Branagh's Epic 'Hamlet': Triumph or Folly?
Chicago Tribune, January 5 1997
by Sid Smith
They are calling it a public
"Hamlet"--a brightly lit epic with a thousand soldier-extras
in the cast--and, at 4 hours and 20 minutes, they are calling
Filmed in glorious 70 mm (rare
these days), boasting a built-in intermission (ditto), "Hamlet,"
at the very least, will stand as Kenneth Branagh's everlasting
With it, the wunderkind Shakespearean
maestro of "Henry V" and "Much Ado About Nothing"
either puts up or shuts up. He knows in his bones he has reached
some sort of rubicon: He won't even say if he'll keep making
Shakespearean movies after this one.
"Who knows?" he answers.
"This is such a lifetime ambition. After 'Henry V,' the
one thing shining ahead I felt I had to do before I died or got
too old was 'Hamlet.' I don't feel that compelled about any other
Shakespearean role, at least right now. I may go in a completely
As for the result, "I'm
proud of the film. Any delivery period with a movie is nerve-wracking.
But what I've learned is that you have to be comfortable with
your own reaction when you see any movie in its complete form
for the first time, and you have to remember that a thousand
times later when other reactions come in. The rest of it is in
the lap of the gods. It's all such a lottery, isn't it?"
Branagh, interviewed while here
recently for a benefit screening for the Film Center at the School
of the Art Institute, looks tanned and trim these days, looking
much more the matinee idol of his "Henry V" days than
he did during his last visit here to promote the movie version
of "Much Ado About Nothing." A friendly conversationalist,
he remains the least intimidating Shakespearean expert imaginable,
noting affably that "Chicago absolutely has the best tea
in the states" as he sips his hotel brew.
Branagh certainly made every
effort imaginable to brew a perfect "Hamlet" the movie
(which is scheduled to open Jan. 24 in Chicago). He played the
title role three times on stage and played Laertes once (to Roger
Rees' Hamlet, no less). "Since 'Henry V,' we've had various
opportunities to make the picture, but always at a budget that
wouldn't allow for the opulence I felt it needed."
And what budget might that be?
The current release cost some
$18 million, according to Branagh, small when compared to $60
million for "Evita," but more than double the $8 million
"Henry V" price tag back in 1988.
Shot in an actual Danish castle,
Blenheim Palace, "Hamlet" boasts Hollywood celebrities
(Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Jack Lemmon and Charlton Heston),
international stars (Gerard Depardieu, Julie Christie, Rosemary
Harris), and British stalwarts (Derek Jacobi, John Mills, Judi
Dench, Richard Attenborough) in its cast. Even John Gielgud--the
greatest surviving Shakespearean from the Olivier era--gets a
silent cameo in an unusual fantasy flashback as Priam.
If nothing else, Branagh certainly
makes cinematic history: His is now the only complete "Hamlet"
ever filmed. Unlike the typically abridged versions--Olivier's
1948 version runs 2 hours, 33 minutes, for instance--Branagh
uses the complete text of the 1623 Folio edition of Shakespeare's
works, the standard early collection for scholars, and incorporates
some missing passages included in an earlier, separate edition
of the play dating from 1604.
More seems like less
Paradoxically, Branagh insists
the result should seem to play more quickly. "I've watched
the complete version in the theater, and I feel it moves quicker
and is easier to take in.
"Having seen various incomplete
versions on stage, I find what happens is that it's harder to
follow because a lot of the set pieces are artificially yoked
together. It causes a not very helpful intensity, and it's exhausting
to play. And often, because key lines are cut, actors play scenes
longer than they otherwise would. It's as if, by being allowed
to play the scenes completely, actors aren't afraid to throw
lines away, as it were, to move the text along. They don't take
artificial pauses to let the audience know some lines have been
Branagh also felt most trimmed
versions zero in on Hamlet in a drama where he is already unmistakably
a center. That can actually do the actor performing the title
role a disservice. "There are two purple patches close together,
for instance, beginning in the second scene in Act II. Hamlet
meets the (traveling) players and gives his 'rogue and peasant
slave' soliloquy. There's a scene that follows that's often cut,
but then the next contains the 'To be or not to be' soliloquy.
