Kenneth Branagh Takes Longest Leap With New 'Frankenstein'

Associated Press, November 25 1994
by Bob Thomas

Kenneth Branagh always has possessed a young man's confidence in challenging popular beliefs - he proved it when he directed and starred in the film "Henry V" at age 28.

Laurence Olivier was 37 when he directed and starred in a lavish film version of "Henry V" in 1944. It became an instant classic, considered the best Shakespeare ever filmed. Most filmmakers dared not attempt the play again.

Undaunted, Branagh, who had appeared in two movies and directed none, undertook "Henry V," portraying royalty and commoners alike as a scruffy, unwashed replica of what they probably had been. The results were critical huzzahs and Academy Award nominations for best actor and best picture of 1988.

Shakespeare's tragedy is a hard enough sell in the film marketplace; with the exception of "The Taming of the Shrew," his comedies have been almost totally neglected. Yet, last year, Branagh made an all-star version of "Much Ado About Nothing" that charmed critics and did acceptable box office.

Branagh has directed two modern films: "Dead Again," a film-noir murder story, and "Peter's Friends," a kind of British "The Big Chill." Neither was well received by critics or the public.

However, the Northern Irish Branagh faced his biggest challenge with "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein." Although remade with variations ad finitum, the 1931 version directed by James Whale with Colin Clive as Frankenstein and Boris Karloff as the monster remains in every film buff's mind.

Branagh reviewed the earlier films and was not deterred.

"I was familiar with the James Whale versions (he also directed 'The Bride of Frankenstein'), which are the ones I know best of all. The (British-made) Hammer films I was quite familiar with as well, and I didn't enjoy them very much," he said in an interview.

"One of the things that's happened to the genre, I suppose, is that after the Whale films, the whole genre has been thought about as B-picture, especially the Hammer ones. I reminded myself about all these films to think about where we should go. There would be no point if our film should look like the others and sound like the others.

"I checked out all the films, including my favorite, Mel Brooks' 'Young Frankenstein.' It really is the summation of every parodic response to the story itself and to the brilliant ways it has been made in the past. Having seen that, I knew what we couldn't do."

The Karloff makeup, with its platform shoes, high dome and bolt through the neck, has long been copied and parodied. Branagh aimed to avoid comparisons with his monster, Robert De Niro.

"We wanted to have a patchwork man, someone put together with bits from other people, which is what happened in the book," Branagh said. "We talked to surgeons and other advisers about what sort of stitches would have been done then under the pressure of time that Dr. Frankenstein would have faced.

"We wanted him to be somebody who was in pain, as though he was covered with sores and cuts that even as you watched him you knew were sore.

"We also faced the problem that anybody in the story does: to make sure (the makeup) was vivid, but within it the actor could be seen and could convey his performance in a way that would touch us, so it wouldn't be too much of a mask."

Branagh, who will be 34 Dec. 10, published his autobiography, "Beginnings," at age 28. He is serious about his work, but he is also affable, his boyish Irish face often widening in a smile.

He and his Oscar-winning wife, Emma Thompson ("Howards End"), met in 1986 when both were cast in a BBC miniseries, "Fortunes of War." She has said: "I didn't know his work, but I did know that he was sort of a young lion in the British theater. It was sort of keen interest at first sight."

Interest turned to romance, and three years later they were married. Even though they have worked closely, no signs of friction have appeared. Both seem to lack the ego of such high-powered performers.

Branagh's actors adore him. Says Helena Bonham Carter, who portrays his lover and wife in "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein": "He has plenty of humor, and for actors he is ideal because he knows how delicate our confidence is. So he's incredibly tactful."

Branagh was born in Belfast. His family moved to England when he was 9. As a boy he became enamored with American movies. His all-time favorite was "The Great Escape," which had an all-star cast led by the late Steve McQueen.

"I can do scenes from it ... Donald Pleasance and James Garner stealing the airplane ... Charles Bronson in the boat with James Coburn ... a touching story that really engaged you," said Branagh.

His passion for drama brought him to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, where he dazzled everyone and walked off with the highest prize, the Bancroft Gold Medal. He immediately was cast in Julian Mitchell's play, "Another Country," then joined the Royal Shakespeare Company. His Henry V at 23 drew critic raves.

Branagh surprised the theatrical community by leaving the RSC to form his own Renaissance Theater Group. His productions were electric, similar to Orson Welles' Mercury Theater in New York in the late 1930s.

With his film, "Henry V," reviewers made allusions to Welles, who had filmed "Citizen Kane" at 25. But Branagh seems to exhibit more stability. And with a bit of Irish luck, he may have a longer, more productive career.

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