Loneliness of the Long-distance Director
Evening Standard (London), January
by Michael Owen
Kenneth Branagh's four-hour
epic film of Hamlet opens here soon. He talks of the pleasures
and pain of his present life
It is mid morning and Ken Branagh
has come to a standstill on a London pavement. 'I'll just finish
this before I go in,' he says almost guiltily, pulling hard on
a half-finished cigarette.
He looks like an everyday Joe
in a nondescript sweater over jeans, the arresting bleach-blond
hair he acquired last year replaced by his own reddish, no-nonsense
When the cigarette butt hits
the gutter, Branagh turns purposefully for the swing doors, then
settles in a modest suite. For an hour the conversation ranged
from Hamlet, the film that is fast restoring his movie-making
reputation to its earlier Henry V high status, to his friendship
(and more?) with Helena Bonham Carter; from peace prospects in
his Belfast home town to his hitherto unknown role on rhythm
guitar and backing vocals for a band called The Fishmongers.
But first, the four-hour Hamlet.
Since he saw Richard Chamberlain play it on TV when he was a
15-year-old Ulster schoolboy, Branagh has dreamt of making this
movie. The American reviewers have acclaimed it, and the London
premiere was achieved amid cheers and celebration - although
the British critics do not register their verdict until the 14
February opening day.
It is unlikely to be a St Valentine's
Day massacre; certainly, the reception will be far kinder than
that which greeted his last film epic, Frankenstein. Branagh's
Hamlet is a massive achievement, a highly ambitious sweep through
the unexpurgated text. Its greatest strength is the actor's own
performance in the title role, where he charts an immaculately
clear and cohesive progress through the turbulent Dane's downward
It is not a perfect film and,
as director, he will be held responsible for lapses in the performances
in minor roles. The momentum does occasionally slacken. But -
say it loud - overall the film is Branagh's triumph and will
have a shelf life that will outlive him.
HE CAME to the film having played
the role three times on stage; but as soon as I concentrated
on his achievement as an actor he turned the conversation around.
'On the strength of my previous
knowledge I was convinced the play is about more than one man.
There are two families' fortunes at stake here (Hamlet's and
Ophelia's); it was making sense of the lives of the other people
that mattered. That's why we had to go for the four hours.
'The female characters, particularly,
have suffered in other versions and Gertrude most of all. Many
distinguished actresses have played the part and come away disappointed.
She is involved in the events so much but has fewer lines than
the First Gravedigger. I needed someone like Julie Christie,
but I also wanted a production that would support her.'
Ophelia is played by Kate Winslet
and fleshed out, quite literally, with flashbacks to graphic
couplings with Branagh as Hamlet. 'We had to show the physical
passion that explains her journey. It's all part of needing to
know the background story of what happened between the death
of the old Hamlet and the start of the play.'
It is in its earliest scenes
that the film nearly becomes derailed almost before it has started.
Jack Lemmon, just one of the many megastars called in for cameos,
chews up the text lamentably as Marcellus when the Ghost of old
Hamlet cranks into life.
BRANAGH was unapologetic. 'Jack
delivered exactly what I wanted. He has that peerless quality
of being the average guy, who is here suddenly exposed to exceptional
'Those first scenes were us nailing
our colours to the mast. It was a creative and artistic risk
and I know some people find it tricky, but it worked for me.'
He also has Charlton Heston as
the Player King, Billy Crystal as First Gravedigger, Robin Williams
as Osric, Gerard Depardieu (risibly) as Reynaldo - plus Gielgud,
Attenborough, Dench and even Ken Dodd flitting through the action.
But the acting honours belong
mainly to the core home team of Richard Briers, brilliant as
Polonius, Michael Maloney as Laertes and Nicholas Farrell as
'I had a free hand in casting
and, by bringing together the team we did, I wanted to get the
message across that Shakespeare is for everyone, just as we did
on Much Ado. When you have these American stars on the set it
creates an excitement.
'They are intrigued by people
like Derek Jacobi (Claudius) and the English theatrical tradition
- and vice versa. There was real respect all round, it made each
day an event and it sure got the actors' juices going.
Everyone was full of stories.
And if you put Robin Williams in tight trousers, squeaky boots
and facial hair, it's a recipe for hysteria, I can tell you.'
I wanted to know how much his
control as director freed him to find his own performance. Or
perhaps the workload threatened to undermine his actor's concentration?
'I suppose it's a combination of both. Making a film of that
size certainly had its anxieties.
