Shakespeare's Human Hamlet

South China Morning Post, August 23 1997
by Fionnuala Halligan

It's "very early in the morning", says Kenneth Branagh - actually it is midday - and the 36-year-old actor-director-producer needs a constant stream of cigarettes and espressos to get into full throttle.

When he does, you almost preferred the half-awake version. Branagh talks at a rate of knots, ideas falling over tangents tripping across sub-plots. Most of his enthusiasm is reserved for the Bard and all that pertains to him.

He talks so vividly about Hamlet, Henry V and all the other flawed kings of 400-year-old plays that, by interview's end, you're ready to hail a taxi and direct the driver to the video shop, fired with visions of a weekend comparing film adaptations of Shakespeare.

It is a far cry from the night before, when a screening of Branagh's full -length version of Hamlet felt - well, it felt exactly like the four-hours -plus that it is. Beautiful, fresh, sumptuous, and long. Kenneth Branagh has said: "My definition of success is control." And he translated that control into an all-out, successful effort to persuade Castle Rock Entertainment to stump up US$ 18 million (HK$ 140 million) to produce the lengthiest Hamlet yet committed to film.

Branagh consented to cut the finished version in half, but agreed to release it only in territories where an agreement had been secured to screen the full -length version first. Which would explain Hamlet, with Branagh playing the doomed Princeling, Julie Christie as Gertrude, Kate Winslet as Ophelia and a raft of other unexpected appearances - including Billy Crystal as First Gravedigger, Charlton Heston as the Player King and Jack Lemmon as Marcellus - has not made it to the big screen in Hong Kong.

Still, with video release well under way, Branagh's mission is complete - to present viewers with a human Hamlet, a struggle that took him two years. "This has taken so much out of me, it's been such huge aggro, that my system is in shutdown," he says. "I haven't the energy to do anything else except be an actor now."

To that purpose, he has taken the lead role in Robert Altman's adaptation of yet another John Grisham novel, The Gingerbread Man, to be released this autumn.

"There's a boxing analogy," he says, "that a great boxer may have seven great fights in him. He can fight in 50, but there are only seven in which he can give his all. You can't play Hamlet all the time. Every film you do can't be on the scale of this, you'd be dead. You put the same amount of effort into them all, but big and ambitious hurts in the end.

"I want to do something less important now. It's been enjoyable to act and not run the military campaign that directing a film is - the crisis management of stopping all the forces that will be attacking your vision from the moment you say yes. Weather, sets, tears, anger, shut up!"

Kenneth Branagh is allegedly a "luvvie": having elevated him to the status of great hope of British theatre and film-making at the age of 27 (when the Oscar -nominated Henry V was released), the tabloid press almost immediately tore him down, disparaging his theatrical bent, his marriage (now ended) to another great "luvvie", Emma Thompson, his failure to ascend to the top of the Hollywood food chain with the disastrous release of his big-studio picture, Frankenstein.

Admittedly, he was precocious. Not everyone joins the Royal Shakespeare Company at the age of 23, plays Henry V, and leaves to set up his or her own theatre company called Renaissance because the RSC is "too large and impersonal".

Nor do many have the nerve to publish their own autobiographies at the age of 29 (he did it to raise funds for Renaissance, he says). Or the gall to cast Keanu Reeves and other Hollywood hipsters as Shakespearean leads. The rather snooty consensus was that Belfast-born Kenneth Branagh had gone a little too far.

Kenneth Branagh is older and wiser now: one suspects the failure of Frankenstein, which he directed and starred in at the age of 34, has calmed him down a little.

"The sport was to find the new (Laurence) Olivier," he says of the heady days following the release of Henry V. "I didn't make the comparisons. It's meaningless. There's nothing to compare. We're different animals. The man is just in an unassailable position as a very great artist. But you can't control what's said about you.

"If you have an extraordinary degree of totally unexpected success, as I did, you spend a long time afterwards trying to calm down - and learning to feel that I have a right to direct films if I have an audience. But I was more crucially aware than anyone that you don't arrive fully formed at the age of 27 as a film director or an expert in Shakespeare or anything.

"Internally it was an uncomfortable situation to be quite frankly over -praised, given I'd done one movie. It was not a track record that supported the expectations which were placed upon me.

"And in the end, I think, internally - which is all you've got to worry about, you have to live with yourself - I've done pretty well not to go completely mad. I'm trying to be as natural as I can be. Now I don't feel so uncomfortable about a great deal of attention because at least there's a track record of work.

"I've made mistakes, of course, endless mistakes. But I don't think anyone can tell you how to deal with the 90s version of public scrutiny. The difficult thing is to get it in perspective. Does it hurt you when people say horrible things? It does, but it's not really important.

