Branagh Creates 'A Very Palpable Hit'
U.S. News and World Report
January 13, 1997
For years, Hollywood had dismissed
William Shakespeare as the deadest of literature's dead white
males. But that all changed in 1989, when Kenneth Branagh unspooled
his brooding Henry V, directing himself in the title role. Since
the success of that film, he has emerged as a Pied Piper leading
moviegoers to the Bard, producing a lively Much Ado About Nothing
and playing Iago in last year's Othello. His latest effort is
Hamlet, opening nationwide this month, which he filmed without
cutting a single line. Clocking in at about four hours, it may
be the longest feature film ever released in English. (So much
for brevity being the soul of wit.)
Born to a working-class family
in Belfast, Ireland, Branagh is an unlikely missionary for the
classics. After the onset of "the Troubles" in the
late 1960s, his family moved to Reading, outside London. There,
Branagh faced his first acting test: losing his Irish accent.
Never much of a student ("It wasn't the coolest thing in
the world to be a swot [nerd]," he recalls), he passed up
a place at Manchester University to attend the Royal Academy
of Dramatic Art. "I believe in learning by doing."
As a child, he loved watching
actors like Spencer Tracy and James Cagney in old gangster movies.
"I used to wander around the back of the television to see
if they were really in there," he says. At 16, he attended
a performance of Hamlet starring Derek Jacobi. "I went because
he was playing I, Claudius on television," Branagh says.
"I didn't understand it all, but it blew me away. It was
The play has been kicking around
his consciousness ever since. For his mammoth production, he
cast Jacobi as another Claudius, Hamlet's uncle who takes both
the throne and his brother's widow. Branagh also dispensed with
the traditional gloom: The film's Elsinore is a lush, well-lit
palace. And his Hamlet is a popular lad--more frat boy than brooding
graduate student--who is thrown into uncharacteristic navel gazing
by the play's bizarre events. "Earlier in my playing days,
I felt a stronger need to label him, to say he was this or that
kind of Hamlet," says Branagh, 36, who has portrayed the
Dane four times before. "He is many, many things and I try
to let the audience work up what kind of man he is."
Presenting the play in its exhausting
entirety is another act of hubris from a man who was the Royal
Shakespeare Company's youngest Henry V (at 23) and who wrote
an autobiography at age 28. A shorter film would have excluded
subplots and characters, he argues. "When a lot of intense
set pieces are squashed together, it's harder for the audience
to absorb." But early critical acclaim says that once again,
Branagh's gamble paid off.
Around the turn of the century,
Johnston Forbes-Robertson, the greatest Hamlet of his day, started
a theatrical tradition: handing down a small red-bound copy of
the play to the finest Hamlet of each successive generation.
The volume has belonged to Michael Redgrave, Peter O'Toole and
Jacobi. As shooting on Branagh's Hamlet drew to a close, Jacobi
passed the trophy to the young man from Belfast, ushering him
into Shakespeare's pantheon.
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