Kenneth Branagh, On the Rebound
Los Angeles Times, June 3 1995
by David Gritten
You're an accomplished actor-director
and you have a good track record of critical and popular hits
with small- and medium-scale films. Then you tackle a big-budget
studio picture in which you star and direct. But reviewers and
audiences alike are less than impressed; it's perceived as a
What do you do? Do you hole up
in L.A., chew your nails, wait for the phone to ring and pray
the studios will overlook your "lapse" and not declare
your career dead? Or do you shrug, get on with your life, and
simply make the next film that takes your fancy, with no regard
for a career path?
Kenneth Branagh's taking the
latter course. He was disappointed at the reception accorded
his "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," a $40-million film
that grossed only $22 million in U.S. theaters. But like a trouper,
he aims to bounce back with a brace of ambitious Shakespeare
This month, Branagh heads for
Italy to play Iago to Laurence Fishburne's Othello, in a Castle
Rock production that also features Uma Thurman as Desdemona.
Next year he will star in and
direct "Hamlet," a 3 1/2-hour epic that will employ
Shakespeare's entire text for the first time on film. Branagh
has said he envisages his film being on a similar scale to a
David Lean film, and will cast a mix of British and American
actors, as he did in his successful "Much Ado About Nothing."
These are lofty projects, to
be sure. But it's what he has done in the immediate aftermath
of the "Frankenstein" disappointment that defies expectations.
He has come to this picturesque rural village, 40 miles south
of London, to direct a movie, "In the Bleak Midwinter,"
from his own script.
"It's a very small film,"
he says modestly.
"Less than a million quid."
Translated, that means under
$1.6 million. This represents quite a detour; one imagines the
catering on "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" might have
cost more than that.
In fact Branagh is putting up
the money for "In the Bleak Midwinter" himself. When
completed to his satisfaction it will be sold to an appropriate
distributor, probably an American mini-major.
"There's been a lot of interest
in the film so far," Branagh says. "People were calling
to say don't spend your own money, let us do it. But this was
how I wanted it."
"In the Bleak Midwinter"
(the title comes from an ancient British hymn) is about a troupe
of actors who decide to stage a production of "Hamlet"
in a village church under threat from developers. By bringing
theater to the community they hope to prove the church still
has a part to play in village life.
Actor Jo Harper, played by Michael
Maloney ("Truly, Madly, Deeply"), has the most at stake.
He has been out of work for a year, was recently rejected by
his girlfriend, and saw a Hollywood contract go to a less-talented
rival. Jo decides to redeem himself by financing "Hamlet";
he chooses six actors, a crew of mostly losers, eccentrics, has-beens
and never-weres, to play all 24 roles in Shakespeare's tragedy.
The cast of "In the Bleak
Midwinter" is largely devoid of celebrity names, though
Joan Collins has a small role as Jo's agent.
Moviegoers who like to match
names to faces may recognize veteran British actor Richard Briers,
who appeared in two Branagh films, "Henry V" and "Much
Ado About Nothing." Then there's Julia Sawalha, who plays
strait-laced daughter Saffron in the British-import TV sitcom
For one scene Briers must hand-roll
a cigarette, look around dolefully and say the line: "That's
a dog of a church." But for repeated takes he finds it hard
to roll the cigarette fast enough, and the light is about to
change as dark clouds move in.
Led by Branagh, who had a jokey,
amiable relationship with Briers, there is much rolling of eyes
and extravagantly mimed impatience among the company. After several
attempts the scene works, and Branagh strides forward to the
group. "Oh. Good work, rich work, love!" he shouts,
parodying the flowery verbal excesses of a certain breed of older
One could play amateur psychiatrist
and theorize that after his bruising over "Frankenstein,"
Branagh is retreating to a familiar milieu where he feels comfortable.
It's no accident that "In the Bleak Midwinter" is about
a troupe of actors; Branagh is himself a famed actor-manager,
and has taken his Renaissance theater group on performances all
over the world. It's also hard to overlook the parallels between
himself and Jo, an actor trying to redeem his life after setbacks.
But Branagh doesn't see it in
such terms. "It's a film I wouldn't have made any other
way, and I'm very proud of it, but it clearly didn't strike the
right chord with lots of people," he says of "Frankenstein."
"But the fact is . . . it's done $100 million theatrically
worldwide. I wish more people had liked it, but it'll make its
money back. That's not much of a disaster."
Attempted parallels between his
plight and Jo Harper's are overreaching. "I'd been synopsizing
'In the Bleak Midwinter' over the autumn (before "Frankenstein"
even opened) and then I wrote it over the Christmas period,"
Branagh says. "It's an idea I'd been mulling over for three
or four years."
He wanted to use the haunting
image of an abandoned church, blended with his concerns about
the acting profession.
"I have an obsession about
the role of the actor now, the role of (legitimate) theater and
whether there's any point in doing it anymore," Branagh
says. "Are people still interested in going to see plays
live? And why should they be? (Theater) is often so bad.
"The actor has so often
been pilloried and mocked. But often he's his own worst enemy
in that regard."
This is certainly true in Britain,
where the media castigate actors as "luvvies," a word
that springs from their habit of calling each other "luv,"
"darling" or some other gushing name. The criticism
hits hardest when actors talk about their work in precious, highfalutin'
terms, and also when they become embroiled in political (usually
left-of-center) causes. Branagh's international successes and
his willing embrace of Hollywood have made him a prime target
for a British press, which likes to hack home-grown talent down
to size; in some quarters he is viewed as the quintessential
He talks about this with some
amusement. "I remember getting angry once about a director
saying all actors are vain and selfish," he says. "I
started off saying, 'Christ, that's outrageous, how dare he?'
Then I thought, 'Well, I know what he means, luv.' " Branagh
bursts out laughing at this memory.
"Actors are the best and
worst of people. But all in all, much as I've wanted to strangle
actors and have been appalled at my own behavior as an actor,
they remain tremendous company, and people I'd wish to be in
the trenches with."
Clearly "In the Bleak Midwinter"
is a wry tribute to the camaraderie and intense relationships
that arise with any troupe of actors thrown together for a short
period. But Branagh stresses it's primarily a romantic comedy.
"The film takes its title
because the events happen at the darkest time of year, and all
the characters are going through difficult times. But it found
its form finally through a version of Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland
films, that thing about let's put on a show right here! . . .
"And like all Mickey and
Judy films, we wonder will they get to do the show, will there
be an audience? All that excitement and old-fashioned romance
about theater and movies is in there."
He is treating his cast in the
same egalitarian manner as he did with his Renaissance troupe:
"All the crew are on exactly the same initial money as the
actors," he says, "and everyone has (points) in the
film. The percentage involvement reflects a hierarchy, so the
director of photography has more points than the clapper loader.
But if the film makes more money than it cost, there's no reason
everyone shouldn't get more money."
Branagh has a full slate of future
projects, apart from his ambitious plans to adapt the Bard for
film. He's been helping to oversee the Los Angeles staging of
his 1987 play "Public Enemy," which opens June 10 at
the Court Theatre. He returns to acting next, appearing in Sean
O'Casey's "Shadow of a Gunman" for BBC television.
He is also likely to direct a studio film in the fall.
"In the meantime,"
he says, casting an amused gaze at his motley crew of actors
playing actors, "this has been great fun."
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