Branagh Touts 'Hamlet' as More Bard for the Buck

Boston Herald, January 19 1997
by Stephen Schaefer

Kenneth Branagh may not enter a room talking, but that's about the only time he isn't verbally engaged.

Sitting at a table in a hotel suite, the movies' much-lauded Renaissance man has the unflappable air and inner calm of an actor born to play a prince (his current Hamlet of Denmark) or a king (his Oscar-nominated "Henry V").

Only once he's asked a question does Branagh's Buddhalike repose evaporate as he launches into a lengthy, informed, exhaustively nonstop reply.

It is surely an effective way of deflecting discussion of his personal life, a topic he's avoided since his 1995 split from his Oscar-winning wife, Emma Thompson.

How can anyone squeeze in a question about Helena Bonham-Carter's status as his personal leading lady?

Then again, maybe his gale-force answers are the result of the Everest Branagh has climbed in making a "Hamlet" no one else could have dreamed of.

For $ 18 million, Branagh served as director, producer, adapter and - why not? - star of the screen's first-ever, full-length "Hamlet," which opens Friday in Boston. A "Hamlet," he points out, done as William Shakespeare intended, with all its political ramifications.

At four hours, this "Hamlet" is all nervy risk, even with a dazzling all-star cast that includes the elegant Julie Christie as love-struck Queen Gertrude, funny men Billy Crystal, Robin Williams and Jack Lemmon in featured roles and Kate Winslet as Ophelia who goes so splendidly unhinged.

"It's not about just one guy," the filmmaker says. "The better everybody else is, the better everybody else is." All that talent shot with 70-millimeter cameras that detail each crevice in the elegant castle setting and every swag and ribbon in the late-19th-century costumes.

Shakespeare, the actor-director notes, "is so much cleverer than we are. He knew what he was doing.

"I've seen 1 1-2-hour films that seem longer than this," Branagh offers.

"This 'Hamlet' is the length it's supposed to be, and if it's any good, they will come." Castle Rock, the film company Rob Reiner co-founded with his friends, gave Branagh the thumbs up (and the money) to make his "Hamlet" his way.

One Hollywood maxim on why movies are hits or failures is "Nobody knows anything," and Branagh agrees.

So why not finance this brave effort, such reasoning suggests, for it has as much a chance as being a hit as "Dead Man Walking" or "The Usual Suspects" does.

"At least it's good to go on the passionate enthusiasm of the director who has some background on this stuff," he figures.

"People have to come for the event and the uniqueness.

"For the price of a double feature - and you get to go to the loo (bathroom) in the middle (during intermission) and you get 70 mil - that's not bad for $ 8." Its epic length allows scenes regularly dropped and subsidiary characters often thought dispensable to be restored to engrossing prominence.

Most notable is the rarely seen plotting between King Claudius and Laertes to kill Hamlet in a duel - and if that fails, with a poisoned goblet of wine.

"The great joy there is Derek," says Branagh, who cast Derek Jacobi, who himself had directed Branagh onstage in his first Hamlet, as Claudius.

Jacobi played another Claudius, "I, Claudius," so memorably.

"Derek does it as if he's never done this before," an admiring Branagh says. "He's so besotted with Gertrude and the flame of love that he won't be abated.

"But at the end of the scene, the survivalist emerges as he plots to put poison in the drink as well as bait the sword."

At 36, Branagh has repeatedly demonstrated a remarkable affinity for making Shakespeare "sound" natural - and look cinematic, whether on stage or screen.

"There's a healthy casual quality to some of the dialogue," he says of his "Hamlet." "Not everything was played as art."

Branagh smiles. "I don't know if we have an original idea here, but they're originally done." What this "Hamlet" offers is a kingdom under siege from a neighboring nation, a prince much depressed over his mother Queen Gertrude's sudden re-marriage to his uncle Claudius after his father's death.

Thanks to the appearance of his father's ghost, Hamlet also believes Claudius murdered his father to become King.

No wonder Hamlet vows revenge.

"I've played Hamlet about four times. Having played a mad Hamlet early on, this time I've made him less hectic and never mad," Branagh says.

"His madness is always assumed - as quite distinct from Ophelia's."

Branagh also makes specific Hamlet's relationship with the teenage Ophelia (Winslet) by showing the two of them in flashbacks happily naked in bed.

This effectively undercuts any notion that Hamlet is, as some critics argue, really a gay guy over-obsessed with his possessive mother.

"I think it's important to know people had sex 400 years ago. That's why we're all here," Branagh says, joking.

More seriously, he continues: "People can attack or defend Shakespeare - as a communist, a humanitarian, a misogynist, you name it.

"What we wanted to do was scrub away as many cliches, partly with the casting, the length, the cinematic treatment.

"It's great piece of poetry and it's mysterious in its impact. It really engages the spirit."

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