Cinemania Interview: Kenneth Branagh
Cinemania, December 1996
By Tom Keogh
Kenneth Branagh's room at Seattle's
Inn at the Market hotel has an invigorating view of vendors and
shoppers and all sorts of bustling activity at the city's open-air
Pike Place Market. Behind the street scene is a resplendent Puget
Sound, looking particularly expansive and inviting for idle gazers
on a crisp, clear winter's day. One might expect an out-of-towner
to meander a little toward Seattle's waterfront, but Branagh
is resigned to the fact that he has no time allotted for that
on this trip, just as he didn't the time before or the time before
"It's a painted backdrop,"
he says sadly of the life outside his window. It's no wonder
Branagh has no slack in his timetable. Since the last time I
talked with him in 1993, he has directed three films (Mary Shelley's
Frankenstein, A Midwinter's Tale, and the new, four-hour Hamlet),
costarred in one (Othello), narrated another (Anne Frank Remembered),
and has recently finished production on Shakespeare's Sister,
in which he stars opposite William Hurt and Madeline Stowe. If
he is alarmingly prolific, he can't be accused of cutting corners:
Hamlet is the first film production of William Shakespeare's
most famous tragedy to feature the playwright's entire, unabridged
Is there going to be a shorter
version of the film?
There will be a shorter version.
It won't be released in theaters. It will be available to countries
that won't take a four-hour film, and possibly for airlines.
Does that disappoint you?
No, it's what I agreed to when
they took the very courageous step of financing a four-hour version.
It seemed unreasonable to deny them the opportunity to show it
in countries that want the film but not as long a film. I think
to some extent there might be some interest in a shorter version
from people who've seen the long version.
Somebody made the point that
on a plane from, say, Seattle to Chicago, you'd have to circle
the airport for an hour to finish it. That's a legitimate point,
I suppose. There's no question that I set out to do the long
version, and they were kind enough to let me do it. They require
the short version, and I don't see how I could have said no.
But it's done; it's two hours and five minutes.
Doesn't that just make it
Hamlet's greatest hits again?
There's a bit of that. We've
been pretty bold with it, I must say. I don't know. What I knew
is that once the long version had the life that was it's due,
I felt released. I felt like doing another film. So it has coherence,
and for some people maybe it will work better. Not for me.
You say in your book about
the making of Hamlet that you haven't been completely satisfied
with your past performances of the role until you made this film.
I think over the years I've understood
a little more about the way the part paces itself, and I feel
a little more confident with playing all his various extremes.
The more I did it, the more I realized what a contradictory man
he was, what a contrary man, like human beings are. And I worried
far less in this one about trying to define who he was. People
like to label Hamlet: the neurotic Hamlet, the romantic Hamlet,
the lyrical Hamlet, the manic Hamlet. I think he's all of these
qualities. This time, I felt I could surrender more to the complexities
of the part. And the film suited me. On a personal level, the
process of playing Hamlet in the theater at the full-length version,
which I did three or four years ago, is exhausting. You get to
certain parts later on in the play and you wish you had more
puff, basically, especially for the bloody fight. The gravitational
weight of the performance was greater by the time I came to do
it in this film.
It seems that the film is
not so much trying to be a New Definitive Hamlet, but just Hamlet,
in a way that we haven't seen before on film.
That's what we tried to do. We
tried to give it a strong inflection, if you like, an interpretive
inflection, by getting it away from a Gothic world and putting
it in a 19th-century world of color, opulence, sexiness, and
power. That's a strong thing to do with the story, and then it
was important to actually get out of the way of the play as much
as possible. One of the things I noticed a bit more was the way
in which the magic of Shakespeare's writing works very mysteriously.
In the same way, I think audiences don't necessarily need to
understand every word that's said, but they will [intuitively]
get the gist of things and be convinced that they know what's
going on. The same goes for actors and interpreters of the play.
You have an obligation to tell a story as clearly as possible,
to assume no one has seen it before.
There are very few scenes--when
Ophelia slips a key from her mouth, for example--that go into
a cinematic dimension beyond a text-driven production.
Our work has definitely placed
a high value on the poetry itself, on the words. Within that,
the film is cinematic but definitely walking hand in hand with
the words. There were many things in the story that would have
provided for cinematic opportunities, but the film would have
run another three-quarters of an hour, and we already wanted
to include all the text. So there a decision was made. One hopes
the sense of cinema is provided by the fact that it's 70mm, so
the look of it is very different.
You can do all the things in
cinema you couldn't do on stage. For instance, getting out to
the plains to see Fortinbras. Seeing the pictures in Hamlet's
mind when he has the chance to kill Claudius but rationalizes
not killing him. Using illustrative flashbacks. When you've determined
that you're using the whole text, there's no question that you're
making a significant choice there. Which means that in terms
of sheer pictorial invention, you are limiting yourself in a
way. But that's just a personal taste thing from my point of
view, because I like the words as well.
