Mad About Hamlet
Houston Chronicle, January 12
by Louis B. Parks
Just who is losing his mind here,
Hamlet or Kenneth Branagh?
In modern ''Hamlets,'' it is
popular to portray the troubled Prince of Denmark as not all
together, well, all together.
Hamlet, if not completely deranged,
is played as borderline unbalanced: neurotic, painfully indecisive,
But that's nothing. What could
be crazier than trying to sell a four-hour, $ 18 million, 70mm
version of what is often regarded as William Shakespeare's most
challenging play to the same modern audience Hollywood considers
A pox o' that! Branagh, cinema's
current top emissary and interpreter for Shakespeare, intends
to show that both he and the Dane have all their marbles.
In Branagh's sumptuous new all-star
Hamlet, opening Jan. 24 at the River Oaks 3, we find a much more
robust, emotionally sound Hamlet than modern audiences usually
""There is, culturally,
an image of a man in black, holding a skull, who's deemed to
be self-indulgent, navel gazing, the image of a melancholy, suicidal
man,'' said Branagh, relaxing at the Houstonian after a recent
preview screening of his film.
""My view is, there
is nothing in the play to support that he is - outside the extraordinary
circumstances of this play - predisposed to be melancholy. ''
Without taking a breath or pausing
for thought, Branagh launches impressively into a long list of
the play's characters, quoting what each has to say about Hamlet's
qualities or mental state. By the time he comes up for air -
or another puff on an ever-handy cigarette - Hamlet has been
absolved of all emotional instability. Heck, he's fit to run
Of course, if Branagh set his
full talents as actor and director to the task, he could get
Darth Vader elected emperor.
Branagh has the power to persuade,
and one becomes even more impressed with this skill when meeting
him in person and finding how ordinary he seems. Just a regular,
pleasant, average-looking guy, currently wearing a short beard
for a film role.
But this regular guy is the dynamic
force behind the current, improbable commercial viability of
Shakespeare on screen.
Thanks to his rousing 1988 ''Henry
V'' and his pleasing 1993 ''Much Ado About Nothing,'' we have
recently had a windfall of Shakespeare cinema.
But Branagh, steeped in the English
theater tradition in which the role and the play are more important
than the actor, doesn't seem to have any major pretensions about
his work or importance.
""Without trying to
be immodest about it, it is William Shakespeare who's responsible
for it,'' Branagh said, undercutting his part in the Shakespeare
resurgence. ""With ''Henry V'' we were lucky - right
time, right place kind of thing. We've been fortunate since.
""Yeah, I'm glad if
I've had something to do with it, truly I am, but I think he's
moreto do with it. ''
Oddly enough, at the moment the
tables seem a little turned.
Now it's Shakespeare who may
be about to revive Branagh.
Branagh's flag, once waving proudly
high, has slipped down the pole in the last two years. Some critics
have even suggested ''Hamlet'' is a make-or-break film in his
THE first time most Americans
noticed Branagh he seemed to come out of nowhere with the critical
and commercial success of ''Henry V.''
In fact, he already had a meteoric
career on stage and a successful one in British film and television.
Branagh was born in Belfast,
Northern Ireland, Dec. 10, 1960, and was raised in Reading, England.
He was 15 when he saw the famed Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi
(who plays Claudius in Branagh's ''Hamlet'') play Hamlet at the
Oxford New Theater.
This was, by Branagh's own oft-told
account, an earthshaking moment. Then and there he decided to
become an actor.
He studied at the Royal Academy
of Dramatic Art in London and has been winning stage awards and
acclaim ever since. At 23, he became the Royal Shakespeare Company's
youngest Henry V.In 1988, he starred for the first time as ''Hamlet,''
in a production directed by Jacobi.
Along the way there were many,
many other projects on stage and film, as producer, director
Branagh's starring performance
in the film of ''Henry V,'' which he also adapted and directed,
was nominated for an Oscar. He was 28.
