From Classics to Gothic: Branagh Turns to Frankenstein
Boston Herald, October 30 1994
by James Verniere
NEW YORK - With "Mary Shelley's
Frankenstein," Irish actor-director Kenneth Branagh leaps
from the classics to the gothics.
Acclaimed for his big-screen
versions of "Henry V" (1989) and "Much Ado About
Nothing" (1993), Branagh, who was born in Belfast of Protestant
descent, has bypassed the Bard this go-round to direct and co-star
with Robert De Niro in the Francis Ford Coppola-produced gothic
thriller (opening Friday).
What led him to make another
version of this oft-made tale of a scientist who dares to imitate
God and of the creature he creates?
"I wanted to do it again
because our world has changed so much," says Branagh, 34,
as he relaxes on a sofa in a Manhattan hotel suite. "We
come at the story in a different way. The possibility of creating
life is so much closer now. Everything about the story becomes
much more urgent and emotional.
"And I thought if we could
capture an operatic quality in the creation sequences, you could
suggest the exhilaration of those guys who split the atom and
agreed years later that the excitement probably blinded them
to the consequences."
In some ways, Branagh's $40 million
version transforms the House of Frankenstein into the House of
Atreus. Branagh's Victor Frankenstein is a Faustian-romantic
hero, a Lord Byron of the test tube.
His monster (De Niro) is no shambling
hulk. He's a Miltonic anti-hero, an arch-fiend who turns on his
maker. In many ways, the Branagh version is also a dark fairy
tale about the horrors of childbirth.
"I think that's all Mary
Shelley," he says. "Her own mother died in some agony
nine days after her birth. She was abolutely haunted by the death
of several of her own children in childbirth. Giving birth was
always much messier, much more dangerous and frightening then,
and she was a woman of a morbid imagination, incredibly well-read
in classical literature.
"For me, the script has
the texture of the book and of Shelley's own life. It made those
things grand and gothic and Shakespearean, not to make great
claims for it."
How did he get De Niro for the
role made famous by Boris Karloff?
"He was first choice as
far as I was concerned. I was looking for somebody who could
be truthful and frightening, and who would take a risk and come
up with a different point of view."
What was it like to wrestle with
De Niro in the nude in the film's creation scene? "The diffculty
there," laughs Branagh, "was instead of amniotic fluid,
we had a ton of K-Y Jelly, and a lot of rubber eels that tended
to slap around. Bob, who had been in makeup for 12 hours, is
very effective at simple tricks to make it all more real.
"In this case, he spun around
in place until he couldn't stand, so it was like picking up a
bloody dead weight. By the end, we were laughing hysterically,
and after four takes I couldn't go on."
Of course, the passion, drive
and hubris Victor Frankenstein brings to his quest may be the
chief attribute of Branagh, who took the London theater world
by storm in the mid-'80s and was labeled "the new Olivier."
That brash, daring, go-for-broke
attitude may have given the younger Branagh the chutzpah to establish
his own theater company and to write to Laurence Olivier and
Prince Charles for advice about roles he was going to play and
to direct and star in a film of "Henry V" even though
Olivier's 1945 version was considered a classic.
Is it true he wants to do another
film version of "Hamlet," even though the Mel Gibson
version was released in 1990?
"It's swirling around inside
me," he admits. "Yesterday I was looking at an incredible
location, but I'm extremely ambivalent about it. There must be
60 film versions of 'Hamlet.' "
Perhaps more to the point for
fans of Branagh and his wife and frequent collaborator, Emma
Thompson: Would he consider teaming with her in a film version
"I have been talking to
a couple of people about making 'Macbeth,' although I would not
direct it, and I think I have to get the 'Hamlet' out of my system
first. I've got to do that sooner rather than later. We'll see.
. . . "
What new worlds will be left
for Branagh to explore? If luck, rumor and Thompson is on our
side, we may soon see Branagh try his hand at yet another genre:
playing the young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the next installment of the
"Star Wars" saga.
"I've heard nothing from
the sources about this alleged Obi-Wan Kenobi business, but I've
read the rumors, too," says the actor, whose wife is a die-hard
"And I must say I'd be inclined
to do it," he adds, producing music to the ears of "Star
Wars" fans all over the world.
Back to Articles Listing
Back to the Compendium