Talk about the decision to
place the story in the 19th century.
In Europe, which was controlled
by several royal families, there were often intermarriages, bribery,
and scandal. It was a very opulent period; people looked very
sexy. It was glamorous, but underneath you could feel the corruption
and incestuousness. So that seems to me to be very true of the
play, which is in part a study of the pressure--Shakespeare often
talks about this--felt by people who are in positions of power,
privilege, and isolation and are dealing with perfectly normal
human problems like the loss of a parent. But they're under a
microscope, so those problems are intensified. So the world of
the 19th century seemed volatile enough, sexy enough, far enough
away to make it acceptable that they spoke the way they did,
yet it is close enough to us to make them seem like a recognizably
powerful royal family. The palace where we shot it suggests power,
gets us away from the Gothic element and the suggestion that
these people are all manic-depressives. They're really alive
and curious, and Hamlet's natural mood is not to be melancholy.
What about all the mirrors
in the film?
Mirrors seemed like a very resonant
idea for images in the play. This is a court which is partly
narcissistic and vain, partly paranoid. So I wanted a place that
was full of two-way mirrors and hidden doors. Mirrors are great
things, and they're often talked about in Shakespeare. Holding
a mirror up to nature is what he wishes to do with Hamlet and
to have Hamlet say. So much of this comes from my intuition about
the play. I'm credited with much more intelligence than, alas,
is the case, but I've got a strong intuition about these stories--at
least the ones I've chosen to tell. Not a definitive intuition,
but a strong one, and it's usually that that I follow. In the
end, I can't really rationalize why it had to be set in a mirrored
room, but retrospectively it helps in lots of ways.
As with Much Ado About Nothing,
you were working with very different kinds of actors on Hamlet.
We had a bunch of different actors,
which I was very keen to do. Get a group of people who sound
very different from one another. I think in life, people can
live in the same place and sound completely different. I wanted
different accents. I liked the difference in approach. I like
people coming at the story from different backgrounds. Julie
Christie, who'd never done Shakespeare and very little theater
working alongside Derek Jacobi, who'd done lots of both but not
much film. It makes them very vulnerable with each other in a
good way. We rehearsed for a couple of weeks--
Literally, just a couple of
Yeah. I mean, I spent lots of
time with people in advance of that. I came out to America for
solo sessions with Billy Crystal and [Charlton] Heston and Robin
[Williams]. But we did a whole rehearsal by candlelight in that
main hall [on the set of the palace at Elsinore]. Julie Christie
had a nervous breakdown: "Why do we have to do this?"
Well, you know, it'll tell you some things. It's not a performance,
but you'll find that doing it all in order will answer some questions
that you're asking me about but that I can't tell you because
it has to do with the experience of playing the part. So we did
that and talked about grief and death and betrayal and politics
and did silly games and tried to bond as a company. We enjoyed
the uniqueness of the project, enjoyed the pressure of feeling
that nobody has done this before and probably will not do it
again in this way. We had the whole play to say. Actors couldn't
moan about some great line being cut, as they always do. It was
a very enjoyable time, actually.
Youre currently on tour
with the movie. Have you had an opportunity to really see America?
To drive across it?
I'll tell you, if I get a chance
to make another film--although film companies never want you
to do this kind of thing--I'm literally going to drive across
America. Get out of the planes and get myself in a car and just
break up the trip so I have enough time to travel and have a
bit of a break and see more of the country from the ground up.
But I know Chicago, and I know Washington a bit well-ish now.
And Los Angeles--which isn't America, of course. I get frustrated
because I've come here [Seattle] three times now, I know some
people here; I know a bit about the theater scene here. It's
a very attractive town to me. I'm now at the point where I'm
fed up with the tantalizing glimpses of this country. I'm going
down to Savannah at the end of this month to make a film there,
and I'm very much looking forward to that.
I was just going to ask you
if you were ever going to make another film in the US.
I'm just acting in this one.
Robert Altman is directing from a John Grisham screenplay--not
from a novel--called The Gingerbread Man. It's set in Savannah.
So I've been reading a lot about the South. I just read Midnight
In the Garden of Good and Evil, which is set down there, a very
interesting book. I'm really looking forward to it, because that's
the way you get to know places is by working in them, going to
buy the milk and leading a slightly more normal life than this
One last question: Are you
going to star in the next Star Wars trilogy?
Not that I know. The rumor started
from a trading card. An Australian artist drew a picture of me
saying, wouldn't I be a good person to play the young Alec Guinness.
And poor old George Lucas has been plagued with these rumors
ever since. I gave him a ring to say, it's not us. We're not
lobbying for the part.
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