A Different Dane
The Morning Call, March 28 1997
by Amy Longsdorf
The winter of Kenneth Branagh's
discontent has finally passed.
His latest movie, a spectacularly
lavish, four-hour version of "Hamlet" which netted
him a handful of Oscar nominations, helped blot out the memory
of his 1994 big-budget directorial fiasco, the critically blasted
"Mary Shelley's Frankenstein."
He even seems to have laid his
personal demons to rest. With the turmoil of his split from longtime
wife and collaborator Emma Thompson behind him, Branagh has taken
up with his "Frankenstein" co-star Helena Bonham-Carter,
with whom he now resides in London. He and Thompson aren't exactly
friends, but he says he'd "love" to work with her again.
"I learned a lot of things
about myself in the past couple of years," he says over
lunch at the Four Seasons Hotel. "All traumatic experiences
are revealing. You probably learn more from things that in the
first instance knock you sideways."
He was still reeling from his
October 1995 split from Thompson when he began production on
"Hamlet," scheduled to arrive next week at the County
Theater in Doylestown and May 11 at the 19th Street Theatre in
Allentown. As it turns out, Branagh's personal upheavals dovetailed
nicely with those of the movie's title character -- a chap trying
to figure out whether or not to avenge his father's murder.
"It's hard not to get caught
up in a play," says Branagh, 35. "It's easy to get
absorbed in the character because he's a very self-absorbed guy.
In fact, I think his level of self-absorption makes him very
recognizable to us today, especially as we plough though our
shelf full of self-discovery manuals. We are all sort of looking
into the mirror, tying to figure out how to lessen our anxieties.
It's hard to work on this play and not think about how this character's
journey rubs off on your own."
That said, Branagh's $ 18 million
"Hamlet" is no gloom-and-doom affair. Shot at the now-abandoned
Blenheim Castle in 70 mm -- though it will be presented at the
County Theater and the 19th Street Theatre in 35 mm -- "Hamlet"
bursts with color and commotion.
"There's nothing to suggest
that the court is a gothic place," says Branagh. "It's
vibrant, curious and alive. And I wanted the look of the film
to suggest that these are people who are engaged in the world
as well as being engaged in their own problems."
Branagh's Hamlet is also a departure
from the melancholy Danes served up by John Barrymore, Laurence
Olivier, Daniel Day-Lewis and Ralph Fiennes. Branagh's Hamlet
is always in motion, strutting before two-way mirrors, vigorously
descending staircases, even making mad, passionate love with
Ophelia (Kate Winslet).
"I see nothing in the play
that suggests a melancholy or introspective man," reasons
Branagh. "When Claudius gets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
to spy on Hamlet, it's because he (Hamlet) is responding out
of character. When Hamlet tells Rosencrantz what's wrong with
him, he lists five symptoms of clinical depression, which are
a result of the loss of his father and the visitation of the
ghost. Hamlet isn't normally a depressed kind of guy."
Perhaps the boldest aspect of
Branagh's strategy was his decision to mount a full-text version
of "Hamlet." While most filmed editions of the play
run two hours, Branagh decided to include every single word Shakespeare
wrote, extending the running time to three hours and 58 minutes,
not including the 10-minute intermission. (A shorter version
might air on TV and be available on video).
What's usually cut from "Hamlet"
is material dealing with the advance of Fortinbras, Hamlet's
Norwegian contemporary. In Branagh's version, Fortinbras ("Cold
Comfort Farm's" Rufus Sewell) is regularly seen approaching
the castle, threatening to attack at the first sign of weakness.
"It's very important for
Hamlet to see Fortinbras out there on the plains so that he realizes
that his own self-absorption and problems are not as important
as all that. It's like the great slap in the face you get when
you're watching TV news and you see some awful catastrophe and
you realize all your belly-aching during the day is not so important."