This was followed by starring
in and directing a nifty film noir thriller called ''Dead Again,''
an English upper-class ''The Big Chill'' called ''Peter's Friends''
and ''Much Ado About Nothing. ''
But then came an ambitious but
rather clunky film of ''Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,'' for which
he again starred and directed. It was critically lambasted -
worse than it deserved. The long globe-spanning promotional tour
for ''Frankenstein'' was one of his most grueling experiences.
The film has become a black mark
on his rap sheet, treated now as a huge disaster. In fact, the
$ 44 million film made more than $ 100 million on the world market,
so it was not a commercial failure.
""By no means,'' Branagh
said with a hint of a grin. ""I got some money out
of that thing. ''
Branagh continued doing successful
stage work, including a much-praised mid-1990s ''Hamlet'' of
more than 250 performances, and he was an exciting Iago in Oliver
Parker's 1995 film of Shakespeare's ''Othello. ''
But the lackluster reception
last year of his small ''Midwinter's Tale,'' a film about a small
group of actors trying to put on ''Hamlet'' in a small town,
further tarnished Branagh's once-shiny armor.
So did, it seems, the breakup
of his marriage to actress Emma Thompson, his popular co-star
in several films and TV series dating back to 1987. Their public
split last year seemed to reflect negatively on him - perhaps
because she was then having such success with ''Sense and Sensibility.
""I think people are
always looking for symbols of something that works in a difficult
situation, be it the perils of show business or indeed the difficult
situation for anyone these days of being married or in a relationship,''
Branagh said of the split. ""When they see those models
not work, it's disappointing. ''
All of which has caused some
to declare early that ''Hamlet'' would be either Branagh's salvation
or the nail in his career coffin. Branagh has, of course, read
these stories and takes them in stride.
""This seems to be
a way to follow my career,'' he said, seemingly without rancor.
"" 'Golden youth, slapped on back early on, gets hubristic,
has mega-disaster with ''Frankenstein,'' nudges back, comes back
to his familiar turf (Shakespeare). It has to be important; otherwise
he's going to kill himself.'
""None of which is
true. You're just making another film. Of course I care about
it, but I cared just as much about ''Frankenstein. ''
""If I died tomorrow
of cancer, I'd get fantastic notices. As soon as you're out of
the game, there's no need to bash you.
While you're doing it, you have
to accept that it's an up-and-down experience. ''
Although ''Hamlet'' has played
in only a few locations, most of the reviews have been good,
and audience response has been positive. ""For this
film, I can feel a sigh of relief. The reaction so far makes
me know that it is not going to die a horrible death. The level
of its success is to be determined, but it will have an audience.
""How it will be categorized,
I don't know. If we don't win 93 Oscars, then I'm sure we're
an utter disaster, but the fact is I don't think that's the case.
IN the play, Hamlet, Prince of
Denmark, is grieving the death of his father, the king. His father's
ghost appears to him and says that he was murdered by Hamlet's
uncle, Claudius, who is now the king and is married to Hamlet's
mother. The ghost tells Hamlet to seek revenge.
Little wonder Hamlet seems depressed
and confused. He has trouble deciding what to do next, whether
or not he should seek revenge by killing his uncle. Who wouldn't
debate such a thing, especially with the fate of nations hanging
in the balance?
Branagh believes Hamlet is not
indecisive by nature, but genuinely questioning the correct course
""It's a hard thing
to do,'' Branagh said. ""Imagine what it would be like
to kill someone in your family. Yet Lord knows many of us have
felt like it. So he's caught in a very heightened version of
something we can empathize with.
""I don't want to apologize
for him. He's brutal in his treatment of Ophelia (Hamlet's young
sweetheart who goes mad when he abandons her and kills her father).
He's unrational and unreasonable in his reaction to (his mother)
Gertrude and has tremendous resistance to the idea that she should
be enjoying a physical relationship with Claudius. ''
Branagh's Hamlet may behave questionably,
but not insanely.
