Branagh Calls for Batman

Mail on Sunday (London), October 11 1992
by Victor Davis

Why Keaton joined the Hollywood superstars flocking to make Much Ado about Shakespeare with our Ken

THERE'S one question the jealous luvvies of show business, huddled in their green rooms, constantly ask: How does Kenneth Branagh get away with it?

With the British film industry on the mortuary slab, how does he lure million-dollar Hollywood stars across the Atlantic to perform Shakespeare for what they would normally regard as coolie wages?

He might simply say: 'I'll see you get a nice villa to stay in, but don't expect any chauffeured stretch limousines or location trailers with showers and air conditioning. We can't afford any of that Tinseltown cosseting here.'

At this sally, your average Hollywood star, not to mention his agent, business manager, personal publicist and trainer, would run crying to his analyst.

Yet among those who have now braved Shakespearean film-making with our Ken, The Wonder Thespian, are Michael 'Batman' Keaton, Denzel Washington - soon to be seen as black revolutionary Malcolm X in Spike Lee's controversial movie - 28-year-old Keanu Reeves, once a teen dreamboat in movies like Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure, and Robert Sean Leonard, the handsome young student from The Dead Poets' Society.

This summer Kenneth Branagh led them out to Tuscany and introduced them to doublet and hose, cod pieces - and Much Ado About Nothing. Why hit upon Much Ado to lure the Americans away from Beverly Hills?

Branagh says: 'It's a play that says something about how important love is. I feel a need, in these hard and violent times, to send out a positive message.

'I have always been drawn to decent characters like Henry V and Hamlet, who leave an audience feeling better about their lives, warm-hearted, uplifted. It is important right now to do this, rather than illustrate another piece of appalling evil or wrong-doing.

'There is a soft, romantic, hopeful quality about the human condition I am searching for. With this film. I want to make the point that Shakespeare is for everyone. I don't want to do museum Shakespeare. I want it to be as real as possible.'

And that is a clue to part of Ken's magic: he makes a good, off-the-cuff inspirational speech. But his mesmerised cohorts are following a path pioneered by l%98past Hollywood names, like Richard Chamberlain and Robert Ryan, who came to Britain and braved the critics in Shakespearean roles.

Ryan, a superb screen villain, memorably said to me: 'Why should I risk my reputation as an actor by doing this? Well, I'll tell you: Shakespeare is what separ-ates the men from the boys.'

And that's the second clue to crafty Ken Branagh's technique. He dangles roles in front of big stars that vanity and guilt make it hard for them to refuse.

It is a rare screen idol who doesn't ask, in the silence of the night, if he is actually worth a couple of million dollars for three months' work. As the late Robert Ryan said: 'Shakespeare is one way of making sure you pay your dues as an actor.' Today Belfast-born Kenneth Branagh's precocious reputation has Hollywood in thrall. At 32, this slightly built, unglamorous figure runs his own company, Renaissance, has had the nerve to face up to Olivier's long shadow and make his own highly praised film version of Henry V - and even, on Holly-wood's own turf, spoof Hitchcock with a glossy thriller called Dead Again, a box-office hit.

He has phenomenal energy, colossal cheek - and a suspect modesty. 'I'm dull,' he says, kicking dirt. A likely story! There's steel under the boyishness.

When he found that Donald Sutherland wasn't willing to be a team player on Dead Again, he had no compunction in bouncing him from the cast and replacing him with Derek Jacobi. He sweet-talked Michael Keaton into taking a comic role in Much Ado About Nothing and rehearsed him privately - a service he also performed for Keanu Reeves.

Denzel Washington already had classical experience, on Richard III in Central Park.

Shakespeare set Much Ado in Sicily but Branagh chose Tuscany with its dazzling light, vineyards heavy with grape, medieval townscapes and cobbled streets.

This is the first time the play has been filmed. Branagh directs and plays Benedick. His wife, Emma Thompson, plays his lover Beatrice. Keaton is foolish Dogberry, with our own Ben Elton as his accomplice, Verges. Washington is Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, and Reeves is his half-brother, Don John. Leonard is Claudio, a Florentine lord.

Reinforcing the Hollywood crew are Branagh's regulars - Imelda Staunton, Richard Briers, Brian Blessed and Phyllida Law.

Co-producer David Parfitt says: 'Ken made it fun for everyone. We were one big happy, relaxed acting company.'

Branagh and his team, who are backed by American producer Sam Goldwyn Jnr, will make Much Ado About Nothing for less than 5 million, a modest budget by Hollywood's high-spending standards.

There was no star treatment. But everyone knew they were playing a part in Branagh's latest class act.

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