Fighting the Good Fight with Kenneth Branagh

MovieMaker, February 1997
by Lyall Bush
**thanks to Virginia Leong

"People often say that an actor 'plays' a character well, but that's an amateurish notion. Developing a characterization is not merely a matter of putting on makeup and a costume and stuffing Kleenex in your mouth. That's what actors used to do, and then called it a characterization. In acting everything comes out of what you are, or some aspect of who you are." -- Marlon Brando, Songs My Mother Taught Me

Waiting downstairs to interview Kenneth Branagh is to sit in the rumor mill itself. Photographers and journalists come and go all afternoon, their professional objectivity apparently resolved, much like Hamlet's wish for himself, into a dew. I hear things like, "Oh, he's intimidatingly smart!" "He quotes Shakespeare at the drop of a hat." "He's exhausted from these interviews." "He won't talk about Emma" (his wife, Emma Thompson, from whom he is separated). "It's strange, he's wearing theatrical makeup." All that feeling for the man! I can't help being a touch skeptical, especially regarding that last detail. And what's with quoting Shakespeare? Didn't he tell Esquire that peoples' expectations of him are absurd, outlandish? "I think they anticipate floppy shirts and the collected works under my arm," is how he put it.

While MovieMaker's photographer deciphers him with light, I wonder how the director and actor whose misses now overwhelm his hits can cast such a Michael Jordan-Wayne Gretzky spell over the film world. Within moments, however, I understand, and all the bits and pieces about Branagh handed to me in the lobby make sense. He is quick-witted the way Scorsese's camera can be quick-witted, which is to say alive to improvisation. Praising Derek Jacobi, his longtime partner in film, he catches a look on my face, then says, "But what's he ever really done, eh?" He is playing well above the rim before I'm even in the room, and any late-day fatigue I anticipated is nonexistent. He is made up, and yes, he does run through lines from the West's best dramatist. So many, in fact, that I suspect the whole of Hamlet was long ago committed to memory.

But there's something else about him too, something no one has bothered to mention and that I wouldn't bother to take anyone's time with -- except that it won't go away. It's Branagh's reserve: there is an analog man moving behind the brilliant digital presence. His manners are crisp and friendly...but perhaps a shade too much like those of a Prime Minister's senior advisor. His back remains straight with a military perfection that goes beyond the body consciousness of an actor. His face is razored and daubed with bronze tan lotion, his hair combed and sprayed, and through the interview he lights cigarettes like a matinee idol, blowing smoke away from us both. Yet when he laughs, it is with genuine bursts of good humor. Before we begin, I ask if he likes the sound of his own voice. Instantly, he says, "No, not really," and boom, laughs, as if he just got the joke himself.

In this weird theater of a hotel suite he is relaxed, even at home. And it comes to me: He is a character out of Shakespeare -- a gauzy human fiction that the bard might have imagined. A sunlit webwork of self-construction, barbered nature itself. If Marlon Brando is right, that "in acting everything comes out of what you are, or some aspect of who you are," then who is Kenneth Branagh?

His current four-hour complete-text version of Hamlet follows acclaimed adaptations of Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing, and even as I write it promises to seal a narrow, gilded fate for him as the world's preeminent cinematic interpreter of Shakespeare. Or perhaps it will open up the world to him again, as it did when he released Henry V in 1989 and people asked out loud if there was anything he couldn't do.

For me, his Hamlet is vibrantly emotional and even harrowing. In two or three places, including the gravedigger scene near the end, it is very nearly transcendent. Branagh shot it on 70mm film for just $18 million, resituating the story from the 12th century to the 19th and in doing so, transforming the usual gray and black interiors into sunlit rooms and ravishing exteriors shot around Blenheim Palace in the south of England. Characters have been newly imagined, too. There's a refreshingly sinister Polonius (Richard Briers), steamy flashbacks between Hamlet and Ophelia (Kate Winslet), and a Claudius (Derek Jacobi) who comes across as a timber wolf with an ale-swelled girth.

With its insistently moribund tone, its heart-stopping soliloquies about worms, sexual degeneracy and bungholes, and a nightmare speech about death, dreams and liminal consciousness, Hamlet has left me shaken, even days after seeing it. Nearly a year after making the film, Branagh retains vestiges of the doomy prince in his still-lightened hair and beard, though his blue eyes that shine like a CD-ROM even under the artificial light of the hotel room have taken on the tone of his dark suit.

