The Reigning Prince of Shakespeare
San Francisco Chronicle, January
by Mick LaSalle
Kenneth Branagh enhances his
title as cinematic interpreter of the Bard
Kenneth Branagh has already created
a body of work that stands a good chance of being remembered
past next week, next decade and . . . well, we'll let next century
take care of itself. His Shakespeare adaptations -- ``Henry V,''
``Much Ado About Nothing'' and his latest, ``Hamlet,'' which
opens Friday -- rival those of Olivier. And he's only 36.
It's extraordinary that he's
been allowed to make his movies at all. Hollywood is, as we know,
the land of Beavis and Butt-head, not Beatrice and Benedick.
``Somebody said to me the other day that it's a miracle that
a film of this length and this subject got made,'' Branagh said
recently in San Francisco.
Miracle is right. Imagine going
into a room with studio executives and telling them you want
backing for a four-hour, full-length adaptation of ``Hamlet.''
Oh, yes, and in 70 millimeter, please. Imagine keeping a straight
But Branagh was able to go into
that conversation with a couple of advantages. His previous Shakespeare
adaptations have made money. And he was ready with a good ``pitch,''
which he kindly re-created.
``They said, ` ``Hamlet'' has
been done,' '' Branagh recalled. ``I said, `Yes, but each of
those films cut many parts of the play that will, in fact, make
the play seem quicker. The set pieces won't be squished together,
so the audience won't be forced to take in this intense scenario
all at once. It will be more entertaining, and that's the goal,
isn't it? There will be the musical breaths and rests that Shakespeare
built in, so you can make a dramatic point, let the audience
move into another mood, and then build up again. And we can make
it an event and offer people a unique experience to see a complete
version of one of the greatest works of art ever produced. And
That ain't a bad thing to do.' ``And of course, they said, `But
will it make money?' ''
At one point, Branagh said, he
was offered $9 million to make a ``Hamlet'' half the length,
but he held out for the full version. The result -- an extravaganza,
with Branagh, as Hamlet, backed by a cast of internationally
known British and American actors--looks like a $60 million blockbuster.
In fact, it only cost $18 million to make.
``Everyone was paid the daily
rate,'' Branagh said. ``The cliche is that every penny is on
the screen, but in this case it's true. People like (Sir John)
Gielgud, who appears in a flashback scene, said, `Don't pay me,
just give whatever you'd give me to cancer research.' ''
Branagh, who looks rather short
and thickly built on screen, is taller (about 5 foot 10), thinner
and better looking in person. Like his wife, Emma Thompson, from
whom he's separated, Branagh is warm, intelligent and fast on
his feet. There's nothing affected about him. Talking to him
is like talking to a working guy--in this case, a working guy
He was glad, he said, that Castle
Rock decided not to release a short version of ``Hamlet'' in
smaller cities, but to release the full version everywhere. ``After
all,'' said Branagh, ``who is to say to Flagstaff, Ariz., `We
don't think you're bright enough or interested enough to get
the full version.'?''
Branagh's approach to Shakespeare
is similarly down-to- earth, balancing a fidelity to the text
with a vigorous, cinematic approach. In ``Hamlet,'' Branagh gives
audiences a better bang for the buck by including such sex-and-violence
flashbacks as the king's murder and Hamlet and Ophelia's lovemaking.
``It reminds people that people
were having sex 400 years ago,'' Branagh said. ``Shakespeare
knew about sex and romance.''
It was Branagh's intention, he
said, that Ophelia (played by Kate Winslet), who goes mad late
in the movie, should start out ``fiery, spunky and full of life.''
Likewise, his approach to Hamlet was to play him as a ``man who's
not mad, not predisposed to melancholy, but dealing with something
that would knock anyone sideways. I wanted to play as many facets
as possible, rather than say, `I think he's a lyrical Hamlet,
or a manic-depressive Hamlet.' The goal is to try not to box
him in but to let the part fly.''
Branagh also tried not to limit
himself to a particular period, setting ``Hamlet'' in a vague
19th century that never existed. ``You work to find a period
that releases as much of the mystery of the play as possible.
Find a context in which we can accept that people talk differently,
and then get out of the way. To confine it by saying `This is
1927 in the Bronx' can cramp the play. It's one of the prices
you pay when you do something as strong as (Baz Luhrmann's) `Romeo
& Juliet' or (Richard Loncraine's) `Richard III' last year
that you do certain bits absolutely astonishingly and other bits
The sudden wealth of Shakespeare
films in the '90s, which also includes a recent ``Othello'' and
``Twelfth Night,'' is directly attributable to Branagh's previous
successes. ``These things come in cycles,'' Branagh said. ``Actually,
it surprises me that there have been so few Shakespeare films.''
Branagh, who has seen the old
Hollywood Shakespeare adapta- tions, said that his ``favorite
is Joe Mankiewicz's (1953) `Julius Caesar' -- that one really
As for future Shakespeare films,
Branagh hopes to do versions of ``Macbeth'' and ``Love's Labour's
Lost,'' one of Shakepeare's most tedious efforts. ``That's one
you'd have to cut,'' Branagh admitted. ``But there's something
wonderfully melancholy about it that I like. In any case, nothing
will happen for another three years or so.''
When Branagh does get around
to making these films, there's a good chance Thompson will be
acting in them with him. ``We're separated, not divorced,'' Branagh
said. ``We're friends, we do talk, and we will work together
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