Perchance to Dream
Chicago Sun-Times, January 19
by Roger Ebert
Kenneth Branagh's love of
Shakespeare carries four-four ''Hamlet'' to screen
Kenneth Branagh's "Hamlet"
is one of those grand gestures that restores your faith in the
flexibility and imagination of the movies. When so many films
seem to march lockstep through versions of the same proven formulas,
here's one that takes on perhaps the most enigmatic character
in literature, and surrounds him with every single word of "Hamlet"
-- a play so often cut that many people have never seen it as
Shakespeare wrote it.
Branagh is of course the most
energetic of the current interpreters of Shakespeare, and he
has brought the bard back into box-office popularity. After Branagh's
"Henry V" (1989) was a hit, Franco Zeffirelli found
a big audience for his "Hamlet" with Mel Gibson in
1991, Branagh had a hit with "Much Ado About Nothing"
in 1993, and Laurence Fishburne and Branagh starred as Othello
and Iago in "Othello" (1995).
In 1996 came a cascade: Ian McKellen's
neo-Nazi "Richard III," the Generation X version of
"Romeo and Juliet," Al Pacino's acting documentary
"Looking for Richard," and at year's end the uncut
Branagh "Hamlet," which after short runs for Oscar
consideration is just now going into national release. (It opens
Friday at Chicago area theaters.)
At 238 minutes, it is just 60
seconds shorter than the Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor
"Cleopatra" (1962), the longest major studio movie
of all time. And it is the first movie since the Tom Cruise film
"Far and Away" in 1992 to be shot in 70-mm., which
dramatically increases picture depth and clarity.
Will moviegoers sit still for
four hours (plus intermission) for Shakespeare? Surprisingly
enough, theater exhibitors think they will. Although Branagh
was required by his contract to produce a 2 1/2-hour cut, after
exhibitors saw a preview of the full version they preferred it;
lines around the block in New York and Los Angeles suggest that
this "Hamlet" could become an event.
A few weeks before Christmas,
I talked with Branagh about his film. There is always a wonderful
flow to his language; he speaks in complete sentences and paragraphs,
the words bending to his will, and so I will mostly let him speak
Q. How did you make "Hamlet"
fresh for yourself when you approached this film, having played
the role 300 times -- and seen it, read it, thought about it,
directed it, so many times before?
Branagh: I remembered the very
first time I saw it onstage, which was with Sir Derek Jacobi,
who plays Claudius in this film, playing Hamlet at the New Theatre
Oxford in 1976 or 1977. I was absolutely overwhelmed by the energy
of the play. It had a sort of throb to the whole evening. I didn't
understand everything that was going on, but I felt as though
I understood what all the characters meant; the passionate drives
of each of them were very strong. And all very simple things
that you could identify with. We meet a guy at the beginning
of the play who has lost his dad. He's bereaved. This does strange
things to people. His girlfriend abandons him because her father
says they can't see each other anymore. These are things you
can understand. I came away thinking that this play is like a
life-force. It gets right under your skin. And along with an
exciting yarn, along with revenge, murder, incest and ghosts,
there's a debate on what it takes to be a human being. As he
says in the play, "What a piece of work is man."
I tried to remember that first
experience when I came to this film. I didn't want to be clever
for people who'd seen the play a thousand times. I wanted to
scrub it all clean -- make it exciting and alive and try to allow
as much of the play's mystery to come through as possible. It's
like a great piece of music. People listen to it and they hear
different things. And it was all absolutely linked to what I
felt when I left that theater. I was 15 years old, it was 11
at night on a Friday, I was taking the train back to to Redding,
and I could have walked home.
Q. You were really an untutored
playgoer at that point in your life? You were not born to the
theater or raised in the environment. You found it for yourself.
Branagh: Absolutely. I mean no
disrespect to my parents, but there were no books in the house.
I had no idea about Shakespeare at all. I went to the theater
because I'd seen Derek Jacobi on the telly. I'd seen him in "I,
Claudius," and I thought it was great, and I read an ad
saying "TV's 'I, Claudius' appearing as Hamlet!" So
Q. For an actor, this is "the"
role, isn't it?