In the foreword to the published screenplay, Branagh writes about his own involvement with Hamlet, beginning with a Richard Chamberlain version he saw at age 11: "Irish, Protestant, working-class, I knew nothing of 'fardels' or 'bodkins,' but I knew that here was 'something.'" With a modesty that seems dubious until you meet him, he adds, "I was interested in soccer and girls. Shakespeare was for swots." A Derek Jacobi production of the play he saw in London at 15 drummed that out of him. By 28 he was being directed in a version of the play by Jacobi himself. In all, he has been in five major productions of Hamlet.

"Involvement with a play in your life," Branagh tells me, "means that the process of getting a film together is the product of lots of years of imagining things, pictures of the movie, the world of the play, how to find a setting for it that will release the play, that will make a coherent something. There aren't very many more I can do in my life." Still, asked about ones that might be on the horizon, he comes up with a handful. "Oh, Love's Labors Lost, Macbeth...I'd like to have a go at A Winter's Tale."

That's all?

"I couldn't do a great many more in my lifetime, because it takes me a long while to get around to them, to prepare them. Plus the ability to do them is governed by commercial success in the eyes of accounting people. I begin to realize more and more what an absolute bloody miracle it is that in 1996 we were able to make a four-hour film on 70mm of a 400-year-old play."

It is a greater miracle considering the critical reception of most of his films following Henry V. Dead Again was liked, not loved, and Much Ado About Nothing was widely celebrated. But what about Peter's Friends? Peed on. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein? (Huh?) Hamlet, strong as it is, has been treated as something of a freak, garnering Oscars only for screen adaptation and costuming.

In the dark early days of the new year when the film began to appear on screens across the country, reviews revealed some serious hairline fractures. Critics nudged to the margins any discussion of the play's high-seas pitch of horror and wit, its sharp metaphysics. Instead they hugged the shore of the wafer-thin appreciation of performances, which in turn gave way to rasping appraisals of the director and star himself. Over and over, Branagh's characterization was taken to task: He wasn't digging into Hamlet. His Hamlet was mentally alert, sure, but facile. He skimped on the melancholy. It was the rare review that didn't look wistfully at Henry V as Branagh's moment of grace. Now, there was the sort of thing you used to do, they seemed to be saying. And with a history play, for crying out loud, about a king no one remembers.

Henry V is a kind of masterpiece. Made when Branagh was 29, it could not quite rival Citizen Kane as the work of a wunderkind. But it is such an emotionally plangent war movie, with so many plummy speeches about courage and honor, that a dozen movies could have been hammered from their heat. It also imagines war as though no film about the subject had preceded it. Soldiers blur into mud, hot blood spurts over into a raw scar of an Agincourt, and when King Harry calls his ragtag men "we happy few," you feel a lift. In a single film, Branagh seemed to teach the words of speeches by laying them down as though they were our English, not Shakespeare's. With the right phrases spun like globes, the right chords strummed in the words, the clot of language everyone fears in Shakespeare came undammed.

In another passage from his autobiography, Marlon Brando writes: "The evolution of English theater came to full flower in Kenneth Branagh's production of Henry V. He did not injure the language; he showed a reverence for it, and followed Shakespeare's instructions precisely. It was an extraordinary accomplishment of melding the realities of human behavior with the poetry of language. I can't imagine Shakespeare being performed with more refinement."

The idea being booted about in papers and magazines is that Branagh might never surpass that film or his characterization of the young king. I don't know what Brando thinks of Branagh's equally non-injurious portrait of Hamlet, but Branagh himself quickly seizes any opportunity offered to discuss acting, his own and anyone else's. "In school we did The Merchant of Venice. I found my first experience reading it meaningless, you know? We were each given just our parts to read aloud, but I found it was impossible to understand until I had a live example -- until the play was acted out and informed by feeling and intelligence. Situations become clear. The plays were never studied, you know, as literary things in Shakespeare's time."

