The Film's The Thing

Independent, February 1997
by Beverley d'Silva
**thanks to Virginia Leong

Kenneth Branagh's four-hour Hamlet, released in Australia this month, has a cast list that reads like a rollcall on Oscar night. It's already a hit in the States -- but a year ago, up to his ankles in fake snow, the star and director was wondering how the hell he ever got himself into this.

16 February 1996, Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire

A drift of sugar-white snow has settled on Blenheim Palace. It sparkles on the window sills. It glistens on the giant pudding shapes in the topiary. In the foreground stand a couple in historical costume, a carriage and two black horses. This is the stuff of National Trust greeting cards -- though today there's not a tourist or a Pacamac in sight. Just cameras, cranes and a tangle of cables, as Kenneth Branagh's film of Hamlet enters week two of production.

Today, Laertes (Michael Maloney) is scheduled to give sexual counselling to Ophelia (Kate Winslet). But there's some holdup, a hiatus, which the actors fill by joking and smoking. Winslet, whose sweetheart face is framed by marmalade kiss-curls, has a Marlboro dangling from her lip, truck-driver style. She drops it onto the snow, where it leaves a large brown singe-mark. The snow's fake, of course. Two-hundred tons of white paper and chemicals, stretching as far as the eye can see. Possibly the biggest fake-snow contract since Doctor Zhivago.

Now a figure in black appears. Masculine, commanding, militaristic, with a touch of Count Vronsky, and, oddly, a soupçon of Gazza [Paul Gascoigne, the English footballer]. It's the peroxide crop and sunbed tan that does it. Kenneth Branagh has been shredded and reconstituted along matinée-idol lines. He waves his arms around in agitation. The fake snow tends to fly around in huge squalls when the wind's up, as it is today, so he cancels filming for the morning and we go to a palace anteroom to talk. Anteroom it may be, but it's magnificent by anyone's standards. "Doesn't this house make you wonder why there was never a proper revolution in England?" says Ken, who is remarkably cheerful.

The obvious question is: why film the 400-year-old revenge tragedy now, when there are already 59 versions, including at least five important Hamlets, from Olivier's Oscar-scooping, gloomy post-war noir to Zeffirelli's 1991 Mel Gibson vehicle, in the can. Branagh says he has planned and mulched his Hamlet in his mind for at least 10 years. He had mentally cast Derek Jacobi and Richard Briers as Claudius and Polonius long ago. His Hamlet would be the first film of the complete text. And Branagh's age -- he turned 36 last December -- was a factor.

If it is "the play the world could least do without" (as Anthony Burgess observed), Hamlet also boasts the Shakespearian character Branagh identifies with most. He finds the play's themes -- betrayal, revenge, hubris -- as resonant as ever. This may be Hamlet number 60, he continues, but if each new production is infected by its time, this version will be stained by our lust for celebrity and royal gossip. If Branagh's Hamlet were alive today, Hello! magazine would run a 30-page exclusive on the Prince of Denmark in the splendour of his sumptuous 18th-century family home.

"It's natural to be fascinated by people who have power over millions of people's lives," says Branagh. "You want to know what Stalin got up to in private, who Churchill slept with." He gestures to Blenheim's main wings, where Winston was born. "But we could just as easily be talking about Bill Clinton."

Before taking on the role, Branagh followed a punishing two-year fitness regime and morphed to a leaner, meaner shape with weights and diet: agony for a man who likes food, drink and "the crack". But it left him confident enough to show off his biceps, wearing little more than a vest, on television. Quite a transformation from the podgy days of Peter's Friends, when he called himself "the short-assed, fat-faced Irishman".

Ken prefers not to dwell on his new image -- or biceps. "Hamlet is a charismatic guy. The part rubs off on you. If you get into a nice tight pair of trews and have someone do your hair, apply half a ton of Max Factor... One acquires a certain charisma just by getting the job."

So far, his talk has been seamless, but something's amiss. It's as if his mouth is reading off an autocue and his brain is engaged elsewhere. Now he grows silent. A shadow crosses his profile and shuts down the light in his eyes. He says, without warning: "Fucking snow. It's so fucking awful ... It would blow in the opposite direction, wouldn't it? I walk on and see all that snow. I no longer know why I want to do this. I can't believe I am doing this. I just don't know whether it will work. What's that Woody Allen line? In filmmaking, the van of compromise comes 20 times a day. This morning, there was a whole fucking fleet on my doorstep." He crushes a cigarette into a mountain of butts, and lights another. Then another. The shadow darkens.