""It's certainly not
neurotic,'' said Sidney Berger, producing director of the Houston
""Hamlet in this version
is a much more direct and open character,'' said Berger. ""Branagh
has made it a more epic ''Hamlet. ''
""That is a very interesting
and relatively unique approach to that play. It's almost invariably
done as an interior play. And while he doesn't forsake that,
he gives it a much more epic nature. That's an interesting new
look at that piece. ''
Berger, who has seen almost all
the filmed Shakespeare, considers this one of the best film adaptations
""There's no question
in my mind it will be regarded as one of the best versions of
that play on film. It's extraordinarily good. ''
Branagh has been enamored with
the play and part since he was 15.
""It's continued to
fascinate me, to be elusive. It's continued to hold for me potentially
the best combination of things a story can offer.
""You have all the
compelling dramatic elements: madness, incest, revenge, ghosts,
suicide, murder. These are all good, crowd-pleasing elements
that are brilliantly put together by Shakespeare.
""Underneath it he
weaves this incredible yarn so recognizable to anyone from any
culture about what it's like to deal with grief for a father.
""All these elements
that connect absolutely to our human experience are all wrapped
up in this man's poetic genius so that the whole experience is
acting on you like a great piece of music. There's magic in it.
'' He has pushed for a film version since the late 1980s. As
he approached midlife - he was 34 when the movie went into production
- he believed he had to make the film soon if he was ever going
""It is a young man's
play,'' he said. ""It's partly about walking into adulthood.
""In the textural evidence
we get from the grave digger, Hamlet is 30 years old. ''
But should such a difficult character
be tackled by a young actor?
""There are advantages
both ways,'' Branagh said. ""Old enough to understand
it, young enough to be as convincingly irrational as Hamlet sometimes
Branagh's earlier Hamlets, on
stage and radio, were noted for being men of action, far more
in control of themselves than those in most versions. He believes
this new version is deeper than his previous performances.
""I would like to think
that those moments where he's introspective or self-questioning
are a little more realized. I worry less about playing a particular
kind of Hamlet than I do about playing as extremely as possible
all the contradictions in his character.
""People are sometimes
keen to nail their Hamlet, to say he's a melancholy Hamlet, a
neurotic Hamlet. But actors like to play Hamlet again and again
because it's multifaceted. ''
HAMLET was written and produced
around 1600 (scholars debate the exact year) and is based on
stories dating hundreds of years earlier. Branagh sets his version
somewhere in the 19th century, intentionally avoiding any specific
date. He felt that time period made it more relevant to modern
audiences than 1600, while avoiding the strangeness of placing
it in modern times, as did the recent films of ''Romeo &
Juliet'' and ''Richard III. ''
""I'm a little resistant
to 20th-century Shakespeares because I find it much harder to
deal with what can become anachronisms,'' he said. ""To
accept the heightened language, because we don't talk that way
in this century.
""(But) for me the
Elizabethan world or the medieval world tells fewer stories than
I wished to convey about things I felt were important. '' He
preferred a ""drippingly powerful 19th-century court,
the kind of thing evoked by the extended royal families of the
Hapsburgs and Romanovs at a time when Europe was changing its
boundaries all the time and where there were incredible scandals
in royal families. Where there were illegitimate children all
over the place. Where there were murders and backstage romances.
Branagh's involvement in the
film even extended to the striking, spectacular-looking but spare
sets, created by designer Tim Harvey to match Branagh's ideas.
Sure to get plenty of attention
in this version are the many ""guest stars'' Branagh
inserts in the film. The list includes Jack Lemmon, Richard Attenborough,
Julie Christie (terrific as Gertrude), Billy Crystal, Gerard
Depardieu, Charlton Heston, Robin Williams and Kate Winslet.
They get bigger billing than the more established classic Shakespearean
actors, such as Jacobi, Judi Dench and Michael Maloney.
Clearly it is commercial and
practical casting, but Branagh offers no excuses.
""It creates something
of an event to see that group of actors together. I like that.
I've always liked that. I regard it as a healthy complement of
styles when you bring people of different approaches together.
It makes a very healthy atmosphere on set.
Back to Articles Listing
Back to the Compendium