Branagh: It is. Some people describe
it as the greatest straight part ever written. Certainly it's
the longest part in Shakespeare. And it has an X-ray view of
human nature; everything you are as a person has to come through.
It's exciting to play, but it's also naked. I've had the joy
of playing it on the stage hundreds of times over the years,
including once in Denmark, at the castle where the story is set.
I wanted to take advantage of that experience. I wanted to make
it after I made "Henry V" in 1989, but I missed the
boat because Mel Gibson and Franco Zeffirelli did it then. But
I'd always wanted to do a full-length version; all the film versions
were cut. The full-length version is actually easier to watch.
It gave the audience more pauses and breaths -- chances to take
in one big intense moment and wait for a second before moving
on. Uncut, at four hours, it's better orchestrated as a piece
of dramatic structure. I wanted to create the kind of event that
I loved seeing as a kid when I was first taken to see "Lawrence
of Arabia," "Dr. Zhivago," "Chitty Chitty
Bang Bang," "Sound of Music." Big wide-screen
experiences. That's why I decided to shoot in 70-mm.
Q. For months it was said
there would be the long version in big cities and then a shorter
version for the rest of the country. What's the true story about
the running time?
Branagh: There was a lot of interest
and intrigue about the whole issue. The industry was leery of
a four-hour movie, and I think there was some pressure on Castle
Rock to come up with a shorter film. When they agreed to make
the film they said, "Listen, you must guarantee to give
us a shorter version in case down the line there are places that
simply won't take this length." I said, "If you let
me make the film, yes!" Right now there are no plans to
release a shorter version of the film theatrically.
Q. There are countless theories
about what motivates Hamlet. Is it necessary for the actor playing
Hamlet to have a theory, or should he rather play Hamlet without
Branagh: Some people like to
nail their Hamlets. They need to say he's a lyrical Hamlet, he's
an angry Hamlet, he's a decisive Hamlet, he's a depressed Hamlet.
Hamlet is many things. He's a funny guy at times, cruelly witty.
He's cowardly at times, he's vicious, he's ferocious, he's quietly
heroic. He is incredibly lyrical at times. He is very dark. I
do not think he is disposed to be depressed or melancholy. I
wanted to play all these things to their extremes and not try
and explain him. I think this is a man of enormous potential
whom we meet at a time when he is overwrought. His father has
died, his mother has married his uncle inside of one month. This
is a tough gig. But it doesn't qualify him as a depressive. You
see him with the players, and in the brief romantic moments with
Ophelia, as a man of tremendous potential. This was a guy with
a great future. The JFK of his time. I wanted to play that. A
man who was good company, not somebody who was disposed to be
melancholy or self-indulgent.
Q. Did you as the director
think of Hamlet in a different way than you did as an actor?
How do you direct yourself? When you play Hamlet, do you know
as much about him as you do as a director?
Branagh: I've had the interesting
experience of being in the play as both Hamlet and Laertes. I
spent about 18 months playing Laertes in repertory with the Royal
Shakespeare Company. I got to watch the rest of the play in a
different way, and I've always felt that it's not about one man.
It's about two families who are both destroyed by the end of
the play. The play is an epic that starts with a troubled family,
and their behavior impacts on the entire nation. The map of Europe
is redrawn by the end of this play.
As both director and actor, my
view of Hamlet here is that he's part of this world of opulent,
corrupt power, a world of excess where people eat and drink too
much, have too much sex. And all these human dimensions are reflected
in a family. If Hamlet and his mother had found a chance to talk
at the beginning of the play, maybe the play wouldn't have started.
Instead they wait until he's killed the prime minister, and then
they have a good chat.
Q. What do you feel about
the familiar theory that English actors are just plain better
at Shakespeare's language? That American actors can get to be
very good at it, but they will never quite be there?
Branagh: I disagree with it.