'You don't sleep much. You worry
about the cast, was I giving everyone enough time and attention?
When you come back to your own performance it is almost with
relief. It may even have relaxed my performance."
THE FILM, shot at Blenheim Palace
and Shepperton, looks a miracle on its comparatively modest budget
of £11 million. 'That was the absolute bottom line we could
do it on. All the actors worked for the barest minimums, and
you'd be as surprised as their agents were if you knew how little."
He first saw the film with a
paying audience in New York. 'That was an incredibly painful
experience. Every time a bottom shifted in a seat I thought:
'Oh God, they loathe it.' But it went well. I was pleased with
the amount of laughter we generated and the fact it was a pretty
young audience.' The omens worldwide for Hamlet are good. Branagh
enjoys the foreign territory openings where he is unencumbered
by the baggage that pursues him at home. 'There is a sense of
freedom going to other countries, but obviously I'd love it to
be a success here. Every new project is the one you are scared
to death about at release time. It sort of defines where you
are. Last time, with In the Bleak Midwinter, I was supposed to
be clawing my way back from the disaster of Frankenstein. Well,
if that's the way they want to see it...'
He is amazingly even-handed about
the amount of flak that comes his way.
'Basically I have no complaints,
even though it can be irritating and I do have the normal human
response to some of it. It's the price you pay for putting your
head above the parapet, and I accept that. You just try to keep
it in perspective. So many people have real problems of pain
in their lives. I'm one of the lucky ones. I take the view you
never complain, never explain.'
Since Hamlet, Branagh has acted
in two American films and endured a relentless period of travelling
broken only by a Christmas holiday in the Caribbean. Now he is
determined to sink his roots deeper in this country and has bought
a £1 million mansion in Sunningdale which he is in the
process of renovating.
By curious coincidence, the first
US movie was called Shakespeare's Sister but has nothing to do
with the Bard. He plays an English Catholic priest who casts
celibacy aside for shady, surrogate fatherhood with Madeleine
He is next off to film John Grisham's
The Gingerbread Man with Robert Altman in Savannah, Georgia,
starring as the lawyer who gets caught on a murder charge.
'When that's over, I'm done with
moving around all the time. I feel a strong desire to live at
home for a while. For the first time in my life I have no long-term
plans. I'll just get on with the house.' As he talks, a surprising
subtext creeps into his words - it sounds as though Branagh is
lonely. 'Yes, directing can be solitary at times, like being
the captain of a ship. It's part of what you accept, that you
won't always have the same sense of fun or contact as the rest
of the cast.'
Now 36, he is still not divorced
from Emma Thompson, though the couple separated two years ago.
I asked him about the apparent lack of a partner in life. He
grimaced: 'I have nothing I wish to say about that except to
say I am content with what little personal life I have.'
Did Helena Bonham Carter, with
whom he has been romantically linked, figure in that? Another
grimace. 'We're great chums, let's leave it at that. I don't
want to talk about it but, yes, we're great friends. I'm very
fortunate. I have a circle of good friends here, which is why
I want to spend more time living here.'
He also has his immediate family
in England, though there is a network of cousins, nephews and
nieces in Belfast. 'And don't forget my 93-year-old granny.'
He opened Hamlet in Northern Ireland - in the new 1,700-seat
'That place is a wonderfully
confident addition to Belfast. They have had a magical 18 months
in the city while the peace process was underway. There was such
a sense of uplift, but now it's all gone frisky again. In England,
for all the seediness in political life, I do feel a breath of
fresh air, and I'm not just talking about the election. There's
certainly a confidence in British film-making. We've had too
many false dawns so I'm reluctant to announce another one but
so many of the signs are encouraging. We just need to find some
He has a couple of screenplays
of his own under way. The first, enticingly, is a thriller about
bribery and corruption in the film industry and the second a
political piece about Ireland. 'Too early to talk about that
one, but coming from there I'm bound to have some ongoing thoughts
on what's been happening.'
Branagh is a gifted mimic and
relaxed into some hilarious accounts of Robin Williams at work
- 'he says himself he's a whore for laughs and he's right' -
as well as Dickie Briers chuntering around the set: 'This is
a brown trousers job, Ken, that's what it is, a brown trousers
job.' Then he revealed his new musical pursuits and the band
called The Fishmongers. 'It's me and some film editor friends.
We get together and just like to jam. I offer my three beautifully
held chords on the guitar and sort of sing along.
'No, I don't think we're ever
likely to be ready for real gigs. The great British public has
done nothing to deserve an earful from us .'
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