The Boy Can't Help It
Sainsbury's, The Magazine - February
by Martyn Palmer
**thanks to Cindy Williams
Kenneth Branagh is a pale, frail,
chain-smoking bag of stubble-chinned energy. He is a man who
looks badly in need of a holiday, a fortnight in bed or, at the
very least, a couple of hours under a sun lamp. He has the air
of one recently back from a major expedition to the outer reaches
of his own talent.
This is, in fact, precisely where
he has been--scaling the heights of his phenomenal list of achievements,
erecting a flag at the very pinnacle with a new screen version
of Hamlet. The film was adapted by Branagh from the original
and directed by him also. It is an obsessively perfect piece
of work featuring the man himself in the starring role, flanked
by a Whos Who of acting greats including Jack Lemmon, Julie
Christie, Judi Dench and many many more.
The result is, perhaps, the definitive
work--the production that out-Hamlets the rest of them. At almost
four hours long and featuring the complete text, it may well
be a masterpiece.
A friend of mine came and
saw a rough cut of the film the other night, Branagh says,
and afterwards he said, I dont think youll
ever do anything as good as this again. I dont know what
you are going to do after this... I said, Well thanks,
Im only 35!
Still, Branagh detects in himself
a certain pleasing emptiness -- as though he has expelled all
the necessary to bring Hamlet (who he has played on stage to
such acclaim) to the screen. I dont know if it will
leave a void now that Ive done it, he admits. 'At
the moment I do feel pleasantly empty, although when I watch
it--which Ive done quite a few times--it is a very emotional
experience for me. Its very choking in a way, to see it,
because it seems like so many more things are wrapped up in it.
I dont feel any great
worries or expectations, although I do want people to go and
see it, God knows that I do. Its just that it was very
important for me personally to do this. I always felt that if
I didnt make this film I would end up old and gray, saying
to myself, I should have done it, I should have done it...
But now that I have, I feel that I have to let it have its own
We talk in an empty oak-paneled
room near his office in Shepperton Studios, a place that must
seem more like home to him nowadays than virtually anywhere else.
The paleness and tiredness etched in his face is the result of
too many late nights in an editing suite. But the following day
he is off to America. Surely a holiday is in the cards?
No, Im acting in
another film, Shakespeares Sister, with William Hurt in
Boston, he says. Its a good contrast and you
know what they say about a change being as good as a rest...
It will be interesting to see
exactly what Branagh does next because if theres one thing
you can be certain of, its that he wont sit still
and rest on his laurels. His friend, who so crudely highlighted
his relative youth with that backhanded compliment, could well
be right. Who knows? But youd expect that our Ken will
find another all-consuming project to pour that creative energy
Branagh has traveled a great
distance in a short time, but the journey isnt over yet.
The second of three children born in York Street, Belfast, his
father was a joiner who moved his family to Reading when Ken
was nine after the Troubles had taken a strong grip
on the city. Branagh, a Protestant, has recalled how he found
himself in the middle of a riot when a mob from the Shankill
Road came after some of his Catholic neighbours. As streetfighting
and looting raged around him, the young Branagh was drawn into
it, helping himself to something from a shattered shop front.
Such was the brilliance of my mind that I came back with
a packet of Daz. My mother clipped me around the ear and made
me take it back immediately, he recalls.
When the family settled in Reading,
Branagh, consciously or not, realized that an Irish accent wasnt
going to make for an easy life. Within a year, any trace of a
brogue had completely disappeared, leaving an English accent
free of any hints as to where it might actually have come from.
Id managed to become English at school and remain
Irish at home, he says.
In his teens, he developed a
passion for watching the box--not so unusual--and for firing
off letters to TV companies and his heroes at the time, Morecambe
and Wise, who sent him a nice letter back that encouraged him
to write even more. At 15, he appeared on stage for the first
time in Toad Of Toad Hall prompted by his English
teacher, Stan Grue, who to this day Branagh remembers as a big
After school he went straight
to RADA where, according to his mentors, he displayed charm
and fearlessness. And he still wasnt afraid to write
or ask for help--he wrote to Sir Laurence Olivier for advice
on the role of Cherbutykin in Three Sisters and he
took notes on playing Hamlet from Sir John Gielgud.
Once out of RADA, his career
took off at a ferocious pace. Six weeks after leaving, in 1981,
he made his West End debut in Another Country. He
joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1984 to play the title
role in Henry V and in 1985 he wrote and directed
Tell Me Honestly for the stage.