Hamlet, it seems, is driving Kenneth Branagh mad. The role has a habit of it. Daniel Day Lewis had a breakdown mid-run at the National Theatre in 1989; Peter O'Toole found the role to be "one long pain in the butt".

Yet every actor must try it. It is the ultimate proving ground -- "a hoop through which every actor must jump," says Ken. He has already done it in the theatre 300 times. But because this time Branagh is director and actor, he must now jump the hoop and hold it out simultaneously. "It's hideously difficult. So difficult as to be mad. Mad! This is the last time I will direct and act at the same time. Quote me on that, and throw it back in my face if I ever put myself in this position again. The last fucking time..."

In a more lucid moment pre-production, Branagh chose to shoot his film in 70mm, to achieve the panoramic sweep of Ryan's Daughter (the last British film made in the format), and to use the full text from the 1623 Folio. This, he says, permitted the fleshing out of previously "underwritten characters", such as the Norwegian general Fortinbras, and allows time for grieving in a play piled up with corpses. So Branagh's Hamlet would be epic in breadth and length: a nerve-crunching four hours, in fact.

Sensing that a four-hour trip needed some stars to light the way, Ken got out his black book and personally called half of Hollywood. "That can be terrifying to do," he says. "But I've learnt that people are just as scared of me, expecting to meet a Shakespearian swot." The resulting crack-squad of classical actors, comics and celebrities reads like an Oscar-night rollcall: Charlton Heston, Robin Williams, Jack Lemmon, Gérard Depardieu, Billy Crystal, the Sir Johns Gielgud and Mills, Julie Christie, Judi Dench. A blink-and-you'll miss-him Ken Dodd as Yorick. Plus the youngsters: Rufus Sewell, who is a satanically beautiful Fortinbras, and Ophelia, played by Kate Winslet.

Ophelia is resting in a marquee between takes, with her hair wound round green squashy curlers under a pink nylon scarf, and her legs, laced into 18-hole Doc Martens, up. Even thus, Winslet is gorgeous. Men lean towards her. (It transpires later that she had a brief, secret love affair with Sewell during filming, but the couple had split by last May.)

She says this is a part she's wanted since she was 13, and had long determined not to play it as the traditional wilting weed. "Stuff that for a game of soldiers," she says. Her Ophelia goes mad, of course, but she's not the virgin of tradition, and enjoys some beautifully sensual sex in flashback. Nudity is still difficult for Winslet (who, despite the Bafta award, the Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for her Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, is still only 21), but Ken turned it into a glorious joke. "We'd be lying there naked, and he'd say, "I'll just check the monitor. Oh no! We'll have to do it again. You can see my todger!" She adds: "He's generous, and supportive. And I just trust him."

By working on both Sense and Hamlet, Winslet connected Emma Thompson and Branagh's worlds in a way she could not have predicted. (A year ago, the couple announced their marital separation; it was a time Branagh described as "awful. Deeply sad and difficult.") "Ken and Em are friends of mine, and I'm close to them both," says Kate. "But Em was my main concern. When I started on Hamlet, I had to tell myself: okay, Ken's not a baddie. And, of course, he's not."

Bad, no. Mad, occasionally, yes. If Branagh suffers from frequent mad spells, it's because he attempts to do too many things at once. "One's brain sort of short-circuits," he admits. His constantly racing mind holds him to ransom when he should be enjoying life. "I find myself analysing something before I've had a chance to experience it." So he relaxes with "a pint or two. We don't get back from location until the early hours sometimes, but I have to unwind before bed. So I stay at the Feathers. Trick myself into thinking I'm on holiday. Nice snuggy bar. Old farty ale."

The next morning, Jack Lemmon is holed up in the study of said hotel, a mile from Blenheim. He has a roaring log fire, a plump Chesterfield and his preferred poison, coffee thick as treacle, for comfort. Life would be perfect -- if not for his lines, which he pores over like a schoolboy in detention. "No one can convince me Shakespeare didn't make up words just to upset the actors," he chuckles. He says he's modelled his role, Marcellus, "on the doorman at the Dorchester. I look exactly like him."

All the American stars brought a buzz to the set. Robin Williams (Osric) has the film crew in hysterics. Neither, he, Charlton Heston nor Lemmon came for the pay, not on Branagh's modest $18m budget. They came for the job, says Ken. "I don't think they get directed much. They all want to improve as artists. They know that with me they'll get jiggled a bit." Lemmon, 70 and a little deaf, was "jiggled" the previous night, as he and Horatio and Bernardo (Nick Farrell and Ian McElhinney) crouched in the snow, their shadows stretched Giacometti-like across the moonlit courtyard. When Jack jumped at the ghost, his hat tipped forward over his eyes like the leaning tower of Pisa. It was the fag-end of a 12-hour day. Branagh, wrapped up in his director's special puffa, directed them through a megaphone to: "Stay on guard, lads. Physically alert, but keep the pikes down."

