Branagh Slips Into Something Small
Ottawa Citizen, September 13
by Marc Horton
They didn't have a stack of bibles
at the door of a ritzy salon on the top of the Four Seasons Hotel,
but they did have a stack of official, lawyerish-looking paper
for us to sign.
It bound us to the promise that
anything Kenneth Branagh said during our interviews would be
used specifically for coverage of his new film, In the Bleak
Midwinter. Any other use would require written permission from
some office in London.
Presumably babbling out of turn
might lead the Branagh handlers to initiate all sorts of tortures,
the worst of which might be having to sit through his film Mary
Shelley's Frankenstein one more time.
Dutifully, but somewhat reluctantly,
The pomposity of the quasi-legalisms
aside, the British actor/director is an unfailingly affable chap
without pretension who sprinkles his conversation with the odd
It's almost as if this part of
selling his movie, nattering away to the press at the Toronto
International Film Festival, is a great deal of fun.
One also gets the impression
that he had fun making In the Bleak Midwinter, the story of a
woebegone theatre company staging a Christmas-time Hamlet in
a drafty church somewhere in the north of England. It's a cross
between a Carry On Gang comedy and the backstage farce Noises
At a million bucks, it's a miniscule-budget
movie -- the direct opposite of Frankenstein.
But being small and independent
meant that Midwinter could be made the way Branagh felt it should.
It didn't require telephone conversation with Los Angeles nearly
every day, explaining just exactly what was going on. He didn't
need permission to shoot it in black-and-white, or get approval
for a title that has the sound of newly discovered Ingmar Bergman
"I like In the Bleak Midwinter
as a title. I like the hymn from which it comes and I even like
the world 'bleak'. It's a very bracing word, very evocative,"
The movie had been in the planning
stages for four years before Branagh began filming.
"I wanted to do something
very small after Frankenstein, which was very big, and it felt
good to work on a completely different scale. I also feel strongly
that it's important to keep practising what you do, not just
making a film every two or three years, and it's important to
try new things."
As for Frankenstein: "Yeah,
it got a bit of a bashing. Just because it's a bigger picture,
you get a bigger bashing. There's nothing you can do about that,
and in a sense you think, 'Oh, I'm glad that's done with, that
kicking, because I'm going to have to be very, very bad indeed
to get it much worse than that."'
Midwinter was, therefore, a bit
of a restorative.
"It was good to get back
on the horse and do something quickly . . . I admire the film-makers
who keep putting movies out, and I particularly admire Woody
Allen and the fact you get one every year. I find that you can
see connections in the work."
Just as Midwinter is what Branagh
calls "hit and run" film-making, his next project is
a massive undertaking. He may have trimmed Hamlet to its essential
scenes for Midwinter, but in January he starts filming the Shakespearean
classic in its entirety.
"I hope we'll be able to
start from the premise that it's a great ghost story. I'm watching
a lot of Hitchcock movies at the moment just to look at the way
suspense is conveyed by a real genius.
"Those basic tenets are
important to me, to get a reality to all the madness in the piece.
Ophelia ought to be all very savage when she goes mad."
Still it's a challenge to make
a Shakespeare movie at 31/2 hours, says Branagh, adding: "I
think the audience is ready for a good movie. If we make it,
they will come. And it will be shorter than Gone with the Wind.
"This one will have every
word Shakespeare wrote. Most Hamlets on stage have great swathes
cut out of them but then the actors indulge themselves and speak
very slowly so it just goes back to being 31/2 hours."
Even in the wake of the less-than-successful
Frankenstein, Branagh gets offers for big Hollywood pictures.
"I think I frustrate Hollywood,
for the half nano-second that they think of me, by not doing
big films. There is a feeling I could really direct a big, profitable
movie because I do them on budget and on time and actors, on
the whole, seem to want to work with me.
"And then they hear in Hollywood
that I'm doing a full-length Hamlet which isn't very exciting
It's the show that counts with
Branagh. He's a bit like Mickey Rooney in those old Judy Garland
movies -- "Hey, my dad's got a barn, let's put on a show!"
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