Branagh Slips Into Something Small

Ottawa Citizen, September 13 1995
by Marc Horton

They didn't have a stack of bibles at the door of a ritzy salon on the top of the Four Seasons Hotel, but they did have a stack of official, lawyerish-looking paper for us to sign.

It bound us to the promise that anything Kenneth Branagh said during our interviews would be used specifically for coverage of his new film, In the Bleak Midwinter. Any other use would require written permission from some office in London.

Presumably babbling out of turn might lead the Branagh handlers to initiate all sorts of tortures, the worst of which might be having to sit through his film Mary Shelley's Frankenstein one more time.

Dutifully, but somewhat reluctantly, I signed.

The pomposity of the quasi-legalisms aside, the British actor/director is an unfailingly affable chap without pretension who sprinkles his conversation with the odd blasphemy.

It's almost as if this part of selling his movie, nattering away to the press at the Toronto International Film Festival, is a great deal of fun.

One also gets the impression that he had fun making In the Bleak Midwinter, the story of a woebegone theatre company staging a Christmas-time Hamlet in a drafty church somewhere in the north of England. It's a cross between a Carry On Gang comedy and the backstage farce Noises Off.

At a million bucks, it's a miniscule-budget movie -- the direct opposite of Frankenstein.

But being small and independent meant that Midwinter could be made the way Branagh felt it should. It didn't require telephone conversation with Los Angeles nearly every day, explaining just exactly what was going on. He didn't need permission to shoot it in black-and-white, or get approval for a title that has the sound of newly discovered Ingmar Bergman work.

"I like In the Bleak Midwinter as a title. I like the hymn from which it comes and I even like the world 'bleak'. It's a very bracing word, very evocative," he says.

The movie had been in the planning stages for four years before Branagh began filming.

"I wanted to do something very small after Frankenstein, which was very big, and it felt good to work on a completely different scale. I also feel strongly that it's important to keep practising what you do, not just making a film every two or three years, and it's important to try new things."

As for Frankenstein: "Yeah, it got a bit of a bashing. Just because it's a bigger picture, you get a bigger bashing. There's nothing you can do about that, and in a sense you think, 'Oh, I'm glad that's done with, that kicking, because I'm going to have to be very, very bad indeed to get it much worse than that."'

Midwinter was, therefore, a bit of a restorative.

"It was good to get back on the horse and do something quickly . . . I admire the film-makers who keep putting movies out, and I particularly admire Woody Allen and the fact you get one every year. I find that you can see connections in the work."

Just as Midwinter is what Branagh calls "hit and run" film-making, his next project is a massive undertaking. He may have trimmed Hamlet to its essential scenes for Midwinter, but in January he starts filming the Shakespearean classic in its entirety.

"I hope we'll be able to start from the premise that it's a great ghost story. I'm watching a lot of Hitchcock movies at the moment just to look at the way suspense is conveyed by a real genius.

"Those basic tenets are important to me, to get a reality to all the madness in the piece. Ophelia ought to be all very savage when she goes mad."

Still it's a challenge to make a Shakespeare movie at 31/2 hours, says Branagh, adding: "I think the audience is ready for a good movie. If we make it, they will come. And it will be shorter than Gone with the Wind.

"This one will have every word Shakespeare wrote. Most Hamlets on stage have great swathes cut out of them but then the actors indulge themselves and speak very slowly so it just goes back to being 31/2 hours."

Even in the wake of the less-than-successful Frankenstein, Branagh gets offers for big Hollywood pictures.

"I think I frustrate Hollywood, for the half nano-second that they think of me, by not doing big films. There is a feeling I could really direct a big, profitable movie because I do them on budget and on time and actors, on the whole, seem to want to work with me.

"And then they hear in Hollywood that I'm doing a full-length Hamlet which isn't very exciting to them."

It's the show that counts with Branagh. He's a bit like Mickey Rooney in those old Judy Garland movies -- "Hey, my dad's got a barn, let's put on a show!"

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