The Film's the Thing
Daily Telegraph, December 1996
by David Gritten
David Gritten meets Kenneth
Branagh on the set of 'Hamlet' and asks: a flop or not a flop?
KENNETH Branagh bears down on
me with a jaunty stride, grinning mischievously. "So,"
he says, arms outstretched to encompass his surroundings, "do
you like my house?" I look around and admit I do; his "house,"
as he jocularly calls it, is impressive.
There's a huge state hall with
balconies around its edge, a gantry spanning its entire width,
two imposing thrones on a dais and a vast expanse of chessboard
floor. The long walls of this cavernous room are lined with mirrored
doors. It feels spacious yet indefinably threatening, for behind
these doors are smaller chambers - studies, bedrooms and salons
for clandestine intrigues and conspiracies.
Branagh has ordered the creation
of this world at Shepperton Studios for his film of Hamlet; he
directs and plays the Prince. And, if he has a spring in his
step, maybe he is relishing a freedom to make exactly the Hamlet
This means going for broke. Other
actors (Olivier, Nicol Williamson, more recently Mel Gibson)
have had a stab at Hamlet on film. But only Branagh's includes
every line written by Shakespeare, without excision of sub-plots
or minor characters. It lasts a daunting four hours, which may
represent towering ambition or overreaching folly. Or both.
Film fans have recently had a
bucketful of the Bard; Richard III with Ian McKellen flourished,
but British versions of Othello, Twelfth Night and A Midsummer
Night's Dream underwhelmed audiences and critics alike. A modern
Romeo and Juliet set in Miami perplexed US reviewers, but has
lured American teenagers like iron filings to a magnet.
Branagh, then, has his work cut
out to assure average filmgoers that his Hamlet stands apart
from this glut of big-screen Shakespeare. He has partly met his
objective by making a sumptuous-looking film for only $18 million,
financed by the Hollywood studio Castle Rock.
And last month he caused a stir
with the publication of the film's screenplay, which included
his notes on the text, aimed at clarifying the play to Castle
Rock executives. At one point, he describes the King of Denmark
as "going into Norman Schwarzkopf mode". After a gravedigger's
speech, Branagh adds the phrase: "Says Judge Ito" -
a reference to the judge in the OJ Simpson trial. And when, in
the script, the King and his courtiers are seen marching down
a corridor, Branagh observes: "It feels like a team of spin-doctors,
media advisers and security experts briefing the President on
the way to a White House press conference."
Sections of the British press
fell on this eagerly, one reporter criticising Branagh's "crass
approach". Yet anyone who has ever tried to explain a complex
dramatic idea to Hollywood executives will be more sympathetic.
Branagh has also guaranteed attention
by commandeering a stellar cast of sterling British stage actors
in key roles and international celebrities in cameos. Thus Julie
Christie as Gertrude plays Branagh's mother. Derek Jacobi is
Claudius and young star Kate Winslet Ophelia, while Branagh's
frequent cohort Richard Briers tackles scheming Polonius. Two
veteran knights round out the UK contingent: John Gielgud, 92,
is Priam in the play-within-a-play, and John Mills, 88, the ailing
Then come Hollywood's finest:
Charlton Heston (the Player King), Jack Lemmon (Marcellus), Robin
Williams (Osric) and Billy Crystal (First Gravedigger). Gérard
Depardieu also appears as a servant. "I just went for the
best actors, people I liked," Branagh says. "I wanted
to work with Depardieu for some time. I always admired Jack Lemmon.
I enjoyed working with Robin on Dead Again. I also wanted the
parts played in an original way with people who weren't bringing
the baggage of having played a role before or seen this play
a thousand times."
Branagh often evokes the past
in discussing Hamlet; the play has long obsessed him. He dredges
up a teenage memory: sitting on a sofa at home in Belfast as
his mother showed him family photos: "Out of the corner
of my eye I was watching TV. Richard Chamberlain - Dr Kildare!
