To Thine Own Self Be True
Metro, December 1996
by Richard von Busack
Kenneth Branagh has directed
several celebrated film adaptations of Shakespeare's plays, but
none has reached the heights of his recent Hamlet. This magnificent
four-hour production is brisker (not to say far riskier) than
plenty of 90-minute movies on the market. Not since Orson Welles
has a director brought so much skill, intelligence and energy
to the difficult task of translating Shakespeare to the screen.
Raised a Protestant in Northern
Ireland, the young Branagh was much struck by Richard Chamberlain's
English Regency-era version of Hamlet on television in the late
1960s. This fascination began a long fascination with the play,
which he wasn't to experience live until he moved to England,
taking a two-hour train trip to see Derek Jacobi as the Dane
at the Old Vic in Bristol. (Jacobi plays Hamlet's murderous uncle,
Claudius, in Branagh's film.)
By the time Branagh was ready
to film Hamlet, he'd played the part on stage more than 200 times.
His screen version is set in late-Victorian surroundings, in
a landlocked Elsinore (the exteriors were shot at Blenheim Palace,
which belonged to Winston Churchill's family). Branagh's Hamlet
delivers the play's customary atmosphere of doom, hauntings and
betrayal, but it is still elegant, gilded and often very funny.
Branagh has cultivated an easy,
slangy style in interviews, realizing that he lives in a time
when Shakespeare is considered boring and "swotty"
(sissified), and he remains jocular about this ambitious film.
Metro: How difficult is it
to direct yourself?
Branagh: In directing a film,
you don't have any control over some crucial event occurring
during the last five minutes of the day. One's grateful for the
advantage of being able to film over a mistake, but when you
jump in and out of character eight times during the course of
a day, that's a strange way of acting.
Directing the film wasn't just
a situation of considering my performance. You start thinking
of yourself in the third person when you watch the film. Obviously,
one gets lost sometimes. The whole idea of the film is that it
isn't just about one guy. He's not a solitary man whose supposed
to be arbitrarily gloomy. Everything that happens to Hamlet in
the play is because of other people, so it's the other performances
Metro: In the complete version
of the play, Polonius is seen not as a prattler, but as a gray
eminence, the power behind the throne. Were you tempted to add
visual evidence that would prove that Polonius was in on the
murder of the king of Denmark?
Branagh: It's quite possible
Polonius is guilty. There isn't actually anything in the text
that supports it directly, but there is that line about the relationship
between the king and Polonius: "The head is not more native
to the heart / the hand more instrumental to the mouth / than
is the throne of Denmark to thy father." [King Claudius
is speaking to Polonius' son, Laertes, here.]
There's support for the idea
in the film, since in Elsinore there are secret doors and spy
holes, and Hamlet potentially suspects blackmail through Polonius'
intrusion. We certainly looked at the back story, but in the
end we decided to keep the play mysterious by not making a strong
interpretive statement, by suggesting lots of different things,
which was our way of keeping the play traditional/contemporary.
Metro: Why did you decide
to set your Hamlet in the late-Victorian era?
Branagh: I wanted to show the
story in as late a period as the speech would make sense. We
could then provide a background, an explanation of Polonius'
position as prime minister. The Victorian era was a period in
which royal families intermarried with arranged marriages, and
in making the film in this time, we could also provide an elegant
look for the women and the men. One has to consider what kind
of world to create, in this case a world of opulence and corruption.
People enjoy a vicarious thrill from the royal scandals, from
watching the human problems of people so much under the spotlight.
Metro: How would you describe
your view of the character Hamlet?
Branagh: Potentially a good man;
potentially a great king. There isn't anything in the play to
suggest that they're buried in gothic gloom or that Hamlet is
a self-indulgent sad sack. He's a soldier and scholar, a renaissance
man--all of these things.
Metro: What do you think of
Olivier's summing up of the play as a story "of a man who
couldn't make up his mind."
Branagh: I don't agree with that.
For what its worth, he does make up his mind. There's both a
deep-seated moral revulsion and a strong sense of an "eye
for the eye" in Hamlet's character.
More than once the question came
up in rehearsal--how would you kill someone in your family? You
had to choose the person you would kill and the method. The actors
got very squirmy with the idea of anything physical. They all
favored poison. So, there ya go--there's Hamlet's problem.
It sounds like I've ducked the
question. I think the play shows that he can make up his mind.
He can kill in the heat of passion, and also coldly, sending
off Rosencranz and Guildenstern to be killed. But the actual
physical process is repugnant to him. Hamlet has a most highly
developed moral sense. But, as he says, "The great can find
quarrel in a straw when honor is at stake."
Metro: You handled the physical
side of Hamlet well. Were you an athlete as a young man?
Branagh: That's the play: three
hours of dialogue and then a sword fight when you're exhausted.
I was pretty robust, never a sportsman, but I always enjoyed
being sent for the ball. When I was doing the fight scene here
between Laertes and Hamlet, I was tempted to add that bit where
the sword swishes through the candles in the candelabra and all
of the candles fall over.
Metro: Will audiences be seeing
the full-length version?
Branagh: Hamlet will play everywhere
in the long version, and whenever possible in 70mm, though the
studio is exercising its option to cut it for airplane screenings,
because otherwise the planes might have to circle the airports
for another hour.
There was much confusion attendant
on who was going to see what where, but the agreement now is
to see it in the entire length for domestic and overseas. On
screen, you can do all of the things you can't do in a theater.
On stage, you can't show a close-up of Gertrude to help out what
is essentially an underwritten part. But the great blessing of
a movie is that it will bring your performance to any place in
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