Birth of a Monster
Evening Standard (London), October
by Michael Owen
Kenneth Branagh stripped down
for the birth of the monster he created and now stays cool as
he prepares to deliver his £30 million Frankenstein film
to the world
The advertising is up on the
hoardings, the trailer is in the cinemas and the media has its
first sneak preview this Sunday. After two years and nearly £30
million, Kenneth Branagh's film of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
- his biggest gamble to date - is at last on its way, arriving
in a fortnight's time. Branagh swept a hand over the thick, unruly
hair he grew to play the title role and said: 'I've delivered
the final print and my feeling now is that I have done as much
as I can to make it work as we first envisaged it. I can't honestly
think I've ever been able to say that before.'
The film opens in 3,000 cinemas
across America on 4 November, as well as all over Britain, and
he is sufficiently Hollywood-wise to know that his future as
a film-maker rests on what the box office takes in that first
In the face of such pressure,
I have never known him look more relaxed. He has taken the past
month off for a holiday in Italy with his wife, Emma Thompson,
and this week flew off to Los Angeles to join the drum-beating
that will lead up to the American opening.
But he will be back for the British
premiere on the first night of the London Film Festival, which
promises to be a famous occasion in Leicester Square, and he
is out to enjoy it.
'There is nothing more I can
do now and no amount of worrying will affect what happens to
it. I've done the best job I can and I know that in terms of
acting, design, photography, whatever, it has some wonderful
things in it. Now it's in the lap of the gods - so let's enjoy
The film was not Branagh's original
inspiration. Columbia Tri-Star had a Frankenstein script going
the rounds and sent it to him. His response was to accept the
central role and direct it, to re-work the screenplay, insist
it be made at Shepperton - starting the new wave of big-budget,
dollar-financed movies that arrived on these shores - and wooing
Robert De Niro into co-starring as the monster.
He said: 'Having been around
Hollywood and looking at a subject as familiar as this, I was
a bit leery at first. But I read the novel and it has everything
you could want, a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions with a
bit of Faust thrown in.'
The film certainly has scale.
It starts in the Arctic, with Frankenstein fleeing the horror
of his creation, goes to Switzerland where the experiments in
life creation are conducted and is full of spectacular interiors,
not least the 19th century laboratory which gives birth to the
creature. He said: 'It's a big film, but I hope it's a passionate
film. I want the audience to feel the powerful emotions at work.
It has incredible ups and downs and by the end I hope they feel
they've been through the ringer.' Branagh plays Victor Frankenstein
as a robustly vigorous avenger, rather than a demented dabbler
in dark arts, and strips half naked to wrestle his creation out
of a water tank and into existence.
'I wanted the scene to have a
naked, elemental feel to it, and also thought there was something
sort of homo-erotic about it. So I got my kit off, probably to
the amusement and derision of all.' Sensibly, he kept his pants
HIS take on the tale is that
Frankenstein defies God out of anger at the death of his mother
in childbirth. 'It's his rage and grief that a good person has
been taken away for no reason that is the root of his obsession
and his decision to fight the system.'
The only re-shooting required
after the four-month schedule at Shepperton were scenes with
Cherie Lunghi as his mum. 'To understand the degree of his pain,
I thought we had to see a little more of her.'
Helena Bonham Carter plays the
adopted sister and object of his passions, John Cleese is a mad
professor and Richard Briers, Ian Holm, Tom Hulce and newcomer
Trevyn McDowell also feature. But De Niro was the crucial catch.
'We met and, thank God, we seemed
to get on. He relaxed a lot when he knew I was Irish rather than
English. He does have a strong sense of humour, more than I expected.
Watching him having a laugh with the English actors was just
'There is another side when things
are not going the way he wants. I witnessed it once or twice
and was very grateful it wasn't coming my way. He certainly can
be someone you wouldn't want to cross. But friends of his tell
me once you are in, you are in for life. We'll have
to see. But I wanted someone
who could play the sweetness and innocence of the creature as
well as the potential for aggression and violence. He was on
set for hours for all the make-up and he was incredibly patient.'
As star, director and co-producer,
Branagh carried the burden of the film for a full two years and
spent the past six months locked in the editing room. 'There
were times when I thought it would never end. Now it's over I
feel like my life has been given back to me.
'It was a strain, but what keeps
you going is that, in the middle of all the nonsense, we actually
did have moments of such sheer fun. We could have a laugh and
most days I ended up with a smile on my face.
'I just enjoy the company of
actors. It was the same playing Hamlet at the Barbican. We had
good reviews, sold out at the box office, a great reception,
but the thing I remember most was how good it felt to be part
of a company, just the chat, banter and laughing at things going
wrong on stage.' If his words read luvvie-ish, they do not sound
it in delivery. His cheerful bonhomie is no bloke-ish affectation
but the genuine article, albeit backed by the iron-clad confidence
which has fuelled his meteoric rise.
Ken is invariably good company.
I asked him if the confidence ever wavered. 'It did at the Barbican.
I remember standing in the wings before going on in Hamlet feeling
absolutely petrified. I thought, 'I'm not doing this again, It's
too scary'. I went on and totally forgot the first soliloquy.
I tried to paraphrase and got it all arse over tit. But the audience
didn't seem to notice. So I relaxed, got on with it and began
to enjoy it.' He was lounging on a sofa as we talked, apparently
without a care in the world, and enthusing over the recent rediscovery
of simple pleasures. 'It's been great to pick up a book again,
have a glass of wine or go to the pictures. I've even got out
my guitar again, and I'm still chasing the same three chords
I was after when I started at 16.'
Now 33, he has a clutch of possible
projects including screenplays of Arthur Miller's The Crucible,
Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native, a film of hostage Brian
Keenan's story called Blind Flight and Jane Austen's Sense and
Sensibility, which he would direct with Emma starring. But he
is saying No to all of them.
'I told Emma to direct the Austen
herself, she knows it only too well. I feel resistant to doing
another period piece. In fact, I'm not ready to jump straight
back at all. I feel it's a moment of peace right now. I'd be
a bit intrigued to be offered an acting job where someone else
had a view of what I could do and would carry the impetus. Otherwise,
I might just do a bit of writing.'
The only name that brings a rush
of enthusiasm is Depardieu. 'We sort of keep in touch. He has
a project for me and I have one for him. He keeps so busy, it's
impossible, but he's such a life force and I would love to work
The theatre has no place on his
immediate agenda - though, after two productions, he still says:
'Hamlet remains unfinished business as far as I'm concerned'
- but there is a surprise waiting for him in New York where an
off-Broadway group called The Irish Arts Centre is staging his
play Public Enemy, first seen at the Hammersmith Lyric seven
It is the story of an Irish song-and-dance
man who falls increasingly into the persona of James Cagney as
the Troubles seethe around him.
'I'm very flattered by this but
I'm not so naive to think it would have happened if Frankenstein
hadn't been around. I got the play out again, did a bit of rewriting,
but I was pleased to see it was full of energy. I'm looking forward
to seeing it.'
After Hollywood, he will be back
to Cricklewood, where the Branaghs keep house, and a quiet life.
'That'll suit me for a while. We're not great partygoers or on
the celebrity circuit and I hate night clubs. Just spending time
with a few friends is fine.
'If we go out, people don't bother
us. You just keep your head down and keep going. It's a state
of mind. I think it's worse for the people who are constantly
on TV. That can be tricky.'
He stretched, got up and began
farewells, full of warmth and camaraderie. His last words were:
'I hope you enjoy the movie - it only took two years.'
Back to Articles Listing
Back to the Compendium