Branagh's Risky Business
USA Today, December 24, 1996
by David Stearns
How long is Kenneth Branagh's
new film version of Shakespeare' s Hamlet?
Long enough that even studio
execs are joking about it.
``Afterwards,'' quipped Castle
Rock president Martin Shafer at the New York premiere, ``we're
having an early-bird breakfast!''
Castle Rock is distributor of
this celluloid opus -- all 3 hours and 58 minutes of it, not
counting an intermission. The film is doing good business in
three theaters and rolls out to more cities in coming weeks.
Many things point to this being
a highly quixotic project: the length, the Elizabethan dialogue
(which many of his actors are speaking for the first time) and
the fact that Branagh is coming off a multimillion- dollar 1994
flop, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
Yet Shafer approved the film,
sumptuously shot in glistening 70 millimeter, with little fuss.
``It's a tough bet,'' he concedes. ``It's not for everybody.
But the best films come from a labor of love.''
Besides, there appears to be
a safety net: a 21/2-hour version waiting in the wings if the
longer version founders. Right? Not quite.
``There was always a short version
planned, but there are no plans to release it,'' says Branagh,
his easygoing manner turning determined. ``This will be the only
version that goes out. The short version is for airlines or maybe
In the past, Branagh, 36, has
been famous for getting away with the impossible. The current
wave of Shakespeare films can be traced directly to his success
with Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing. But even among more
mainstream films, a 4-hour length is difficult to sustain, not
just at the box office but in terms of storytelling.
Shafer appears unworried. He
points to the success of The Godfather, Part II; Dances With
Wolves; and The Last Emperor rather than to flops such as Heaven's
Gate and Cleopatra, adding that exhibitors want the 4-hour version.
He says they believe audiences for this film simply want all
of it, since Hamlet is one of the greatest plays ever written.
It also doesn't need to make
a lot of money: The budget was a modest $18 million.
``I can't sit that long,'' says
Barbara Gaines of Chicago's Shakespeare Repertory Theater, who
suggests a little editing. ``He (Shakespeare) overwrote. Where
two metaphors could suffice, he gives you 12.''
Robert Falls, who directed an
uncut Hamlet in Chicago in 1985, disagrees.
``We're used to seeing this work
pared down in the hands of Laurence Olivier or Mel Gibson,''
Falls says. ``There have been enough of those. Shakespeare poured
a lot into Hamlet if you take time to explore it. It's a larger
story of society. There's a political view that's larger than
Much of what's restored in the
new film version is the subplot about Fortinbras, Hamlet's Norwegian
contemporary and counterpart, who's poised to invade at the smallest
sign of weakness from the Danish royal family. Branagh loves
the idea that intimate personal problems can change the way borders
are drawn in Europe.
``Even if moments weren't working
at a fever pitch, the structure of the play makes these things
cumulatively add up,'' Branagh says. ``Everything connects in
this piece. Everything.''
One might think Branagh was hedging
his bets with luxurious cameo appearances by the likes of box-office
favorites Billy Crystal (the gravedigger) and Robin Williams
(Osric). But the film was approved before any such casting was
discussed or finalized. Branagh simply was trusted to come up
with an intriguing lineup.
One of the most fascinating flourishes
was landing Julie Christie -- virtually retired from film for
the past decade -- to play Hamlet' s mother, Gertrude, who marries
his uncle only a month after his father' s death.
Like some of the other non-Shakespeareans
in the cast, she questioned Branagh's process, which included
memorizing everything and having two weeks of rehearsals with
complete run-throughs -- by candlelight.
``She (Christie) wondered what
she'd gotten herself into,'' Branagh says. ``Gertrude is an underwritten
role. She has less to say than the first gravedigger. Yet she's
pivotal to the action onstage. I needed somebody to convey the
inner life of the character. I knew she could fill the dots.''
Far from being a crass, glitzy
purveyor of populist Shakespeare, Branagh is, in many ways, uncompromising.
After Frankenstein, he was happy to be away from mega-budget
marketing and the studio meddling that comes with a big-budget
In many ways, this Hamlet is
highly personal. So is his own performance, which is loud and
confrontational, almost too big for the screen.
Branagh defends his approach.
``Put yourself in that (Hamlet's) position: Your father has died.
Your mother is married in a month to your uncle. The ghost of
the father comes and says to avenge him. You must kill the king.
It's a huge canvas, and 4 hours of me ducking the role wouldn'
t have been appropriate.''
Similarly, the film's palace
rooms, filled with two-way mirrors and secret doors, aren't just
flashy filmmaking. Branagh uses them to fuel and explain Hamlet's
paranoia and madness.
``I said there had to be two
hidden doors in every room . . . and a feeling of excess and
unevenness,'' he says. ``There's this inability for Hamlet to
be alone. That dogs him. We tend to be interested in people in
power, and that they have perfectly normal problems but must
deal with them under a microscope.''
Branagh himself has had a taste
of life under the public microscope lately, thanks to his marital
split from Emma Thompson, announced in October 1995.
He doesn't complain about the
media, which predicted the end of the marriage long before it
happened. He doesn't point fingers or analyze who did what. He's
fatalistic: ``I think we're responsible for ourselves. I am what
I am and she is what she is. And these things are a mystery.
They're written the way they're written.
``I'd love to work with her (Thompson)
in the future. Maybe not the immediate future. But she's one
of the greatest actresses we have.' '
What does annoy him is the public
image of him as a workaholic. ``I really don't buy it. You can
be in the act of doing your work and still appreciating the cup
of coffee and a nice time with your friends.
``I've seen people try to construct
these times, cutting out six months to have quality time and
being marvelous with people. (But) it happens when it happens.
You can't control your life.''
That includes, too, his reputed
relationship with Frankenstein co-star Helena Bonham Carter.
``We see each other,'' he says
simply. ``But I'm on the road, I've been making Hamlet, and my
work has been pretty much my life.''
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