Kenneth Branagh: Screen Prince
Scotland on Sunday, January 26
With a sense of symmetry that
would have been worthy of Will Shakespeare himself, destiny has
turned a neat full circle for Kenneth Branagh.
As a callow youth of 15 living
near Reading he was lured to Oxford for a performance of Hamlet
by Prospect Touring Theatre Company.
What caught his eye was a picture
of Derek Jacobi looking haunted and billed as "TV's I Claudius".
"I went because I'd seen
him on the telly, so I was expecting him to stutter. It was a
bit of shock when he didn't. There was Timothy West as Claudius
and Suzanne Bertish as a rather frisky Ophelia who shoved a crucifix
up her nether regions, drawing lots of gasps. I remember overhead
spotlights, lots of dramatic smoke, and thundering, seven-testicle
music. The only previous event where I'd seen hundreds of people
get that excited was at a football match," says Branagh.
"I went home thrilled and
elated, and wondered how the actors could possibly come down
after delivering such emotions. Now I know they'd be in the local
curry house downing 15 pints of lager and a chicken biryani."
For Branagh, 36, as he has told
anyone prepared to listen, during his formative years it fired
him with a determination to join the profession.
It seems inevitable, after playing
him three times on stage and once on radio, that he would return
to the travails of the troubled Prince of Denmark to cap his
series of Shakespearean adaptations for the cinema starting with
Henry V which drew lofty comparisons with Laurence Olivier, through
his jaunty romp Much Ado About Nothing to his thespy In the Bleak
Midwinter, about a bunch of unemployed actors trying to put on
a production of Hamlet in a village hall.
His efforts were less fraught
as you might deduce from someone who had garnered box office
kudos and clout by delivering a huge audience for Henry and Much
Even so, observers were astonished
at the scale of his achievement in persuading Castle Rock to
stump up $ 15m for his four-hour (plus intermission) Hamlet.
It took him two years to set
it all up before filming began at Shepperton and the Duke of
Marlborough's ancestral home Blenheim Palace and its environs
which were covered under 20 acres of artificial snow. Even more
remarkable was the stellar power of the assembled cast, many
in fleeting cameo roles: Gerard Depardieu as a wily Reynaldo
(servant to Richard Briers's Polonius), a bereted Billy Crystal
as a gravedigger to poor Yorick, Charlton Heston as a noble Player
King, Jack Lemmon as a bewildered Marcellus, Robin Williams as
a foppish Osric and John Gielgud lending his presence in a non-speaking
role as Priam.
Branagh's apocalyptic Hamlet,
a brilliant Scandic blonde, is flanked by Derek Jacobi's chilling
Claudius, Julie Christie's heart-rending Gertrude, and Kate Winslet's
fevered Ophelia. Jacobi had, in fact, directed Branagh's first
professional stage Hamlet in 1988.
Branagh, curled up in a capacious
armchair in jeans and a sweatshirt, says: "I wanted to continue
what we started with Much Ado - to have a truly international
cast without reference to colour, accent or nationality. The
idea was to create a bit of an event with the casting - so Jack
Lemmon's Average Joe movie persona was ideal for Marcellus. He
should be a confused guy up there on the battlements, saying:
'I don't understand this.' All the Americans were excited about
the prospect of working with English actors like Derek and Julie
who were huge lures, and they made it that much easier to bag
Branagh sensed he had reached
the point where he was steeped enough in the role to have "a
sense of freedom as an actor" which enabled him to shoulder
the directorial burden as well. "The two things seemed intertwined
although you forget just how physically exhausting it is, how
taxing on the voice it is, and how many alarmingly famous bits
there are a and so close together."
He had first attempted to make
a film of Hamlet while his stock was soaring in the wake of Henry
Then Mel Gibson jumped in first
which imposed an obvious delay. In the interim Branagh, sneaking
the odd cigarette with the hangdog air of a naughty schoolboy,
says he became convinced that the only version left to be realised
was the full-length one. It gave him time to become leaner and
fitter rather than what he described as "the short-assed,
fat-faced Irishman" of his Peter's Friends era.
"There were plenty of takers
who said if you do it at half the length and half the budget
then we will give you the money. We got on with the designs and
the location photographs and by the time Castle Rock were talked
into it, we were most of the way there," he says. His pitch
likened one of the court scenes to a White House press conference
and he suggested the Danish king went into "Norman Schwarzkopf
mode (the allied commander in the Gulf war)." "As part
of securing the final $ 2m we agreed to make a two-hour version,
possibly for screening later on cable or television."
Branagh believes it to be the
first feature completely shot on 70mm since David Lean's Ryan's
Daughter which he recalls seeing on a big screen during his Belfast
He hopes his Hamlet will be regarded
as an event-experience to be sampled and savoured on the biggest
screens possible. His preferred projection so far was on an Imax
screen in Washington's Air and Space Museum.
Whether his gamble has succeeded
remains to be proved although the portents look promising.
He has been lurking on the other
side of West 58th Street watching the crowds line up at the Paris
cinema as if he could scarcely believe his orbs.
In its two weeks of release in
North America in three cinemas in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto
it has scored a take of $ 66,000 per cinema (which compares with
averages of $ 46,000 for Evita and $ 9,700 for Tom Cruise's Jerry
Maguire in the same week). The platform approach, allowing for
a build up from word of mouth, feeds anticipation and has worked
for such films as Dances with Wolves and Schindler's List.
Branagh, more used to being baited
and bashed by the British media, has been basking in rave US
reviews such as "this gloriously intelligent, intensely
perceptive new reading of the Bard's best-known tragedy"
(LA Daily News), "Branagh displays an energy and forcefulness
that is contagious to the huge and varied cast" (Variety)
and "Branagh as star and ringmaster goes to the heart of
Hamlet and goes to admirable lengths to take his audience there
too" (New York Times). And he is a hot tip for an Oscar
He needed a boost after the drubbing
handed out to his $ 44m bomb of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and
the persistent interest in his split with Emma Thompson and his
relationship with Helena Bonham Carter which happened mid-way
through the filming of Hamlet.
He is still keeping his head
down, concentrating on sorting out his new home, near to his
parents, which his film designer Tim Harvey has helped him to
Work as a jobbing actor has been
rolling in. He has completed Shakespeare's Sister, which has
nothing to do with the Bard, with William Hurt and Madeleine
Stowe, in which he plays a priest involved in a complicated murder,
and he is about to head off to Georgia to work with Robert Altman
on an original John Grisham screenplay, The Gingerbread Man,
with Sean Young and Tom Berenger. Thereafter he would like to
slot in a return to the boards - but it would have to be a role
"someone is burning for me to do otherwise I'd just be indulging
He has managed to work Hamlet
out of his system. "There was one court scene with 350 extras,
four cameras and 100 crew and at the end of a series of meetings
it all seemed to boil down to when the extras could go to the
loo. I thought: 'But this is Hamlet, and we're talking about
Crazy.' This may not be the definitive
Hamlet, but the tights are hung up and the fluffy white shirt
is in the wardrobe never to be brought out again. It's a good
feeling. And this is the last fucking time I will act and direct
at the same time."
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