Branagh Touts 'Hamlet' as More Bard for the Buck
Boston Herald, January 19 1997
by Stephen Schaefer
Kenneth Branagh may not enter
a room talking, but that's about the only time he isn't verbally
Sitting at a table in a hotel
suite, the movies' much-lauded Renaissance man has the unflappable
air and inner calm of an actor born to play a prince (his current
Hamlet of Denmark) or a king (his Oscar-nominated "Henry
Only once he's asked a question
does Branagh's Buddhalike repose evaporate as he launches into
a lengthy, informed, exhaustively nonstop reply.
It is surely an effective way
of deflecting discussion of his personal life, a topic he's avoided
since his 1995 split from his Oscar-winning wife, Emma Thompson.
How can anyone squeeze in a question
about Helena Bonham-Carter's status as his personal leading lady?
Then again, maybe his gale-force
answers are the result of the Everest Branagh has climbed in
making a "Hamlet" no one else could have dreamed of.
For $ 18 million, Branagh served
as director, producer, adapter and - why not? - star of the screen's
first-ever, full-length "Hamlet," which opens Friday
in Boston. A "Hamlet," he points out, done as William
Shakespeare intended, with all its political ramifications.
At four hours, this "Hamlet"
is all nervy risk, even with a dazzling all-star cast that includes
the elegant Julie Christie as love-struck Queen Gertrude, funny
men Billy Crystal, Robin Williams and Jack Lemmon in featured
roles and Kate Winslet as Ophelia who goes so splendidly unhinged.
"It's not about just one
guy," the filmmaker says. "The better everybody else
is, the better everybody else is." All that talent shot
with 70-millimeter cameras that detail each crevice in the elegant
castle setting and every swag and ribbon in the late-19th-century
Shakespeare, the actor-director
notes, "is so much cleverer than we are. He knew what he
"I've seen 1 1-2-hour films
that seem longer than this," Branagh offers.
"This 'Hamlet' is the length
it's supposed to be, and if it's any good, they will come."
Castle Rock, the film company Rob Reiner co-founded with his
friends, gave Branagh the thumbs up (and the money) to make his
"Hamlet" his way.
One Hollywood maxim on why movies
are hits or failures is "Nobody knows anything," and
So why not finance this brave
effort, such reasoning suggests, for it has as much a chance
as being a hit as "Dead Man Walking" or "The Usual
"At least it's good to go
on the passionate enthusiasm of the director who has some background
on this stuff," he figures.
"People have to come for
the event and the uniqueness.
"For the price of a double
feature - and you get to go to the loo (bathroom) in the middle
(during intermission) and you get 70 mil - that's not bad for
$ 8." Its epic length allows scenes regularly dropped and
subsidiary characters often thought dispensable to be restored
to engrossing prominence.
Most notable is the rarely seen
plotting between King Claudius and Laertes to kill Hamlet in
a duel - and if that fails, with a poisoned goblet of wine.
"The great joy there is
Derek," says Branagh, who cast Derek Jacobi, who himself
had directed Branagh onstage in his first Hamlet, as Claudius.
Jacobi played another Claudius,
"I, Claudius," so memorably.
"Derek does it as if he's
never done this before," an admiring Branagh says. "He's
so besotted with Gertrude and the flame of love that he won't
"But at the end of the scene,
the survivalist emerges as he plots to put poison in the drink
as well as bait the sword."
At 36, Branagh has repeatedly
demonstrated a remarkable affinity for making Shakespeare "sound"
natural - and look cinematic, whether on stage or screen.
"There's a healthy casual
quality to some of the dialogue," he says of his "Hamlet."
"Not everything was played as art."
Branagh smiles. "I don't
know if we have an original idea here, but they're originally
done." What this "Hamlet" offers is a kingdom
under siege from a neighboring nation, a prince much depressed
over his mother Queen Gertrude's sudden re-marriage to his uncle
Claudius after his father's death.
Thanks to the appearance of his
father's ghost, Hamlet also believes Claudius murdered his father
to become King.
No wonder Hamlet vows revenge.
"I've played Hamlet about
four times. Having played a mad Hamlet early on, this time I've
made him less hectic and never mad," Branagh says.
"His madness is always assumed
- as quite distinct from Ophelia's."
Branagh also makes specific Hamlet's
relationship with the teenage Ophelia (Winslet) by showing the
two of them in flashbacks happily naked in bed.
This effectively undercuts any
notion that Hamlet is, as some critics argue, really a gay guy
over-obsessed with his possessive mother.
"I think it's important
to know people had sex 400 years ago. That's why we're all here,"
Branagh says, joking.
More seriously, he continues:
"People can attack or defend Shakespeare - as a communist,
a humanitarian, a misogynist, you name it.
"What we wanted to do was
scrub away as many cliches, partly with the casting, the length,
the cinematic treatment.
"It's great piece of poetry
and it's mysterious in its impact. It really engages the spirit."
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