Besotted With the Bard
Director-Actor Kenneth Branagh Has a Way With Will

The Washington Post,  22 June 2000
by Rita Kempley

"Love's Labour's Lost": Zounds, 'tis a mouthful. "It's a speech class just to say it, isn't it? We used to do it as a exercise to get people's tongues and lips warmed up. Try saying it quickly over and over," suggests Kenneth Branagh, the actor-director who has turned the Elizabethan play into a romantic '30s-style musical comedy.

"Ooh. Here's a filthy one: 'I'm not a pheasant-plucker, I'm a pheasant-plucker's son. I pluck pheasants till the pheasant-plucker comes.' Just don't say it in church," warns the plucky, Pucklike thespian.

Having asked to be interviewed alfresco, Branagh is careful to sit in the shade for fear of freckling his fair Celtic complexion. Dark glasses hide both his soul and his light gray-blue eyes from the searching sun, though on request he lifts his shades to give us a look at them there eyes.

The 39-year-old isn't so cautious, however, when it comes to his lungs. "Do you mind? It's a filthy habit," he says, pausing to light the first in a chain of Marlboro Lights. But in his silky baritone, even that stale smoker's apology sounds sincere.

Branagh has spent half a lifetime perfecting that voice and honing his craft. From time to time, he's toyed with such contemporary tales as the noir romance "Dead Again" and the failed gabfest "Peter's Friends." But most of his energies have gone into reinventing Shakespeare for just plain folks, with the emphasis on the techno-entranced generation.

His intent became clear in 1989 with his first film, "Henry V." While he remained faithful to his source, Branagh didn't just film the play, he turned the play into film. In so doing, he drew laurels from the critics and lured hoi polloi to the cineplexes. And the movie industry has been up to its cell phones in remakes of Stratford's native son ever since. It's Branagh we have to thank for everything from Ethan Hawke's high-tech "Hamlet" to "10 Things I Hate About You," a teen version of "The Taming of the Shrew." And he's delighted about that.

While American critics have been kind over the years (though they've heaved few bouquets at "Love's Labour's Lost"), their British colleagues have long labeled him "a cynical marketeer." Once again, the upstart has dared to cast American celebrities (Alicia Silverstone and Nathan Lane) alongside the realm's skilled Shakespearean actors. Heaven forfend!

"I think it's feeble, just feeble. That kind of remark is laughable," he fumes. "Mel Gibson played 'Hamlet' brilliantly and the film did well, but it did not do the business that 'Lethal Weapon' did. The films were aimed at very different audiences. What they may regard as cynical marketeering has nothing to do with it."

Though "Henry V" was embraced by peers and critics, his increasingly risky adaptations have irked snoots and purists. First, he put a starry gloss on his 1993 rendition of "Much Ado About Nothing," but that was a misdemeanor compared with his approach to "Love's Labour's Lost." He not only took a weed whacker to the play's ornate text, he replaced whole speeches with witty songs by Cole Porter, the Gershwins and Irving Berlin.

While it is one of Shakespeare's lesser efforts, Branagh finds the play very charming. "It's romantic and openhearted and fun and silly," rhapsodizes Branagh, who played the role of the King of Navarre onstage. "And Shakespeare had great compassion for the characters in this play. Although it has melancholy in it, it doesn't have the sort of overt darkness that the other comedies have. Here the melancholy has to do with whether we can really believe this honeymoon, this flash of romantic feeling, will ever really sustain itself or turn into something more lasting."

In all his years on the stage, "I've had two experiences in the theater that were uplifting and joyous," he insists. "One was that play; the other was the musical 'Lady Be Good' in drama school. I played a waiter, and I used to pop out from behind a hedge with a little tray of drinks for 'Nice Work If You Can Get It.' I had one line in a song about a hotel, but my favorite line was . . ." A moment later, he's burst into song: " 'Though adjectives are spilt more about Manhattan's Biltmore, with this hotel we all are satisfied.' Isn't that daft? But you left the theater exuberant, euphoric. It was just good for the soul."

Essentially, he's wed the two experiences to come up with this Busby Berkeleyesque Bard on Broadway.

The movie, set in 1939, tells a simple story: Boys meet girls, lose girls and may or may not get girls back when World War II breaks out in Europe. The tale centers on the King of Navarre (Alessandro Nivola) and three friends who swear to devote themselves solely to their studies for three years.

Further, they vow to fast one day a week, sleep only three hours a night and avoid the company of women. The subsequent arrival of the Princess of France (Silverstone) and her three gorgeous ladies-in-waiting sorely tests the four friends' willpower.

"It's a delight to see how silly men can become when they are overwhelmed by love," says Branagh. "It's not easy reconciling their feelings for another with their own egos. Whether historically or culturally, they feel they need to be the lead players in this love story."

The women have the upper hand and find much mirth in male hubris. "The women tease the men unmercifully, but I think you could argue that they deserve it," says Branagh. "They lie to each other, they are not direct, they want it both ways. The king comes up with a weak compromise: 'I can't let you in the palace because of the vow, but you can stay outside in tents. And I will visit you tomorrow even though I have vowed not to see women.' You might want to tease people like that."

In the movie Branagh portrays the king's fun-loving friend Berowne. "He has nicer things to say, and I wanted to say those things. I particularly wanted to say that speech 'Before in our case we go into heaven . . .' Beautiful speech about the transforming power of love. It's as simple as that, and thought I was good casting for that kind of character."