Other characters who seem richer
and more faceted in Branagh's four-hour edition: Polonius, Gertrude
and Ophelia. "I wanted to give every syllable possible to
Gertrude and Ophelia so their presences could be more strongly
felt. I always missed that in the theater. And poor Polonius
is usually reduced either to a Machiavellian politician or a
doddering buffoon. The cumulative effect (of all the restorations)
is to make the play more emotional. All of the characters are
much more complex in the full-text version."
Branagh extended his unconventional
approach to the movie's casting. Rather than relying on Royal
Shakespeare Company All-Stars, he enlisted the likes of Billy
Crystal, Robin Williams, Gerard Depardieu, Charlton Heston and
Jack Lemmon. Of the central players, only Derek Jacobi (as Claudius)
could be considered type-casting.
"I like to cast people who
are from different backgrounds. Usually, during the rehearsals,
they're quite nervous and eager to do well. That makes for a
good atmosphere. I wanted to cast people like Robin and Billy
because, in my mind, Shakespeare belongs to everybody. He's not
the sole province of the English.
"I also like to shake off
the English classical thing to some degree. And there's still
a ways to go. Actually, the recent 'Romeo and Juliet' went pretty
far. That was pretty bold in its casting. I thought that was
dazzling and inventive, and all of a piece. I thought it was
pretty brilliant, actually."
One of Branagh's most impressive
casting coups was landing Julie Christie to play Hamlet's mother,
Gertrude. The actress, who had virtually retired from film acting,
was Branagh's first choice for the tricky role of a woman who
re-marries only a month after the death of Hamlet's father.
"I thought she was tremendous
in 'Far From the Madding Crowd' playing a Thomas Hardy heroine,"
says Branagh. "I knew she would be the kind of screen presence
who makes this character, who's underwritten in the play, very
important to the proceedings. And I just wanted to try something
different with Gertrude."
Being different has always been
important to Branagh. When he mounted his visceral version of
"Henry V," he dared to strip the battle sequences of
their customary majesty. When he brought "Much Ado About
Nothing" to the screen, he cast it with the likes of Keanu
Reeves, Robert Sean Leonard and Michael Keaton.
For "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,"
he decided to break with the time-honored account of Dr. Frankenstein
as a mad scientist. Instead, Branagh reimagined the doctor as
a Faustian figure who believes his medical experiments will ultimately
Despite the critical brickbats
he received for "Frankenstein," Branagh looks back
on the flick fondly. "A lot of people didn't like it, but
it made $ 100 million. So what's the big deal? It was a bit bruising,
but the history of this business is that people like some things,
don't like others. You're lucky if you come out 50-50."
Don't let his good-natured attitude
fool you. The Belfast-born Branagh is so ambitious, he makes
Madonna seem like a slacker. After joining the Royal Shakespeare
Company, he promptly became the youngest member ever to play
Henry V. In between starring in such movies as "High Season,"
"A Month in the Country," "Fortunes of War,"
"Dead Again" and "Peter's Friends," Branagh
established himself as the preeminent Shakespearean actor of
By the time the then-27-year-old
Branagh made his directorial debut with the Oscar-nominated "Henry
V," he had already written an autobiography ("Beginnings"),
penned two plays and withstood countless Laurence Olivier comparisons.
Since then, Branagh has come to terms with being regularly misunderstood.
"I don't worry about it anymore," shrugs the actor,
who'll next be seen as a Catholic priest in "Shakespeare's
Sister" and as a ruthless attorney in Robert Altman's version
of the John Grisham-scripted "Gingerbread Man."
"I think people have some
misconceptions about me because of my relation to Shakespeare.
They think I'm trying to sell myself as some all-seeing, all-knowing
guru about this man's work. In fact, I'm just an enthusiast and
an interpreter of his stuff. People think I strut around in black
tights with a big, thick book under my arm. They approach me
like I'm a walking library or something. Believe me, I'm a little
funnier than that. I like to think I'm a jolly young man -- or
rather a jolly youngish man."
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