Mad About Hamlet

Houston Chronicle, January 12 1997
by Louis B. Parks

Just who is losing his mind here, Hamlet or Kenneth Branagh?

In modern ''Hamlets,'' it is popular to portray the troubled Prince of Denmark as not all together, well, all together.

Hamlet, if not completely deranged, is played as borderline unbalanced: neurotic, painfully indecisive, morbidly manic-depressive.

But that's nothing. What could be crazier than trying to sell a four-hour, $ 18 million, 70mm version of what is often regarded as William Shakespeare's most challenging play to the same modern audience Hollywood considers attention-span-challenged?

A pox o' that! Branagh, cinema's current top emissary and interpreter for Shakespeare, intends to show that both he and the Dane have all their marbles.

In Branagh's sumptuous new all-star Hamlet, opening Jan. 24 at the River Oaks 3, we find a much more robust, emotionally sound Hamlet than modern audiences usually see.

""There is, culturally, an image of a man in black, holding a skull, who's deemed to be self-indulgent, navel gazing, the image of a melancholy, suicidal man,'' said Branagh, relaxing at the Houstonian after a recent preview screening of his film.

""My view is, there is nothing in the play to support that he is - outside the extraordinary circumstances of this play - predisposed to be melancholy. ''

Without taking a breath or pausing for thought, Branagh launches impressively into a long list of the play's characters, quoting what each has to say about Hamlet's qualities or mental state. By the time he comes up for air - or another puff on an ever-handy cigarette - Hamlet has been absolved of all emotional instability. Heck, he's fit to run for office.

Of course, if Branagh set his full talents as actor and director to the task, he could get Darth Vader elected emperor.

Branagh has the power to persuade, and one becomes even more impressed with this skill when meeting him in person and finding how ordinary he seems. Just a regular, pleasant, average-looking guy, currently wearing a short beard for a film role.

But this regular guy is the dynamic force behind the current, improbable commercial viability of Shakespeare on screen.

Thanks to his rousing 1988 ''Henry V'' and his pleasing 1993 ''Much Ado About Nothing,'' we have recently had a windfall of Shakespeare cinema.

But Branagh, steeped in the English theater tradition in which the role and the play are more important than the actor, doesn't seem to have any major pretensions about his work or importance.

""Without trying to be immodest about it, it is William Shakespeare who's responsible for it,'' Branagh said, undercutting his part in the Shakespeare resurgence. ""With ''Henry V'' we were lucky - right time, right place kind of thing. We've been fortunate since.

""Yeah, I'm glad if I've had something to do with it, truly I am, but I think he's moreto do with it. ''

Oddly enough, at the moment the tables seem a little turned.

Now it's Shakespeare who may be about to revive Branagh.

Branagh's flag, once waving proudly high, has slipped down the pole in the last two years. Some critics have even suggested ''Hamlet'' is a make-or-break film in his career.

THE first time most Americans noticed Branagh he seemed to come out of nowhere with the critical and commercial success of ''Henry V.''

In fact, he already had a meteoric career on stage and a successful one in British film and television.

Branagh was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Dec. 10, 1960, and was raised in Reading, England. He was 15 when he saw the famed Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi (who plays Claudius in Branagh's ''Hamlet'') play Hamlet at the Oxford New Theater.

This was, by Branagh's own oft-told account, an earthshaking moment. Then and there he decided to become an actor.

He studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and has been winning stage awards and acclaim ever since. At 23, he became the Royal Shakespeare Company's youngest Henry V.In 1988, he starred for the first time as ''Hamlet,'' in a production directed by Jacobi.

Along the way there were many, many other projects on stage and film, as producer, director or actor.

Branagh's starring performance in the film of ''Henry V,'' which he also adapted and directed, was nominated for an Oscar. He was 28.

This was followed by starring in and directing a nifty film noir thriller called ''Dead Again,'' an English upper-class ''The Big Chill'' called ''Peter's Friends'' and ''Much Ado About Nothing. ''

But then came an ambitious but rather clunky film of ''Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,'' for which he again starred and directed. It was critically lambasted - worse than it deserved. The long globe-spanning promotional tour for ''Frankenstein'' was one of his most grueling experiences.

The film has become a black mark on his rap sheet, treated now as a huge disaster. In fact, the $ 44 million film made more than $ 100 million on the world market, so it was not a commercial failure.

""By no means,'' Branagh said with a hint of a grin. ""I got some money out of that thing. ''

Branagh continued doing successful stage work, including a much-praised mid-1990s ''Hamlet'' of more than 250 performances, and he was an exciting Iago in Oliver Parker's 1995 film of Shakespeare's ''Othello. ''

But the lackluster reception last year of his small ''Midwinter's Tale,'' a film about a small group of actors trying to put on ''Hamlet'' in a small town, further tarnished Branagh's once-shiny armor.

So did, it seems, the breakup of his marriage to actress Emma Thompson, his popular co-star in several films and TV series dating back to 1987. Their public split last year seemed to reflect negatively on him - perhaps because she was then having such success with ''Sense and Sensibility. ''

""I think people are always looking for symbols of something that works in a difficult situation, be it the perils of show business or indeed the difficult situation for anyone these days of being married or in a relationship,'' Branagh said of the split. ""When they see those models not work, it's disappointing. ''

All of which has caused some to declare early that ''Hamlet'' would be either Branagh's salvation or the nail in his career coffin. Branagh has, of course, read these stories and takes them in stride.

""This seems to be a way to follow my career,'' he said, seemingly without rancor. "" 'Golden youth, slapped on back early on, gets hubristic, has mega-disaster with ''Frankenstein,'' nudges back, comes back to his familiar turf (Shakespeare). It has to be important; otherwise he's going to kill himself.'