"When you trim that intervening
scene, you go from one of the richest speeches--one about the
art of acting, after all--to one of the most famous. The actor's
required to strike 12, as it were, with hardly a break. Playing
the scene in between, as written, gives Hamlet--and the audience--time
As much as any "Hamlet"
turns on its bravura title player, Branagh believes his approach
helps shine light on the other roles and characters, too.
One scene often cut is a brief
interchange between Polonius and his minion, Reynaldo. The scene,
the first in Act II, follows shortly after Polonius' most famous
speech, his advice "to thine own self be true" to his
son Laertes. But the latter scene reveals a more manipulative,
plotting father, one charging a spy to keep watch on his son.
Branagh believes this allows for a more complete portrait of
Polonius, often played for codgerly comedy, but in Branagh's
film, as portrayed by Richard Briers (who played Lear under Branagh's
direction for the International Theatre Festival here), he's
a cool, calculating palace conspirator.
"When you see the whole
text, the cumulative effect on some of these characters is startling,"
Branagh says. In terms of star casting, Branagh makes no apologies.
Amidst a scene involving two very British actors, Jack Lemmon
shows up, as Marcellus, in the first moments of the movie. British
and American accents side by side in old Denmark?
"A whole series of things
led to that choice," Branagh says. "First, I believe
Shakespeare belongs to everybody--he isn't just the province
of British actors. I like sending that signal right away, and
I've always used American actors, Russian actors, black actors,
you name it. Second, in order to illuminate the play, I didn't
want to undercast any role.
"Marcellus has one beautiful
passage early on for a simple man, and I wanted somebody who
could come on with that sense of ordinariness, someone whose
presence would be startling and make the audience sit up and
"Charlton Heston (as the
Player King) brings star charisma to a character who has to come
on and transform Hamlet's thinking. Crystal (as the First Gravedigger)
and Williams (as Osric) bring clear comedic gifts, but these
parts aren't necessarily funny. What I've found in casting essentially
comic actors--though in the end, acting is acting--is that they
rehearse with great humility, despite their fame. They have a
sense of not being quite appropriate, so they work hard and are
very available to direction."
As for overall interpretation,
Branagh sees "Hamlet" as the end of a family dynasty
played out in a series of extraordinary events befalling the
"Hamlet's father dealt in
arm-to-arm combat, we're told. Hamlet instead is a renaissance
man, a scholar. He believes in the rightness of revenge, and
yet the only time he commits murder, he does so in a fit of passion
(when he stabs Polonius behind the curtain). He is utterly changed
by killing someone and suffers a basic moral revulsion. Perhaps
that's why he's so empathetic to so many people.
"He's dealing with something
we all must deal with--the death of a parent--and at the same
time being told by the ghost of that parent that his uncle committed
murder. His quest throughout is for doing the right thing. Here's
a man all around him believe is capable of being a great leader,
but who is absolutely paralyzed by this extraordinary thing,
his father's ghost demanding revenge. What would you do?
"He is reacting as we would,
with total volatility. He's fallible and not always attractive.
He can be cruel, childish, petulant and viciously funny.
"But he can be generous
and full of spiritual wisdom, too, a man who learns and wants
to know what it's like to be happy. By the end, he has killed,
and he knows others will be killed for nothing. By then, his
attitude is, 'Oh, well, if it comes now or later, what does it
"Or, as Hamlet puts it to
Horatio near the end of the play, "There's a divinity that
shapes our ends/ Rough-hew them how we will."
Branagh has been coming to grips
with some unpleasant life choices himself. Not long ago his marriage
to Emma Thompson came to an end, simultaneously dissolving a
celebrated on-screen partnership ("Much Ado About Nothing"
as well as the non-Shakespearean "Dead Again").
"It's sad, of course, it's
always sad when these things happen. But we are friends, and
we will work together again sometime. That team will re-emerge."
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