Branagh Fires Up 'Hamlet'
The Lowell Sun, January 1997
by Jesse Nancye Tuttle
Mr. Branagh's opus arrives Friday
at a theater near you.
Mr. Branagh is actor-director
Kenneth Branagh. His opus is Hamlet. And the stir this epic film
is making -- all 3 hours and 58 minutes of it, not including
an intermission -- is the stuff of which movie legends are made.
Glistening and bright, instead
of dark and foreboding, Branagh's Hamlet is filmed in a spectacular,
wide-screen 70 mm format, the first British film in more than
25 years to use this process.
His internationally acclaimed
cast features notable actors from the Shakespearean stage-- Derek
Jacobi, Richard Briers, Michael Maloney, John Gielgud, John Mills,
Judi Dench, Rosemary Harris and Charlton Heston--with those who've
never done the Bard before--Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Billy
Crystal, Gerard Depardieu, Jack Lemmon and Robin Williams.
Branagh himself stars as Hamlet,
a blonde, sexy, passionate Renaissance man in his version of
what most consider Shakespeare's greatest work.
"Hamlet is a Renaissance
man, a soldier, a scholar, with princely duties. His father is
dead, his mother has remarried his uncle less than a month after
the death. Denmark is on the edge of war with Norway," said
"But I don't think Hamlet
is mad. What propels him is his curiosity. He's passionate, excitable.
His humor is cruel at times, and he can be vicious and nasty,
yet he never loses control," he added.
The director-star, charming,
smart and boyish-looking at 36, sported a beard and his natural,
reddish brown hair, as he held court with the press at the Back
Bay Hilton in Boston a couple of months ago. He'd taken time
off from filming Shakespeare's Sister, being shot locally with
William Hurt and Madeleine Stowe, to discuss Hamlet. "You
must be exhausted. I've been here a day and a half already,"
he joked, alluding to the epic length of the film.
Branagh sought to make a different
Hamlet than the other five versions that have been filmed since
"I wanted to present a glamorous,
opulent, sexy world. It's 19th century Europe, with elements
from Russia and imperial Austria. It was a time of royal scandal
and not unlike our own obsession with the royals. We all want
to know what is going on behind closed doors. And that's what
I tried to convey," he said.
To make the film more audience-friendly,
Branagh heightened sexual tension between Hamlet and Ophelia
in flashback scenes.
"Did Hamlet and Ophelia
sleep together? I think so--and that fact helps give more tenderness
to their scenes and support her madness, since her father is
killed by the same man she's slept with," said Branagh.
He also downplayed the incest
between Hamlet and his mother which other versions imply.
"I don't think Hamlet's
a mommy's's boy. He's just being wonderfully, irrationally human
and harbors great resentment that she is having sex with his
uncle," he said.
Branagh saw his first Hamlet
in 1976 when he was 15, with Derek Jacobi--his Claudius in this
film--playing the title role.
"I was struck by how exciting,
sexy, dangerous and violent it was. Seeing Derek in Hamlet was
the turning point for me. From that moment, I knew I wanted to
play the role," he said.
And he has, some 200 to 300 times
now, in his estimation.
"I find that my performance
has changed, not only because I'm more familiar with the part
but because I hope I've matured a little myself," he said.
"When Derek directed me in 1988, I was a pretty hectic Hamlet.
Now I think my performance has deepened as I've gotten a little
older and hopefully a little wiser."
Age-wise, Branagh got in "just
under the wire" playing the title role.
'Hamlet is a young man's play
-- the center of all Shakespeare's work. IF I hadn't made the
film by age 35, I wouldn't have done it. In your roaring 20s,
everything seems limitless. But when you reach your 30s, time
ticks away. And after 35, you have to get on with things, and
it grips you," he said.
Filming an uncut version was
important for Branagh. He completed the epic in ten weeks, bringing
it in on budget a relatively modest $18 million, with nothing
but accolades from his cast.
"our aim wasn't to make
a long film, but an entertaining one, the way it should be made.
By filming the entire play, you have Shakespeare's complete entertainment,"
Branagh realized he could attract
larger audiences by using modern English. But he didn't want
"Hamlet should be done this
way. My drive was to offer it to people who want to understand
it, and my challenge is to make the story and poetry work. The
sound of the word is a pleasure in and of itself. It's a rewarding
experience," he said.
And edited version is planned
for a March release. But the full version is worth seeing to
savor the textured performances from the star-studded cast and
enjoy the brilliant cinematography.
In his casting, Branagh seeks
actors he admires.
"I like to cast actors I
admire who are talented, even if they've been seen before a hundred
times on film or a trillion times on stage. This production is
cast color-blind, nationality-blind, accent-blind," he said.
But there were challenges.
"Derek came in terrified
of doing the movie, Julie had never done Shakespeare. The entire
cast was festooned with one kind of paranoia or another,"
On the other hand, "there
was a great camaraderie. Gielgud and Mills were complete gossip
machines. Robin was bold, funny and foppish. Billy came in real
and not doing a comic act. All the Brits and Americans we cast
who hadn't done Shakespeare bring a refreshing energy to the
And refreshingly energetic is
how Mr. Branagh's opus Hamlet plays out, despite its epic length.
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