Couple Under Seige: Kenneth Branagh and Helena Bonham Carter
Toronto Sun, December 20 1998
by Bruce Kirkland
Helena Bonham Carter and Kenneth Branagh face up to challenges
on-screen and off
On-screen in the loopy The Theory Of Flight, a powerful sexual
charge crackles between Helena Bonham Carter and Kenneth Branagh.
It's like the creation scene
out of Branagh's ill-fated horror movie, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
In The Theory Of Flight, opening
in Toronto Christmas Day, Bonham Carter and Branagh play a couple,
albeit an unusual one because she is dying of Lou Gehrig's Disease
and he is insanely and suicidally reckless.
Bonham Carter and Branagh are
also a couple in real life, albeit a famous one suffering the
slings and arrows of outrageous gossip back in Britain. Any notion
that they were cast together because they are a couple, and any
suggestion that actors need to be lovers to portray a couple
is dismissed as, "Bollocks!" by Branagh.
"It depends on how you come
to it," Branagh says of acting couples playing couples in
movies. "If you do it because you want to do a job with
someone you're involved with, then that is the wrong way to do
"If you do it as we did
it -- on a much more ruthless artistic level (because) she wanted
to play that part and I loved the script and wanted to play a
part -- then being involved was an added bonus.
"If you have any doubts,
then don't do it. You have to be professional about it. Nothing
could be more embarrassing than somehow doing anything other
than your job. For this to be an excuse to somehow play out your
relationship, well you can't do that. This is not another area
to be blurring the distinction: 'Are we actors? Are we real?'
That's all bollocks!"
Meanwhile, as far as portraying
a supercharged couple in a movie, Branagh, an experienced writer-director
and a classically trained actor, thinks it doesn't really help
for the guy to know the girl, carnally or casually.
"I don't think there are
necessarily any specific advantages. Great things can be achieved
if you have a rapport with someone. But you can have a rapport
that is entirely intuitive with someone that you met that morning.
"It has to do with their
availablity to the character, their openness to how that mysterious
process of acting and giving and responding goes.
"I would be foolish to think
that I've got a better chance to make this relationship work
with 'Helly'. My faith in this piece started absolutely with
the script. I think there are no rules to it."
British director Paul Greenglass,
who brought unknown writer Richard Hawkins' semi-autobiographical
script to the screen, agrees with Branagh on the central issue.
"There are no rules. That's what I think."
He had reservations, especially
because he cast Bonham Carter first -- it was the most challenging
role given the physical and vocal challenges of playing a woman
with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Bonham Carter suggested
to Greenglass that Branagh was intrigued by the script.
Which meant, if the two were
not on their best behaviour, they could gang up on him during
the shoot, Greenglass admits. He thought about it. He shrugged
off his fears.
"I'll be absolutely honest,"
he Greenglass now. "It was never a factor for me during
the making of the film. You would never know." Neither Bonham
Carter nor Branagh did anything but act professionally and deliver
Branagh, in fact, was so humble
to begin with that, before being cast, he offered to come in
and audition. The director said yes, do it, and Branagh did a
The director denies it was absurd
to audition an actor of Branagh's stature and talent. "When
you are directing a film like this," Greenglass says, "nothing
concerns you so much as making the right choice."
For Bonham Carter, she worried
more about the attention the casting of them together would get
"The biggest reservation
was that people were going to talk about it, that the press --
the British press, you guys are okay -- was going to make such
a big deal."
She chuckles now. The British
press did dog them. They did their best to ignore the paparazzi
and gossip journalists. There was a bit of an escape hatch built
in because The Theory Of Flight was largely shot on location
"It ended up being -- well
-- I can only say bland nice things about it," says Bonham
Carter. "It was fairly harmonious, completely harmonious,
and I think it (being a couple) helped in their case. We chose
this not because we wanted to work together. We wanted the two
separate parts. Because we did it for the right reasons, I think
Then there is the magic of chemistry,
that sexual frisson that a couple as exuberantly together as
Bonham Carter and Branagh display together.
"I certainly think that,
if you have chemistry in life, on the whole it will translate
to the screen," says Bonham Carter, who has been with Branagh
for several years and co-starred in his Frankenstein. The exact
timing of their relationship is fuzzy because they worked together
while Branagh was still married to Emma Thompson.
Since then, both Bonham Carter
and Branagh have been very careful about guarding their private
world while publicly acknowledging the obvious, that they are
In The Theory Of Flight, they
are a couple under siege. Branagh's character meets Bonham Carter's
in a community-service program he is obliged to enter as part
of a court sentence for some public nuisance behaviour. The relationship,
which starts with barbs and bitchiness, evolves to love only
under the most extreme pressure.
"They're both like children,"
Bonham Carter says of the characters, her sexually hungry virgin
in a wheelchair, his emotionally crippled artist. "She wants
to grow up before she dies. He refuses to grow up because he's
avoiding responsibility. They both help each other grow up and
achieve a certain maturity."
Along the way, Bonham Carter
-- inspiring awe in Branagh for her thorough research and dedication
to acting what she learned -- portrays a woman with ALS without
turning her into a sappy victim. Bonham Carter's character is
caustic, profane and sexually frank.
"I was trying to stay away
from making it just about the illness," she says. "As
far as the pain and the angst go, what I loved about the script
was that it wasn't too obvious. It wasn't too sentimental or
too indulgent or too manipulative. I loved the humour in it."
THE Theory of flight File
THE COUNTRY: A British film plucked
out of the slush pile of unsolicited scripts sent to the BBC.
THE CAST: Real-life couple Helena
Bonham Carter and Kenneth Branagh co-star as the eccentric couple
in the movie.
THE STORY: Revolves around the
sexual desires of a woman with ALS, a fatal neuromuscular disease
which leads to progressive paralysis of the muscles.
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