Why Branagh Keeps Braving the Bard

San Francisco Chronicle, May 14 1993
by Edward Guthmann

Who's afraid of William Shakespeare? Not Kenneth Branagh: the 32-year-old, Irish-born wunderkind built his reputation on the Bard, and won double Oscar nominations, as actor and director, for his film debut in ''Henry V.''

Still, Branagh said yesterday during a visit to San Francisco, the spirit and the subject matter of ''Henry V'' are ''profoundly different'' from the buoyant, optimistic comedy of ''Much Ado About Nothing.'' The latter, Branagh's fourth feature film in as many years, closed the San Francisco International Film Festival last night, and opens an extended run today at the Bridge.

Branagh appeared at the Kabuki last night, answered questions from an adoring audience, and later stopped at a South of Market gallery -- dressed in a gray silk suit -- for the festival's closing-night party. Tonight, he'll do a similar dance when ''Much Ado'' opens the Seattle Film Festival. Then he's off to France next week for that monster of all film festivals -- Cannes.


Branagh shot ''Much Ado'' last summer in Tuscany, a region of Italy known for its sunshine, felicitous landscapes and earthy sensuality. He cast himself as Benedick, a soldier and smugly confirmed bachelor, and gave the part of Beatrice, his spicy sparring partner-in-love, to real-life wife (and recent Oscar winner) Emma Thompson. Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton and Keanu Reeves are also featured.

As soon as the company had made camp at their Tuscan villa, and taken full measure of the lush locale, they knew they were in for a grand time.

''It was impossible to respond to the circumstances without knowing how special they were,'' Branagh recalled. ''We were close to Florence and Siena and everyone would be off sight-seeing whenever they had a chance. People really soaked up the experience in a full-blooded, maybe almost desperate way.''

There's a film-world maxim -- a superstition, perhaps -- that actors and directors do their best work under stress and anguish, and usually make dogs when the company frolics and falls in love with each other.


Branagh disagrees. ''I think a happy atmosphere is the best one to work in.'' He said he also believes the company's bonhomie somehow paralleled the text. Compared to ''Henry V,'' he said, the tone of ''Much Ado'' is ''realistic, conversational, and seemed to require a performing style that was as unmannered and unrhetorical as possible. We wanted something festive and celebratory and holiday-like . . . almost a joyful hysteria, in which people laugh too much and lose control of their emotions.''

Already, Branagh's been knocked in some quarters for his antic, playful performance. Rolling Stone called him ''a ham in thrall to his plummy vocal dexterity. His Benedick is strong in flourishes, weak in feeling.''

Did he go over the top? ''Benedick's a little larger than life,'' Branagh acknowledged. ''His independence is expressed in extravagant terms, and (at times) all of that just leaps out of the film.''

To rein himself in, Branagh retained Hugh Cruttwell, his old drama-school principal, as his on-set coach. ''He's a great man, scrupulously honest -- my harshest critic. He helped a lot in gauging the tone (of the performance). It also helped that I'd played the part for nine months in repertory -- about four years earlier.''

As for acting and directing simultaneously, which he's now done four times, Branagh said he can't bear the former without relief from the latter. ''I can't say I'm ever truly enjoying directing a film. My brow is furrowed all day long from answering questions, and remembering the last shot, and thinking what I have to do next. I find it so demanding, that the acting side of it is almost my reward for all that hard work.''


Branagh smiled with quiet satisfaction at the mention of his wife's recent best-actress Oscar, given for her work in ''Howards End.'' He couldn't attend the awards ceremony in Los Angeles, he explained, because he was playing Hamlet at Stratford-upon- Avon. But he did watch the show -- telecast live via satellite -- with a group of chums.

''I got pretty tipsy. The show doesn't start until 2 or 3 a.m., and Emma won hers at about 5:15. We had the champagne out of the freezer when her name was an nounced, and were toasting her as she gave her speech. Incredibly, she managed to call within five or 10 minutes.

''We had a very excited and weepy conversation, and then a bunch of us had a champagne breakfast. I finally went to bed about 8:30 that morning. I'd been up all night.''


Branagh's next project, set to roll in late summer, is ''Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,'' yet another version of the often-filmed classic, this time drawing more directly from Shelley's 1816 novel. Branagh stars as Dr. Frankenstein, with Robert De Niro cast as the doctor's creation.

''I'm trying to call him 'the creature,' not 'the monster.' '' How different will it be from the Boris Karloff version -- or from Andy Warhol's or Mel Brooks' for that matter? ''It starts and ends in the Arctic, just like the book,'' Branagh said. ''The creature is a poet who speaks very eloquently, who quotes Milton and Coleridge.''

''There's a wonderful fable in it about parenting and parental responsibility . . . it's a gothic fairy tale, really.''

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