Lemmon was surprised by the levity on the set. "Last night we must have shot a thousand feet of actors just laughing -- me most of all." The same humour is obvious in Branagh's scripted stage directions, such as these for the gravediggers:

First gravedigger: What is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright or the carpenter? (Very pleased with himself.)

Second gravedigger: The gallows-maker; for that frame outlives a thousand tenants.

First gravedigger: I like thy wit well, in good faith. (Yes, I like your wit about as much as I like eating turds)

7 March 1997, Shepperton Film Studios, Middlesex

The back of Ken's neck is smooth and tanned. I get to see it frequently, seated close behind him as we stare at the film monitors. Shepperton Studios, the site of filming Hamlet's interior sequences, is a second home to him. He is more at ease here, and is able to get a perspective on his paranoia at Blenheim.

"I didn't know what I was talking about that day. I was so tired. I mean, I started sentences which I had no idea where they'd finish. I felt pressurised to fill in some sort of colour on the film, but I hate setting up the dynamic, I hate doing those dinners where you must engage with people." He did those dinners for Much Ado About Nothing in Tuscany, when he, Emma, Keanu Reeves and Denzel Washington entertained the press under the almond blossom, one actor to a table. "If it was my money on the line, I'd demand that sort of thing. But it's not. Ha ha."

Ken sketches out actors positions and camera angles for the next scene. He's in civvies today: Levi's and Redwing boots. Among the monitor-room regulars is Hugh Cruttwell, the former principal of RADA, who auditioned Ken for the drama school. Now he endures equal parts adoration and teasing from his former student. "Why do I pay him?" Ken asks, rhetorically. "That's easy: He doesn't bullshit you."

Set designer Tim Harvey has done a great job with Elsinore's glittering interior, achieving a rich look (gilt-kissed columns, eagles and cupids, chessboard floor and 30 mirrored doors) on little money. Ken strides through the hall mapping out his vision. "I want to convey the grandness of a president sweeping through the White House. The idea that these people are at the heart of the nation." He spots Derek Jacobi and points out his new flat-top haircut. "Don't you think he looks like Ed Harris in Apollo 13?" Then it's back to business: "I want the film to be as sex- and violence-ridden as the play, yet as naturalistically spoken as possible...with movement...action so that it is totally absorbing." To this end, the cameras are set up to float around the actors in a delicate loop, a dance which must be precision-timed if heads are not to chop off other heads. This is a trademark of Branagh's that can convey a wonderful fluidity, or feel like a nauseous rollercoaster -- Frankenstein had critics reaching for the sickbag. Ken is determined that this time it will be an enjoyable ride.

Earlier, Julie Christie had been pacing nervously in the distance, lip-synching Gertrude's lines, turning corners with sharp little kicks of her red silk dress. Suddenly, she stopped and stared across the hall, her eyes ablaze. I realised she was staring at me -- and this is a woman who has long suffered journo-phobia. She hissed into her assistant's ear. He smoothed her. She had apparently done the same thing the previous week: bristled, pointed, said: "Ha! That woman is a journalist." She could, apparently, tell by my posture.

Now, seated in the queen's chintzy boudoir, all is forgotten. Christie's own posture has little changed since The Go-Between, 25 years ago. Her waist is as waspish, her skin every bit as velvety. She says she considered playing Gertrude as a lush; dypsomania might have been a new take on the queen's outrageous behaviour. "I think Ken would have let me. I think he'd have let any of the actors do anything they wanted to," she says. Worried about coming across as a "klutz" amonst such eminently experienced Shakespearians, she was pleasantly surprised. Sir Derek Jacobi, in particular, she found "kind, supportive. So fluid."

Jacobi is not a willing self-publicist either, though he eventually wades dutifully through a sea of soldiers to file his (guarded) opinion. "Ken wants to make you the best," he says. "He has a genius for generating a sense of theatre..." An internal alarm goes off. "That is, he is theatrical in the best sense of the word. Let it be said that Ken is never, ever, for an instant, luvvie. He is not luvviedom for a second."

The luvvie, that air-kissing harpy of peculiarly British heritage, haunted both Ken and Em. Thompson eventually transcended the brick-bats, especially after her Oscar for the screenplay of Sense and Sensibility, but Ken-baiting has remained a national sport. A hatchet-job in the magazine Modern Review opened with the line: "Like most people I know, I have always hated Kenneth Branagh." Sara Keene, his long-suffering publicist, describes it as "pure vitriol. It's so unfair, because 80 per cent of it is untrue."

