Evergreen Bard Intrigues Branagh
Sacramento Bee, January 27, 1997
by Jennifer Borjorquez
There's a part of Kenneth Branagh
that would love to do an action movie. Something where he would
dodge a lot of bullets, save the world and get the girl in the
end. But there's a problem with those roles. ``I find the plots
and the dialogue so bad that they are uninteresting, '' says
Maybe because he's used to working
with a better screenwriter. Over the past several years, Branagh
has become Shakespeare's most famous advocate. He has made several
films based on the Bard's plays, all with plenty of action but
not a lot of car crashes. Now, Branagh directs and stars in his
most ambitious movie yet, a four-hour version of Hamlet. ``It
is the role every actor wants, but more than that, it is a great
story,'' says Branagh during an interview in a San Francisco
The story of the young Danish
prince is one of the most often told in the English language.
There has been almost every interpretation of the play you can
think of. (Hey, there was even a Gilligan's Island episode of
Hamlet. A musical, no less.) There was a production with Hamlet
as a woman, Hamlet as a biker. There was even a production with
the young prince - who is supposed to be 30 years old - played
by a 74-year-old actor.
At 35, Branagh doesn't worry
about age. His concern is bringing the film to a new audience,
the kind of audience that flocks to action movies. Branagh says
Hamlet is timeless. ``The story is just as applicable today as
it was in Shakespeare's time.''
Like many of Shakespeare's works,
Hamlet has all the elements Hollywood loves. And this has been
a good year for Shakespeare at the movies.
In the past few months alone,
several films based on Shakespeare' s plays have been released,
including Richard III with Al Pacino and Twelfth Night, starring
Helena Bonham Carter. Romeo and Juliet, starring Leonardo DeCaprio
and Clare Dane, was a huge hit, especially with young people.
But Branagh's Hamlet is by far the most ambitious.
Starring an international cast
that includes John Gielgud, Charlton Heston, Jack Lemmon, Billy
Crystal and Robin Williams, the film cost $18 million. Says Branagh:
``I hope it does well because I think it' s a good film.''
So what makes this story so special?
The revenge tragedy was a standard
plot line when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet almost 400 years ago.
The stories were very popular with audiences. They all had pretty
much the same elements: a father's murder, a son' s revenge,
a ghost. Then, four years after the death of his own son, Shakespeare
``What makes this play different
is the character of Hamlet,'' says Georgianna Ziegler, reference
librarian at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.
``The audience gets to see him struggle with his situation. In
a way, it's like watching someone go through therapy.'' If anyone
can bring Hamlet to the masses, it's Branagh. Confident and charismatic,
his films are bold and alive.
``People have this image of me
as someone who walks around in tights, quoting the Bard, but
as you can see, it's not true,'' says Branagh.
The actor says this line - which
he has repeated in several interviews - and laughs as if saying
it for the first time.
Branagh holds a Marlboro in one
hand and reaches for another as soon as he is done. He is casual
and friendly, dressed in gray slacks and a loose shirt. He is
as far from the stiff Shakespearean actor stereotype as you can
He points to the window.
``Whenever I come here, I expect
to see Dirty Harry coming down the street,'' says Branagh, talking
about the Clint Eastwood film.
Branagh loved going to the movies
as a child growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland. But his first
love is the stage. And the first play he fell in love with was
Hamlet. Branagh was 15 years old when saw his first production
of Hamlet. Derek Jackobi (who plays Claudius in Branagh's Hamlet)
starred as the young prince. Branagh says he did not understand
everything that was going on in the play. ``But I was overwhelmed.
That day changed my life.''
Shortly after that, Branagh,
who grew up in a working class family, began acting. Soon he
was the toast of London. At the age of 27, he was nominated for
an Oscar for acting and directing Henry V. A few years later,
he and his then-wife Emma Thompson starred in Much Ado About
Nothing. Branagh says he wanted to make Hamlet immediately after
Henry V but heard that the Franco Zefferelli version starring
Mel Gibson was to be released. ``I decided to put it off for
a while and try other things.''
One of those other things was
the much-maligned, $60 million Frankenstein. The negative critical
reaction to that movie stunned Branagh. ``I take full responsibility
for that film,'' says Branagh, choosing his words carefully.
``I think in time, it will be considered a better movie.''
He started work on Hamlet after
that setback and the collapse of his highly publicized marriage.
He is older, wiser. He has known pain. ``Yes, absolutely, these
past few years have been hard, and they've made me approach the
character of Hamlet differently than I did when I played him
on the stage.''
Branagh starred in several stage
productions of the play, and every time he came to the speech,
the one every child learns in school, the same thing always happened.
Audience members would recite the lines with him.
``To be or not to be,'' Branagh
would begin, tuning out the murmur in the audience. He laughs
at it now. ``I never minded, actually, except one time when there
was this man sitting up front who was very loud,'' says Branagh.
``A real Shakespeare fan, I guess.''
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