- was doing Hamlet. It stuck in my mind. So it's been 20 years
True. Branagh has played Hamlet
three times on stage and once on Radio 3. Last year he wrote
and directed In the Bleak Midwinter, a film about a hapless troupe
of actors who mount a production of Hamlet in a rural church
"When people ask, 'Why do
Hamlet?', I say all the answers are contained in Bleak Midwinter,"
Branagh muses. "Those answers include: I don't know. I have
to. It's funny. It's marvellous. It's ridiculous. It's meaningful.
On the day we meet, Branagh is
directing rather than acting, but dressed so he is ready for
either: he wears a Victorian waistcoat and blouson, with jeans
Julie Christie walks slowly through
the state hall mulling over her lines, in a glamorous cream creation
with a tight waist and a bustle; outside, a group of extras waits
to burst in with Maloney as vengeful Laertes. Why a mid-19th
century setting? "The period is close enough to make you
think it's about a real family," Branagh says, "yet
distant enough for the language to be acceptable." His view
of the play is that warring factions in a powerful family affect
millions of lives: "From this domestic tragedy spring events
that change Europe's borders."
Thus production designer Tim
Harvey created a romantic Danish court with a tangible sense
of corruption, an excess of sex, food and alcohol, and a militaristic
culture. For two weeks of outdoor scenes he "dressed"
Blenheim Palace, at one point covering its grounds with fake
snow. To stress the court's grandeur Harvey joined two adjacent
soundstages. The full effect can be seen in an eight-minute tracking
shot starting in Gertrude's bedroom and advancing down a long
corridor to the resplendent state hall.
Branagh, then, wants a flamboyantly
cinematic Hamlet, not talking heads in close-up or figures on
a stage. This is clear as he sits before a monitor to watch Christie
and Jacobi run for cover as Laertes's mob breaks into the hall.
On the monitor, the camera ricochets like a pinball. On the scene's
completion Branagh says: "We're aiming here for something
natural, real, and quick."
Indeed. Hamlet is his third film
(after Othello and In the Bleak Midwinter) in swift order. Yet
he spent the previous two years on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,
which flopped. 1995 was a bad year for him; he split from his
wife Emma Thompson, and has since thrown himself into filming.
"I think he's working quickly
as a reaction to any problems he had on Frankenstein," says
Michael Maloney, a pal of Branagh for 14 years. Yet Maloney also
says Branagh likes to contemplate Shakespeare texts before committing
them to film: "This Hamlet tallies with his approach to
Henry V, which he played on stage at Stratford, thought about
for five years, then made the movie. He allows things to filter."
But Branagh's major achievement
may not reside in the qualities of one film. He has built a repertory
company of not just acting stalwarts but crew members, too. I
see construction workers in Henry V T-shirts - testament to a
long relationship with Branagh. "We've been together seven
or eight years," he says, "and all the experience we've
developed is going into this. Whatever the reception for this
film, because of the completeness of the text and its healthy
creative ambition, I think we're working on a good deed in a
Well, at a price. But Branagh
says $18 million is the minimum at which, with help (such as
actors receiving nominal pay), a decent Hamlet can be made. "Castle
Rock were brave," he says, "and they may get their
money back. They haven't interfered."
Can Hamlet be a commercial success?
It is too early to say. It has opened in only three cinemas in
large North American cities - New York, Los Angeles and Toronto.
To date, it has played to near-capacity houses, grossing an encouraging
$342,000 after 12 days. But it remains to be seen if it will
be as successful in suburbs and small towns.
The film is a gamble which may
pay off for Branagh in the future. There is a huge educational
video market in America, and the complete filmed play should
sell for years.
"We won't make $100 million,"
he says. "Luckily that's not a pressure. It's just wonderful
to feel you're doing what you ought to be doing. The first obligation
is to make this a great movie - and we're on the way to doing
that within the terms we've set."
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