Branagh's very "ordinariness" may account for some of it. He is not moody or difficult, qualities we've come to expect from our movie stars. "Why should I be that way? I'll respond as I respond, you'll ask as you ask," he says. "People have said to me, don't be so available. I'm not that available, it has to be said."

"Some actors must be angst-ridden and solitary, because that unlocks their talent," says Jacobi. "Ken's not the difficult type. His way is to be funny, light and keep everyone on their toes."

His actors and technicians certainly seem to adore him. They are like members of a secret society which closes ranks to protect its leader. Why? Kens' fitness trainer, Josh Salzmann, has a telling anecdote. "We had been working in the gym, and I had been calling him Kevin for two weeks, as I believed that was his name. It wasn't until I saw a poster at Shepperton that I realised my mistake. But he hadn't corrected me once."

Does he ever put a foot wrong? Sometimes. Near the end of the film, Branagh and Michael Maloney have a fiendishly difficult swordfight, a balletic piece of choreography with many precise movements. During filming, Branagh forgot some of his moves; meanwhile, 100 extras in uniforms and ballgowns had to wait till he got it right. The scene should have taken four days. It took 12.

"It was hugely embarrassing. Deeply embarrassing... That's when you really think 'I don't know what I'm doing'. Carol Reed [director of The Third Man] said there's no happiness in directing, only a weird kind of agony. I hate myself for doing it. And when I'm not doing it, I miss it. Perverse. Perverse. Perverse."

Self-loathing is a perfect Hamletian quality: is Ken piling it on now because he's about to film "To be or not to be"? The tension on set is certainly palpable. Ken is treated like a bomb about to blast: run for cover, leave him to it. I find an empty room. A moment later, the door opens, and he walks in. He is looking for a space, too. But he stays. He asks, am I getting a good story? How is business? Am I happy? He seems genuinely interested. I can't believe his cool, though he admits he's nervous, in need of direction. But no one else can help him now.

A little later, the cameras roll. Poised before a mirror, Hamlet touches the dagger to his cheek. His eyes are bright with the prospect of death. "For in that sleep of death what dreams may come." He rolls on, to: "Who would fardels bear?" It's a perfect first take. Ken has only two lines to go. Then someone, somewhere, waves some paper. It catches his eye. He falters. He stops. He turns to the paper-waver. Directors have ripped the heads of crew for lesser crimes. But this..."Would you mind not doing that," he says, absurdly gently. "It puts me off." ("Losing your rag simply means losing piles of energy," he says later. "I can't afford that.")

"What the hell is a fardel?" asks the producer, David Barron, as people breathe again.

"A carbuncle, a boil," says Cruttwell. Barron looks relieved, as if expecting something far nastier.

Take eight is "excellent". He's jumped the hoop.

20 May 1996, Shepperton Studios

Three months on, Ken's still at Shepperton, up to his armpits in post-production. His baby's so big that there were bound to be complications, and there's no final delivery date. Possibly late summer. "Have you got a month to spare for the screening?"

(It transpires later that he delivered what he promised: blood-quickening action, delicate drama and rib-tickling wit. And within budget. Early reviews ranged from "captivating" to "clunky", but most have been glowing.)

Yet in a sense he's already moved on. In the autumn of 1996 Branagh knows he'll be playing a priest in the 1930s-set Hollywood thriller Shakespeare's Sister, a leading role which he admits is a "significant departure" for him. After that he's down to star in the John Grisham-scripted Gingerbread Man, directed by Robert Altman, who plans a Night of the Hunter-type thriller.

How much does Ken want to be a big (or bigger) Hollywood star? He's evasive. "Maybe audiences will look at me and say 'bring back Tom Cruise'. I don't know. I may not be acceptable. Perhaps my image is confined to Shakespeare. We must see."

He claims he would miss his freedom, that fame is not the spur. "The money appeals, because of the films I could make with it. But the massive, that doesn't appeal."

American was always nicer to him than nit-picking England. James B. Meigs, of Premiere magazine, says Branagh's status in Hollywood is as "a genius whose commercial viability is marginal after Frankenstein, but who is regarded with enormous affection. He could be a big star here. He hasn't tapped his comic potential, which could be huge."

For now, Ken glances back at his earlier career, and finds that 35 was a turning point for him. "One's own mortality becomes clear. I call it the Hamlet syndrome." The film had been above all a spiritual journey. "That was more important to me than its commercial success. And yet, it is only a play. It is only a film. And it's only another job."

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