""None of which is true. You're just making another film. Of course I care about it, but I cared just as much about ''Frankenstein. ''

""If I died tomorrow of cancer, I'd get fantastic notices. As soon as you're out of the game, there's no need to bash you.

While you're doing it, you have to accept that it's an up-and-down experience. ''

Although ''Hamlet'' has played in only a few locations, most of the reviews have been good, and audience response has been positive. ""For this film, I can feel a sigh of relief. The reaction so far makes me know that it is not going to die a horrible death. The level of its success is to be determined, but it will have an audience.

""How it will be categorized, I don't know. If we don't win 93 Oscars, then I'm sure we're an utter disaster, but the fact is I don't think that's the case. ''

IN the play, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is grieving the death of his father, the king. His father's ghost appears to him and says that he was murdered by Hamlet's uncle, Claudius, who is now the king and is married to Hamlet's mother. The ghost tells Hamlet to seek revenge.

Little wonder Hamlet seems depressed and confused. He has trouble deciding what to do next, whether or not he should seek revenge by killing his uncle. Who wouldn't debate such a thing, especially with the fate of nations hanging in the balance?

Branagh believes Hamlet is not indecisive by nature, but genuinely questioning the correct course of action.

""It's a hard thing to do,'' Branagh said. ""Imagine what it would be like to kill someone in your family. Yet Lord knows many of us have felt like it. So he's caught in a very heightened version of something we can empathize with.

""I don't want to apologize for him. He's brutal in his treatment of Ophelia (Hamlet's young sweetheart who goes mad when he abandons her and kills her father). He's unrational and unreasonable in his reaction to (his mother) Gertrude and has tremendous resistance to the idea that she should be enjoying a physical relationship with Claudius. ''

Branagh's Hamlet may behave questionably, but not insanely.

""It's certainly not neurotic,'' said Sidney Berger, producing director of the Houston Shakespeare Festival.

""Hamlet in this version is a much more direct and open character,'' said Berger. ""Branagh has made it a more epic ''Hamlet. ''

""That is a very interesting and relatively unique approach to that play. It's almost invariably done as an interior play. And while he doesn't forsake that, he gives it a much more epic nature. That's an interesting new look at that piece. ''

Berger, who has seen almost all the filmed Shakespeare, considers this one of the best film adaptations made.

""There's no question in my mind it will be regarded as one of the best versions of that play on film. It's extraordinarily good. ''

Branagh has been enamored with the play and part since he was 15.

""It's continued to fascinate me, to be elusive. It's continued to hold for me potentially the best combination of things a story can offer.

""You have all the compelling dramatic elements: madness, incest, revenge, ghosts, suicide, murder. These are all good, crowd-pleasing elements that are brilliantly put together by Shakespeare.

""Underneath it he weaves this incredible yarn so recognizable to anyone from any culture about what it's like to deal with grief for a father.

""All these elements that connect absolutely to our human experience are all wrapped up in this man's poetic genius so that the whole experience is acting on you like a great piece of music. There's magic in it. '' He has pushed for a film version since the late 1980s. As he approached midlife - he was 34 when the movie went into production - he believed he had to make the film soon if he was ever going to.

""It is a young man's play,'' he said. ""It's partly about walking into adulthood.

""In the textural evidence we get from the grave digger, Hamlet is 30 years old. ''

But should such a difficult character be tackled by a young actor?

""There are advantages both ways,'' Branagh said. ""Old enough to understand it, young enough to be as convincingly irrational as Hamlet sometimes is. ''

Branagh's earlier Hamlets, on stage and radio, were noted for being men of action, far more in control of themselves than those in most versions. He believes this new version is deeper than his previous performances.

""I would like to think that those moments where he's introspective or self-questioning are a little more realized. I worry less about playing a particular kind of Hamlet than I do about playing as extremely as possible all the contradictions in his character.

""People are sometimes keen to nail their Hamlet, to say he's a melancholy Hamlet, a neurotic Hamlet. But actors like to play Hamlet again and again because it's multifaceted. ''

HAMLET was written and produced around 1600 (scholars debate the exact year) and is based on stories dating hundreds of years earlier. Branagh sets his version somewhere in the 19th century, intentionally avoiding any specific date. He felt that time period made it more relevant to modern audiences than 1600, while avoiding the strangeness of placing it in modern times, as did the recent films of ''Romeo & Juliet'' and ''Richard III. ''

""I'm a little resistant to 20th-century Shakespeares because I find it much harder to deal with what can become anachronisms,'' he said. ""To accept the heightened language, because we don't talk that way in this century.

""(But) for me the Elizabethan world or the medieval world tells fewer stories than I wished to convey about things I felt were important. '' He preferred a ""drippingly powerful 19th-century court, the kind of thing evoked by the extended royal families of the Hapsburgs and Romanovs at a time when Europe was changing its boundaries all the time and where there were incredible scandals in royal families. Where there were illegitimate children all over the place. Where there were murders and backstage romances. ''

Branagh's involvement in the film even extended to the striking, spectacular-looking but spare sets, created by designer Tim Harvey to match Branagh's ideas.

Sure to get plenty of attention in this version are the many ""guest stars'' Branagh inserts in the film. The list includes Jack Lemmon, Richard Attenborough, Julie Christie (terrific as Gertrude), Billy Crystal, Gerard Depardieu, Charlton Heston, Robin Williams and Kate Winslet. They get bigger billing than the more established classic Shakespearean actors, such as Jacobi, Judi Dench and Michael Maloney.

Clearly it is commercial and practical casting, but Branagh offers no excuses.

""It creates something of an event to see that group of actors together. I like that. I've always liked that. I regard it as a healthy complement of styles when you bring people of different approaches together. It makes a very healthy atmosphere on set.

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