this
or that model or bit of observed behavior. The big difference
between this ``Frankenstein'' and the version everybody knows
is the creature's intelligence and tragic awareness -- and the
fact that, Branagh says, he has a greater, nobler soul than his
creator. In addition to the usual cautionary (and reactionary)
dimensions, this retelling strikes another contemporary nerve
by presenting the monster as, essentially, an abused and abandoned
child lashing out.
``The idea of someone who is
born an innocent, is rejected by mankind and then becomes this
avenging monster -- it appealed to him. I don't know that he
fancied doing it in prosthetic makeup for 12 hours, and it took
us a while to work out the speech.'' In the end, De Niro studied
stroke victims to get a purchase on speech that is struggling
to emerge. ``He didn't want to sound urban and New York -- you
know, that stereotypical (and here he mimics Travis Bickel) `You
creatin' me? You creatin' me?' He had a twinkle in his eye about
``But it's not lost on us that
he's been very cruelly judged by appearances and given no kind
of emotional education or sustenance. Once we figured out what
the creature would know, De Niro and I spoke very clearly about
what the creature's philosophy was. It was something very wise
and simple and profound. What he wanted was simple human companionship.
He wanted a friend. For the sympathy of one human being, he would
have made peace with the world, he says. The tragedy of the creature
is that he achieves wisdom and weight and moral authority, but
at a terrible price. This creature is never given a name by Victor
Frankenstein, who creates it and then abandons it, horrified
by the appearance of this thing that he created. So the theme
of parental responsibliity is very strong. The notion of what
it is to be responsible for life, not just to create it, runs
all the way through this tale and makes for a great deal of ambiguity
about who is the more evil.
``Victor Frankenstien we tried
to present as a sane, rather good man, trying to change the world.
He's not a mad scientist, but a scientist with some sort of altruistic
vision who's let his obsession and vanity get in the way, and
then tries to fix it. He still could have fixed it, when the
creature says, `All I want is the sympathy of one human being,
then I'll go to the furthest reaches of the pole and you'll never
see me again.' But in the book, Frankenstein is worried that
the creature will breed, that there'll be a whole tribe of these
creatures. Victor's tragedy is that he's too late. He makes that
Faustian decision, shakes hands with the devil, then the wheel
of tragedy is spinning away and he just can't get off it. He's
like the guy splitting the atom because the equation was so sexy
to solve. Then, suddenly, it's oops, you can blow the entire
planet up. Oh, we didn't think about that. I think the reason
you had these gothic stories maybe was that as the Industrial
Revolution and its earth-shattering developments arrived, people
needed some sort of mythic framework through which to process
One thing ``Frankenstein'' does
not have that Branagh's other films did is an appearance by his
actress wife, Emma Thompson, so prominent in ``Henry V,'' ``Dead
Again,'' ``Peter's Friends'' and ``Much Ado About Nothing.''
``We talked about it,'' he says, but they they decided to give
it a rest after four consecutive films together. ``Emma's just
done a couple of pictures back to back. She's got `Junior' coming
up with Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger and I've just
delivered this monster. We're gonna have a holiday after this.''
It might include putting their feet up in their house in North
London, which Branagh says they consider their permanent residence.
He and Thompson aren't much for
parties, he adds. Four friends over for dinner is their idea
of a good time. ``Our house has a lovely study,'' he says. ``I
like to sit there. The walls are full of ghosts. There's a little
open fire and cup of tea. I can put my feet up and read a book
or drink a glass of wine. That's my idea of heaven. I don't like
going out and being pecked apart in one of those social situations
where you're rent-a-celeb.'' And actually, England has not been
as quick to embrace Branagh and Thompson as completely as America
has. Part of it may be that Branagh considers himself ``Irish
more and more. It seems manifest. It seems to come out. I mean
I look at this film and think, `Well, there's a Celtic imagination
at work.' Also, there's this funny thing about the English and
success. I think there's a kind of communal guilt.
``We're not very far away from
having had this incredible empire. Now we can't win a gold medal
at the Olympics, we can't win a football match, we don't win
Nobel Prizes. We're not captains of industry. We're not pioneers.
But we have a legacy and a heritage and a history, which continues
to make us want to believe that we are world leaders. Somehow
I think it makes us very cross about the nation. Thatcher especially
embraced this ferocity in a very, very small-minded and petty-bourgeois
way, which resulted in a kind of very confused attitude toward
ourselves and success. The British press have a kind of ongoing
dialogue with themselves about whether they are the worst press
in the world. There's this perennial discussion about whether
they're really irritating people enough. In Ireland -- I mean
anybody from those islands, Liam Neeson, Stephen Rea -- it's
like sporting heroes. Doesn't matter how far away they live,
they're our boys. There was nothing much to find fault with about
having insisted on making this film in England, but there was
this sort of idea of, `Don't think that will somehow guarantee
you an easy passage.' ''
Some would call Branagh a classical
populist, others a popular classicist. ``Actually in England,
I'm partly perceived as a brash git,'' he says, smiling, the
Cagney in him breaking through the soft-spokenness. He's still
nurturing the idea of reappearing in ``Public Enemy.'' And, of
course, more Shakespeare. Branagh set box-office records at the
Royal Shakespeare Company when he appeared in ``Hamlet.'' He'd
like to restage it in New York (he previously appeared in the
US on stage in ``A Midsummer Night's Dream'' and ``King Lear''),
then film it. ``If I were to put it on film, I'd want to do it
sooner rather than later,'' he says. ``As for staged Shakespeare,
down the road a wee ways there's talk of `Macbeth.' I'd like
to play some of those villains -- Iago, Richard III, a few of
those. And Chekhov's `Ivanov' is a play I think I might well
do. Right now, though, I'd like to make a very, very quiet film.
With nothing going on, just people talking.''
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