Branagh has labored and lost in love himself. His marriage to Emma Thompson ended in divorce, and his relationship with Helena Bonham Carter also flopped. Still, he insists that he is a romantic and says "Love's Labour's Lost" is dedicated to "anyone who has ever been overwhelmed by love."

Has he ever been overwhelmed by love?

"Yes, endlessly," he confesses, "When I'm in love, I write songs and things. They're not very good ones."

Want to sing one?

He demurs. "Ah, I don't want to embarrass you and myself with the lyrics. No, no, they're all along the lines of 'I love you, I really love yoooooou.' I usually go with ballads."

How about just a couple of bars?

His response: "I'm a sentimental drunk, rather than an aggressive drunk. And no, I don't have a drinking problem."

Huh? Oh, right--a couple of bars. He continues straight-faced, unaware of the misinterpretation.

"I find the world divides into sentimental or aggressive under the influence. I get softer and fuzzier. I have a few friends who shouldn't drink, because suddenly you have to put the world to rights at 3 o'clock in the morning. Finally it has to be resolved by fisticuffs. I'm a good one for talking myself out of those things. I'm a writer, not a fighter. Poor poem, that."

Is he in the mood for writing love songs at the moment?

"Um, ah . . ."

He's at a loss for words for the first time.

"It's just such a complicated subject. I'm not trying to wiggle out on you. I'm trying to answer the question. I'd say I'm happy, that can involve all sorts of things. There's love in my life, no question."

Branagh was first pierced by Cupid's arrow while still a lad in Belfast. He fell head over heels for classmate Amanda Watson. "I was about 9, and it was quite a strict school. They gave tests every week in composition and math. And according to your grade, you sat nearer or farther away from the teacher. It was a terrible way of making people who weren't good at tests feel stupid and of falsely inflating the egos of those who were," says Branagh, not a frequent resident of the first row.

"Anyway Amanda Watson and a boy called Edward Brown were always in the desk nearest the teacher. . . . I was very keen on her and she seemed very keen on him. That was that very first example of being silly. Now I would spend extra hours after school--this is when you had to walk home from school and your parents didn't worry because there wasn't a question of where you were--and hang about outside her door and hope that she would come out."

He muses a moment. "I'd go to sleep, thinking that perhaps when we grow up she can marry both of us."

Along with Amanda, Branagh lost his bearings when his father, a plumber, and his mother, a textile worker, moved the family to Reading, England, to escape the growing tension between the Protestants and the Catholics. Branagh and his brother, with their thick brogues, made easy targets for schoolyard bullies, so the 10-year-old Kenneth quickly learned to speak like a proper Brit.

"I think, retrospectively, that had a significant effect on me," he says sadly. "The sense of security, that sense of place, everything was pretty much ruptured, community-wise, family-wise, accent-wise, class-wise. We lost everything we brought with us. . . . We've actually all got closer over the years."

He fondly recalls taking his father to the Kentucky Derby a few years ago. "We won the first race. Then we lost everything. What a great day. We were mint-juleped up to our eyebrows, we were."

Branagh became hooked on acting in his last year of high school and enrolled in the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London in 1979. Within five years he was already playing the Dane in "Hamlet," which he made for the screen in 1996. "The part offers the actor anything and everything they can do, and of course it's ferociously challenging. You can be funny, passionate, sarcastic."

The play "is so perceptive about the human condition, the internal, solo condition and what it takes to be happy. We all have our various struggles with that. It was interesting to watch my neighbor's 7-year-old at a screening of 'Love's Labour's Lost.' She was rapt all the way through, coming to an experience, open-minded and openhearted, with no baggage about who Shakespeare was, the world ahead of her and a fantastic sort of innocence and a delight, responding to things in the moment.

"You see someone living in the moment and wonder what age is it and under what circumstance do they suddenly start worrying about what other people think, or how they are doing at school next to their fellows, or whether they are doing well at school or whether they are wearing the right clothes," says Branagh.

Jets roar overhead. "Say, do you want me to hold the recorder?" he asks. "It's bound to pick me up then."

He takes it and speaks into it for most of the next hour. Lighting cigarettes proves a challenge.

"I'm holding, you're working," he says, and smiles.

Despite all of his achievements, he's seemingly humble and unfailingly polite. "Here's the thing," he explains. "I have a background which, apropos of my ma and pa, has imbued the idea, perhaps in extreme ways, that one of the cardinal sins is to be pleased with yourself. And not to set to much store by money, that's another one of their axioms.

"When I was first the recipient of intense attention because of 'Henry V,' I found it difficult to deal with celebrity," he continues. "Whilst I liked the film very much and was proud to receive all the praise and attention, I spent a lot of time feeling unworthy of it because I didn't have a body of work. I've come to be a little more evenhanded. Still my basic instinct is to resist getting carried away with it. I'm able to lead a kind of relatively anonymous life."

Put Branagh, or any actor for that matter, in front of a camera and you can forget about talk of modesty. As soon as the photographer says "Cheese," we've got ham. Most folks feel silly in front of a lens, but he acts as though he's rejoined a dear old friend. Next thing you know, he's making love to it. Doesn't he ever feel humiliated?

Branagh laughs. "I've been humiliating myself all my life."

2000 The Washington Post Company

Back to Articles Listing
Back to the Compendium