Kenneth Branagh: Hamlet's Head Man
Atlanta Journal and Constitution,
January 23, 1997
by Steve Murray
Actor-director prefers his
Bard straight up
Kenneth Branagh strikes the pose,
going nose to nose hole with the skull while a camera clicks.
The solemnity is undercut when
the photographer suggests that Branagh ---adapter, star and director
of the four-hour screen version of "Hamlet," which
opens Friday ---is holding the skull in a slightly, um, effeminate
mock-rages. "What a crushing, crushing comment. I was trying
to be so butch there."
But he adjusts his fingers and
re-creates that most famous image from Shakespeare's canon, staring
at this bony memento mori like so many actors before him: John
Barrymore, Derek Jacobi, Mel Gibson (!) and, of course, Sir Laurence
Olivier, the actor-director to whom Branagh is sometimes compared.
Branagh's film of "Hamlet"
is complete, clear and free of wiggy interpretation, including
any Freudian kink between Hamlet and his mom ("There's nothing
in the text that says he wants to go to bed with her," Branagh
says). The most he's done is to update the play to a nonspecific
19th-century period and transport Elsinore to England's snowy
The "snow" ---detergent
foam ---was a problem at first for Blenheim's owner. "The
Duke of Marlborough was very concerned about his box hedges and
the effect of artificial snow," Branagh says. "We had
to do a chemical test to make sure they wouldn't be affected
OK, so here's one viewer's quibble:
If there's snow everywhere, where did those flowers come from
for Ophelia's drowning? "Yeah, yeah, yeah," Branagh
replies, grinning. "People have asked that. This was discussed
in rehearsal. We decided they're dry flowers."
The interiors were shot on sets
at Shepperton Studios, with smooth floors to let the camera track
actors from room to room in unbroken shots. "Also, shooting
with 70 mm requires much more light: We blew a substation one
day in Shepperton," he says with the pride of a prankish
"101 Dalmatians" was
also shooting at the studio, so he saw plenty of puppies and
Glenn Close (in full Cruella couture) twice. She visited the
set and swapped tips with Julie Christie (Close played Gertrude
in the Mel Gibson version). Because of the big, eclectic cast,
Branagh says, she quipped that he'd need a film poster like "The
Towering Inferno." "Remember that?" he says. "A
big burning building with lots of little box photos of the stars."
Branagh took critical heat for
his use of American actors in "Much Ado About Nothing"
(out-of-control Michael Keaton, ever-blank Keanu Reeves), but
he took the same approach for "Hamlet," with Charlton
Heston, Billy Crystal and Robin Williams.
"Shakespeare is not just
the province of the English classical tradition," the Irish-born
actor declares. "I particularly like actors who have a strong
comedic instinct. Even in Shakespeare's tragedies, there's always
a great deal of humor."
Though Branagh says his intent
is to keep his Shakespearean films gimmick-free, he liked the
new "Romeo + Juliet." "It was a dazzling, successful
version of a very radical treatment of Shakespeare, and equally
valid," he says. "It was inventive and full of ferocious
"And in all honesty, I think
its success helps our box office."
In contrast to his weighty performances,
Branagh in person is quick to laugh, greeting a visitor to his
Atlanta hotel suite with a hand extended and a Marlboro Light
dangling from his goateed mouth. ("I don't think anybody
else smokes in America," he sighs.) He's leaner than in
his "Henry V" debut. And there's good reason for it.
"We were learning that bloody
fight at the end (of `Hamlet') for months!" he says. "We
shot it in March, but (he and Michael Maloney as Laertes) had
been rehearsing it since October. We did it all ourselves, with
the exception of two tiny shots with stunt guys."
Branagh dubs his film's finale
"the `Die-Hard' section." Soldiers smash through windows;
actors swing on ropes. Everybody dies. "It must be very
hard making that sort of film," he says. "Michael Keaton
says these (expletive) action movies drive you bananas, always
having to wait for the special effects."
There's no action flick in Branagh's
own future. Next week he starts filming "The Gingerbread
Man" in Savannah, directed by Robert Altman from an original
John Grisham screenplay. Branagh (who hopes to keep his goatee)
plays a lawyer on the wrong end of a murder charge.
And, he stresses, he will be
in Savannah alone. "The downside of fame is that it's irritating
to have your personal life so talked about or misconstrued,"
he says. His divorce from actress Emma Thompson got its share
of tabloid attention.
Right now, he says, he is seeing
someone romantically. But not really: "Am I actually seeing
anybody at this precise moment? No," he laughs. "I'm
on the road. I'm married to work.''
But not all the time. For fun,
he likes to hang out with his pals, eat and drink. And play three
chords on his guitar.
"The editors and I from
`Hamlet' formed a 59th-rate band called the Fishmongers,"
he says. "Really, one of the worst combinations of musical
nontalent ever put together. But very enjoyable for us.
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