Branagh: Moving The Tale Forward

Gannett News, November 1994

Director Kenneth Branagh thinks the surge in all sorts of scientific and medical development is behind the revival of gothic storytelling.

In this year alone we have mainstream, big-budget film versions of the wolfman, the vampire, his version of "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," which opens Friday.

In notes he wrote for his film, Branagh says, "Perhaps their renewed popularity has to do with where we are at this end of the 20th century, at the dawn of a potential communications revolution that threatens our sense of identity or our sense of control. So we grasp at stories that explore life's fundamental questions. These gothic tales ... discuss what birth, life and death mean."

He adds that at a time when choosing a baby's sex, organ transplants and cloning are conceivable, "we're all going to have to think about these issues."

But Branagh sees a more basic reason for doing another version of "Frankenstein."

"It's just a good story, a fireside, stormy-night yarn," he says.

And in fashioning a new look at an old tale, Branagh had a goal. "The story is mythic. We were trying to find a way to let that dramatic resonance come through. It wasn't so much a case of imposing things on it, as it was releasing what is in the story into the imagination.

"This is an appeal to the deep-seated imagination, to the primal imagination," he adds. "It's not about what might have happened in a town in Europe in 1796."

For the Northern Irish-born Branagh, "Frankenstein" is just the latest in a career built largely on reimagining the classics. He built his reputation through his interpretations of Shakespeare on the London stage and in his well-received films, "Henry V" and "Much Ado About Nothing."

Branagh believes the ability to interpret a certain story in several different ways "is the definition of a classic." In his "Henry V," for example, his version of the Shakespeare historical play is 180 degrees away from that in the earlier Laurence Olivier film version, in mood and meaning.

Branagh credits much of his approach to his Irish background. He's the son of working class Protestants, and was born and raised in Belfast.

"My sensibilities are Celtic and romantic. There's a kind of restlessness and nervous passion that's Irish," he says. Citing the swirling cameras in "Frankenstein" and the energized ensemble work in "Much Ado," he adds, "It's feverish."

As a director, Branagh also enjoys blends of actors that might not be expected. In "Much Ado" and "Frankenstein," for example, he mixes actors from both British and American traditions. His new film stars himself and Robert De Niro, Ian Holm and Tom Hulce, Helena Bonham Carter and Aidan Quinn.

"And the idea of putting De Niro into `Frankenstein' takes him from an environment he's more familiar with - contemporary urban - and putting him into a completely different context.

"You aren't taking De Niro's talent away, but you might surprise and challenge him.

"We wanted a great actor, a brave actor, to play the creature. De Niro's unpredictable, and would always take the risk."

Branagh also tweaks audience expectations by NOT casting Emma Thompson in the female lead for the film. The Oscar-winning British actress - and Branagh's wife - has appeared in every other film Branagh has directed.

"We'd just played a couple (in `Much Ado')," he says, "And I wanted to tickle the public's perception of us. I just didn't think she was right for this role, and I don't want to get into a trap in which we always have to work together."

However, now that "Frankenstein's" delivered, Branagh is looking forward to time off with Thompson in their inauspicious North London home.

"She feels the same way about stopping for awhile. She's also done two pictures back to back, and when `Junior' (with Arnold Schwarzenegger) is released, we'll just take some time off to see if there's something we want to do.

"We'll continue to do things together, but only if it's the right thing."

Meanwhile, "Public Enemy," one of the earliest Branagh works - a play set in Belfast and staged in 1987 in London - is having its U.S. opening this month at Manhattan's Irish Arts Center.

The staging gave Branagh a chance to revise and reinterpret a piece of his own, for a change. He rewrote sections for director Nye Heron.

"Public Enemy" focuses on a young Belfast Protestant who is obsessed with the screen persona of Jimmy Cagney. But it also explores the long-standing enmity between Protestant and Catholic in Northern Ireland.

As for future projects, Branagh says, "Hamlet' seems to be swirling around in my mind. Again, it's a subject that's so dogged by too many versions. But I feel there's been a film developing in my mind that's quite distinct from any other version. I do know I want to do the whole play, which would mean a four-hour movie."

People interested in a preview of sorts can check out a 1992 BBC radio version of "Hamlet," co-directed by and starring Branagh, and recently released in the United States on cassette and CD.

There's also an original screenplay in his head, but first he's going to deal with the exhaustion of giving birth to a creature called "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein."

"Then I'll see what fills the vessel. Maybe it'll be `Hamlet' or the new screenplay or something I don't expect at all."

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