Branagh's Passion For 'Hamlet' Still Runs Deep
Actor-Director's Full Version Of Shakespeare's Tragedy Makes Blu-Ray Debut, 26 August 2010
By Tim Lammers

It's hard to argue that there's anyone more passionate about the works of William Shakespeare than acclaimed actor and director Kenneth Branagh -- not only for his stage performances on London's West End and with his own Renaissance Theatre Company, but for his film adaptations including "Henry V," "Much Ado About Nothing" and "Love's Labour's Lost."

But standing apart from all of those works is Branagh's adaptation of "Hamlet," his 1996 cinematic opus which recently made its long-awaited debut on Blu-ray (Warner Home Video). In a recent @ The Movies interview, Branagh said the film without question is the most memorable Shakespeare adaptation he's done, and for right reason: it's the first time that The Bard's epic tragedy was filmed unabridged, and the result is a sweeping, four-hour movie masterpiece.

"I'm deeply, deeply proud of it, because of effort of it and the scope we chose to film it, which was in 65 mm, and for the film's extraordinary cast," Branagh said in a break from an editing session for his latest film, the Marvel superhero adaptation of "Thor."

Perhaps more satisfying than anything to Branagh, though, is how he met the epic challenge of presenting the complete text of Shakespeare's play that appealed to viewers on multiple levels.

"Even with something that is around four hours long, it presents Shakespeare's work as something as entertaining and a popular film, that was still wrapped up in something that, from the outside, can still seem something like high art," Branagh observed. "The success and popularity of 'Hamlet' since it was first written is testament to the fact that it can be rediscovered by each generation. But on film, to be able to do it this way -- to have the privilege of being able to do it this way -- is something of which I'm deeply proud."

Reset in the 19th century, "Hamlet" stars Branagh in the title role -- as the Prince of Denmark returns home after his father's death to learn not only that his mother, Gertrude (Julie Christie), is marrying his uncle, Claudius (Derek Jacobi); but that the royal's brother murdered the king. Embarking on an odyssey of events that includes love, disdain, drama (quite literally, with a play within the play), madness and murder, Hamlet seeks revenge against Claudius, wrapping up with a tragic end that could only come from the mind of The Bard.

Branagh has often been cited for his deft ability to make Shakespeare accessible to the masses, but when it boils down to it, the actor-director said that the work itself has always been amenable for everyone to enjoy.

"Shakespeare needs no help from me or anyone else to be made accessible and good," Branagh said, humbly. "Yet there's an inherent contradiction that not only applies to him, but to classical music, opera, dance or other art forms which some may claim contain masterpieces -- but to audiences coming to them for the first time, there needs to be a way in. There needs to be a kind of an introduction in some cases."

Branagh said he's always considered that introductory process for his Shakespeare films as a vital component of what he does.

"The way we've chosen to do our Shakespeare films is not to assume that everybody absolutely understands how and why it is considered the work of the greatest playwright in Western literature if not possibly the greatest writer of all time," Branagh explained. "You have reinvent, recreate and deliver what you believe justifies that remark, and really bearing in mind your audience and inviting them in, and trying to strike the balance between them and not putting off the people who might know the play backwards. I think the reason that works of great art are the joy that they are, is that they sort of inherently refresh themselves and they can be rediscovered."

Branagh said his obligation to the audiences of "Hamlet" was to try and make them feel like itís the first time it's ever been seen or done -- and that's a pretty big thing considering the limitless reach in the medium it's presented in.

"The way it's able to be available on Blu-ray and DVD now, that's big excitement," beamed Branagh. "Considering the numbers of people that can be reached -- the numbers of people who have a chance to see a full-length version of this play that they simply would not have been able to under any other circumstances -- is something very important that I'm thrilled to be a part of."

While Branagh's "Hamlet" is complimented by a foreboding atmosphere, dazzling sets, visual sense of wonder and an all-star cast including Jacobi (who played Hamlet in a version of the play Branagh saw at age 15), Christie and Kate Winslet as Hamlet's torn lover, Ophelia (not to mention Jack Lemmon, Charlton Heston, Billy Crystal and Robin Williams in small, but pivotal supporting roles), Branagh well realizes that the success of the film is hinged upon Shakespeare's indelible words.

"We felt even with our determination to make the film visually spellbinding, to fill it with great actors and try to help them produce the great performances that they are capable of, ultimately, our goal was to make all of that marriage of the elements serve, release, propel and shine, but not dominate the words themselves," Branagh said. "Those words are the secret of why, 400 years on, 'Hamlet' is still the most-performed play in the world."

A Film Meant To Be
While the selling the idea of a four-hour film to a studio is a daunting task (selling any film of any length is a daunting task), Branagh said he was surprised how quickly the deal was done. Within one day, Branagh did an "ad-hoc but passionate" phone pitch from London to Castle Rock head Martin Shafer, and in the afternoon hopped a plane to meet with Shafer, the production company's international distributors and Warner Bros. chief Alan Horn to discuss his ideas for the project.

"Once I finished my spiel at the end of the dinner, Alan said, 'It sounds as if you want to make the 'time capsule version' of 'Hamlet,' kid. The one we put in the ground for 100 years and preserve,'" Branagh recalled. "He said, 'That's how I feel about it, and yes, we should do it.'"

Branagh, of course, was energized by the enthusiasm, which he coursed throughout the veins of everybody involved in the production. The passion for Shakespeare resonated with the cast and crew, knowing full well that they had to keep the cost of the film down and that nobody was going to make a fortune doing it.

"There was great sense of mission about doing the film, and it was shared from Alan Horn and Martin Schaffer through all the cast," Branagh said. "The day before I started shooting I gathered absolutely everyone together -- caterers, cleaners, the drivers and all the technicians and actors -- and spoke about what the film meant to me and why we were doing it."

Effectively, Branagh said, doing the full version of "Hamlet" went "way, way beyond just making a picture."

"It was about trying to contribute something to the larger scheme of things that all of our children and grandchildren could be part of," Branagh said. "I must say, everybody was much inspired, not by me, but by the notion of it being an important thing to do. It was to do, as a quote of Shakespeare that I use often, 'A good deed in a naughty world.'"

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