Branagh returns to certain actors over and over. Richard Briers, Derek Jacobi, Michael Maloney, Judi Dench. Their returned loyalty is likely due to a relationship among actors who have a feel for living language, not the master-slave arrangement that one can often detect between a director and a stable of actors. "What I try to do on the set," Branagh says, "is create an acting state where you can be in the moment, react to what someone has just said and try to make your line come out as though you've just thought of it. I wanted to forget about, 'It's here forever -- it's the full-length version -- I've got to be something.' I wanted to be real from moment to moment." I tell him that I stopped taking notes watching the film when I realized I was writing reactions like, "Derek Jacobi -- great." Branagh sparkles. "Derek Jacobi is fucking amazing. He's so available to direction. He's a sort of acting machine. Kate Winslet is the same way. It's their natural home to be performing. They work like dogs, they've got their research done, and they can turn on a sixpence. As opposed to Julie Christie, who finds the process agony. But if Derek or Kate've yelled one scene and you say, 'Okay now do it in a whisper,' they kind of seize on things like that. They'll happily throw things away. Derek is such an intelligent actor, and easy to work with."

Branagh auditioned Kate Winslet for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein two years ago, but didn't cast her because something "bugged" him: "Because I realized, you see, that I had met a star. So I said, 'Do you mind if I ask how old you are?' She said, '17.' She's a remarkable girl, like she's been through wars on the Titanic. I thought she was 29."

And then, freshly jazzed, he free-associates. "Some people don't like the flash-backs -- where Hamlet and Ophelia sleep together -- but I think there are lines for me that are proof enough in her mad speeches. Plus it's worth making clear that these characters are not from Shakespeare Film Land, but real people for whom that kind of thing would have muddied their thoughts."

On the other hand, Branagh doesn't pretend that his grasp of the play is definitive, only that at 35 (when he shot the film) he was of age to make it. "My process through various productions of Hamlet has been one of waking up to the fact that I can't put my hands around it, I can't define it, I can't nail it or nail the character. That my Hamlet's this kind of a Hamlet, or that the play is this or that."

It's an amazing statement from a workaholic who admits to having been obsessed with the play for all of his adult life, and a good chunk of his adolescence. It's an intriguing game to guess at some of the autobiographical reasons for his choices, too. Rumored not to be over his separation from Emma Thompson, the choice to do Hamlet, the pre-eminent play in our culture about the horror of discovering that all things deteriorate, may make a little more sense. And suddenly the other plays he's mentioned -- Love's Labour's Lost, A Winter's Tale, and MacBeth, whose themes include swearing off women, blistering jealousy, and ambition -- look autobiographical, too.

Branagh's other film choices, on reflection, seem to have fueled his private obsession with Hamlet's themes of life, death, bungholes and regeneration. Dead Again, the follow-up to Henry V, was described at the time as Hitchcockian, but its fundamental premise was Nietzschean eternal recurrence; which is, more or less, Hamlet's quarrel with consciousness in the great "to be or not to be" speech. "Ay, there's the rub," he says, suspecting the pain of self-consciousness on the other side, too. As an L.A. cop named Mike Church, Branagh's character is the physical reincarnation of a European composer named Roman Strauss, as well as the psychic carryover of Strauss's slain wife. And what of his Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, an attempt to re-imagine a novel everyone thought they knew? With its phantasmagorical muck about godlike ambition, it's "hideous progeny" and fiendish father-son motif, it seems the very prototype of Hamlet's themes. Victor Frankenstein studies how to kick-start life because of his mother's death. ("Oh mother, you should never have died. No one need ever die. I will stop this, I promise.") And the finale? Beget on the monster's vow: "I will have revenge, Frankenstein."

Branagh is guarded about his private life, and no leading questions about his career choices can spring the garden gate, so to speak. But there's a muscular note struck in his discussion of the illogicality of Hamlet and, in particular, of Hamlet's rage. Surely some of Branagh's discovery of that "something" when he was 11 years old is here. "He couldn't accept that Ophelia was in an absolutely untenable position when she appeared to betray him," he offers, "and he could not accept the impossible position that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were in. Somebody once said to me that all suffering is a resistance to what is, and Hamlet suffers through the play. As, you know, don't we all? We aren't granted some enlightened Zenlike state to get through the vicissitudes of life. But I like the way he arrives at something different at the end. He senses the imminence of his end and is at peace. That's the speech I always head for in the play."

Then Branagh does the line, a Pavarotti of iambs rifling through denouement: "There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all."

If it be, if it be, if it be. Try reading those lines out loud to see what a confounding of blurs Hamlet, even at its end, really is; and what, in practical terms, Branagh is capable of. He casts his hex on that knotty philosophical discourse. It is perhaps a mark of his genius that everyone wants to feel they know him, a mark of his personality that they feel they do. In person he keeps his talent stowed under a mask of glinting agreeableness, but I have the impression that wherever he is, truly, it's up on the screen, not here with me in this golden twilight.

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