"Whenever I get attacked in a newspaper I read another page of that same newspaper where there's a real problem. The danger of this massive over -exposure when you're young is that you're not in a position to get a perspective about its actual true meaning. It doesn't remove the possibilities of having a life, a normal life."

Tabloid-wise, Branagh-watching hit its zenith when he separated from Oscar -night staple Emma Thompson in October 1995 (they had met when she joined the Renaissance Theatre Company).

It wasn't pretty. She had been linked to her Sense and Sensibility co-star Greg Wise (they are still together), while he had allegedly been carrying on with Frankenstein co-star Helena Bonham Carter (they now live together). Thompson made a crack about Branagh's sperm being on crutches; he said she had taken Oscar to bed. Since then, Branagh has cooled off: he was working heart and soul on Hamlet, and when it secured only one Oscar nomination this year (oddly enough for Best Screenplay), the press heat was on hold.

Since filming The Gingerbread Man, he has signed to co-star with Bonham Carter in The Theory of Flight (she has motor neurone disease, he looks after and falls in love with her), and to appear in Shakespeare's Sister, and has accepted a role in the next Woody Allen feature, as yet untitled, with Winona Ryder.

"I've made seven films, three are contemporary, yet you'd think I'd never made contemporary films. That's part of what happens when you go for Shakespeare. It would be terribly limiting if that was the case. I'd always be pulling on a pair of tights. But I like seeing actors in roles you wouldn't expect them to do."

As a director, Branagh has been heavily criticised for his casting - from Reeves in Much Ado about Nothing to Lemmon in Hamlet. "It is a risk," he admits. "I got on the phone with most of them. People are usually flattered to be asked to be in a Shakespeare, frightened - sometimes so frightened they don't want to do it. Sometimes the audience feels they bring too much of their star baggage with them. And that could be a distraction.

"But I assume that most actors can do anything, and if they engage the audience you can just forget. There's always an implicit notion that there's a right way to do Shakespeare - and the right way should be a dreary version with English actors - and seeing it is like going to church: if it isn't boring, it isn't Shakespeare.

"But the play is still there. These purists . . . were they there in 1600 when the play was produced? It's only a movie."

Branagh's Hamlet is set vaguely in the 19th century. The present day would have been impossible, he says: "You run into problems with things like telephones. One of Hamlet's biggest issues is that he never talks to his mother until it's too late.

"If he'd grabbed her at the beginning and said: 'Why the f*** are you marrying my uncle? the whole play might not have happened. He might have rung her up, sent her a fax, e-mailed her. "Dear Mum, re your recent marriage, I am cross . . ."

But, seriously, folks, Branagh's Hamlet is different. "It was important to me to create a world which was not just gloomy and Gothic and full of castles and shadows, because that's been done, and it isn't necessarily true to the play, in my point of view. It's much more about life and colour and it's full of excitement, and sexiness and glamour.

"The problems of the characters aren't happening because they're naturally disposed to being melancholy or depressed, but we meet them in unusual circumstances. In terms of financing the film, I don't think I could have asked Castle Rock for (US)$ 18 million by telling them that it was going to be set in a Gothic castle and we were all going to be very sad all the time. They responded to the fact that it was going to be a new treatment."

And it was always going to be a lengthy treatment. "The play is a work of art; a great, great work of art, and it's worth doing in full. When you cut the play, it becomes something else: it either becomes a film about one man or a family drama, and in Hamlet there are a lot of other things that put it in context.

"Cumulatively, anyway, the emotional impact is much stronger. I think that there's an audience ready to see Shakespeare's plays as if they were real movies, rather than places of cultural worship, where they go in expecting to be told it's marvellous. So I felt we had an audience which would be ready to take that chance."

Hamlet is a beacon to actors. "It's the most performed piece of Shakespeare in 400 years. More words have been written about him than any other fictional character. We all see something of ourselves in Hamlet. He's a very complete human being. As an actor, you go to it because you can never really succeed with the part; you can never completely fail either. He's all the things human beings are.

"We're told he's a genius, but people find him boring and intimidating. It's a constant struggle to make it live for an audience. But if you are genuinely enthusiastic you're inspired by that challenge.

It's a struggle - to get the money, to get in the cinemas, to get the audience in - but it's worthwhile, because when people do connect it's a complete experience. He's a poet, he gets under people's skins. He gets into the soul of it.

"You work at this film for two years, so it's good if it's given you something back."

For Branagh, playing Hamlet was a personal challenge. "You're vulnerable in it," he explains. "It's an exposed part. And it's a no-win situation. As soon as you walk on, if you're blond and they've seen Hamlet as being dark, if you're not what they imagined, they have a knee-jerk reaction. So you do get frightened and it's intimidating.

"How do you make it fresh or real or different and not feel the pressure of doing 'Shakespeare's greatest hits'? But when you do Hamlet you talk about life . . ."

He pauses. "You know, Shakespeare was quite astute about all of this . . ."

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