Of course there's an element of practice with Shakespeare that
can make people feel more comfortable, although not necessarily
better. But I think Shakespeare's for everyone. There's nothing
to suggest that the Elizabethan vernacular spoken at his time
was anything like English Shakespearean acting might be now.
There was no mellifluous voice; it was a sound that was like
the guttural Ulster accent or even closer to a modern American
accent. It had hard "r's" and it was much more muscular.
It wasn't a soft and milky sound. So we have no proprietorial
At our worst we are smug about
it. It doesn't mean it's easy, necessarily. Doing any piece of
acting really well is not easy, and there are certain technical
demands in Shakespeare. I want to be able to hear everything
that is said; you have to get your tongue and your teeth around
it, and yet not make it sound like you're being overarticulate.
It has to be lightly done, and that needs practice and confidence,
but essentially I want people who are being as truthful as possible.
If Americans are culturally a step removed, I don't think that
denies them a chance to bring to Shakespeare all the vigor and
fire that are at the fingertips of American actors.
Q. I think some people are
going to be surprised by how good Charlton Heston is, as the
Player King. He's done a lot of Shakespeare, but people only
think of his movie epic roles.
Branagh: He did a great job.
That casting choice illuminates that part of the play. The Players
scenes are often undercast or cut. But they completely change
the course of the play; the power with which the Players perform
their story of revenge is what gives Hamlet the idea for the
chance to prove Claudius' guilt. If you don't see that happen
effectively, then Hamlet looks stupid. And I can't tell you how
many times I've seen productions where Hamlet is supposed to
be enraptured by the Player King, and you've just seen somebody
be very bad. Here, Mr. Mount Rushmore comes on, and you think
he's just a big star, and then he speaks very, very well.
Q. Kate Winslet's Ophelia
seems more like a young girl in love -- a flesh-and-blood girl,
not one of these ethereal spirits that you often see cast as
Branagh: When I see those Ophelias,
I always think, oh, well, she's going to go mad. Of course she's
going to go mad; she's sort of there already. But we wanted her
and Hamlet to be in the middle of a physical relationship, you
know. So that the man to whom she's given herself for the first
time in her life turns out to be the man who eventually kills
her father -- I mean, I'd go mad after that. But at the first
I wanted to see somebody who was sane, alive, full of potential.
I wanted the whole court to be full of potential for life --
not some gothic place of shadows and sorrow where people were
gloomy all the time, but a vibrant, alive place.
Q. Claudius (Derek Jacobi)
and Gertrude (Julie Christie) seem more balanced, less guilty,
less one-dimensional than I've often seen them.
Branagh: I wanted, with Claudius,
to get away from the usual sort of chicken-leg-chewing roisterer.
And as for Gertrude, she does a wonderful job in a part that
is underwritten. Gertrude has fewer lines than the first gravedigger,
and yet she's a hugely important character. Julie Christie was
utterly convinced that prior to the death of her husband, Gertrude
and Claudius had not had an affair and Gertrude did not know
Claudius killed the king. The characters are allowed to have
their own point of view, no matter what the audience may think.
And then if your husband dies and you're a queen in any period
in history, well, grief does strange things. You can sometimes
be thrown into the arms of someone you love, especially if you
keep your job that way. Quite frankly, being queen is probably
nicer than being queen mum, which would have been the case if
Hamlet had taken over.
Actually, Claudius and Gertrude
might have made a very good couple. He has quite good advice
for Hamlet at the beginning of the play. He says, "Your
father lost a father. That father lost his." It's like,
"Everybody dies, pal." It's simple in its way, but
it's also such good advice. He's not a stupid man.
Q. No, but of course he did
kill the king.
Branagh: Yes, but at that stage
Shakespeare doesn't allow us to know that. It would be thrilling
to come to this play for the first time, and discover in Act
Three that, good God! -- Claudius is the murderer! And Claudius
thinks Hamlet is carrying on because of Ophelia, or because of
his father's death, and then suddenly realizes -- he suspects!
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