Shakespeare's Human Hamlet
South China Morning Post, August
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
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
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
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,
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
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
"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
"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."
hit its zenith when he separated from Oscar -night staple Emma
Thompson in October 1995 (they had met when she joined the Renaissance
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
"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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