By 1987, with film roles in A
Month In The Country and High Season behind
him, he formed the Renaissance Theater Company and, in its first
season, directed Twelfth Night. His productions of
Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It
and, especially, Hamlet (in which he was directed
by Derek Jacobi) earned him comparisons with the great Olivier.
He also seemed able to combine his theatrical work with a blossoming
film career - in 1988 his marvelous Henry V, his
first as a director, was heaped with nominations and awards.
Then he switched to the very
Hollywood movie Dead Again, directing and co-starring
with his wife Emma Thompson (they are now separated, more of
which later). He then returned to the Bard once again for Much
Ado About Nothing, directing a blend of theatrical talent
alongside recognized LA stars such as Keanu Reeves and Denzel
Washington. It worked, and, if anything, paved the way for his
Along the way, he had met and
married Emma, a female version, at least in the publics
eyes, of himself. They were talented and bright, and together
they made the perfect British screen couple. They fell in love
while making the BBC drama series Fortunes of War
in 1987, and married two years later. The marriage broke down,
apparently, some time around 1994 while Branagh was making Mary
Shellys Frankenstein and Thompson was about to film
her Oscar winning Sense and Sensibility. He wont
talk about the break-up except to say, Any marriage ending
is sad and ours was no different.
The tabloids had a field day,
of course. Ken and Em had been built up into some kind of alternative
royal couple and when the time came to knock them down again,
the press set about them with a vengeance. It was not an easy
time, he admits now. Was he ever tempted to move permanently
to America, where he is regarded as just about the best actor
I guess it can be tempting,
and at various times it probably was. But my mates are here and
my family is here and, in the end, those things in the press
are like mini storms - irritating at the time but they blow over.
I dont really believe in flouncing off over there to get
away from it--I have consciously stayed here.
The most spectacular opportunities
opened up in America after Dead Again because it
did very well there. You are number one in the box office and
suddenly you get all the hot scripts. But for me it wasnt
really on. I like America and I enjoy my time there. For me,
every time I go there it feels like Im in a movie - whether
Im in one or not. I think its all those years of
seeing New York and LA on the telly, and its pretty exciting.
But culturally, for want of a better word, I dont feel
at home here. You know, reading the Malibu Bugle
or whatever is not the same as The Guardian.
'I feel a bit disconnected over
there; its like a big adventure. Making Dead Again
in Hollywood was like living out some kind of fantasy. You pull
it off, you get away with it and one of the ways you get away
with it is by coming home again afterwards. This is a hard enough
business anyway, and one of the things I like about being here
is that I feel me, I know who I am over here and over there I
dont. Ive got a lot of American friends but I dont
feel that the American lifestyle really suits me.
There was a time, he says, when
he went through a crisis, wondering exactly who he was. The media
had praised him, forever calling him a thoroughly decent
chap, and then turned on him; he had a marriage that was
breaking up and he wasnt quite sure where he was anymore.
I used to wake up and think,
Whats going on? But now I dont analyze
it. I think some people might find that rather bland - they would
rather I announced that I have some terrible dark side and confess
that I wander around with drugs hanging out of my arm, falling
into the gutter or something.
'And on the other side Ive
had that decent-bloke thing, which became a bit of a cross to
bear. I think over the past three or four years, I was really
losing a sense of who I was. The media construction of my personality
was changed according to whim and I was never sure whether to
second-guess it, to be it or not to be it, or just get very paranoid
about it. Now I just say to myself, Well, you are who you
are. You have done these things and there is no point worrying
about it or trying to analyze it.
He does manage to live a fairly
normal life, he says. The whirlwind engulfing his personal life
has moved on and, for now, he is able to do mostly what he wants
- see his friends and do what he wants to do (admittedly, just
lately, that seems to be working).
I try to live life without
leading a secret squirrel existence. You have to, otherwise you
go the other way and become a paranoid fucker who is so careful
about what you do that you never actually do anything. I suppose
some people might think that it's a quietish life, but its
noisy enough for me. Work will sometimes find you in a big glitzy
hotel, doing a promotion or going to an opening, but I dont
feel comfortable going to lots of showbizzy restaurants.
I dont have too much
attention [from the press] now. I mean, Im in one film
a year or something and theyre hardly action blockbusters.
I think TV soap stars have many more problems leading some kind
of normal life than I do. I have mates who I see on a regular
basis. You have to work at seeing your friends and make sure
that youre not getting sucked into some kind of martyr
existence. So we go on a few benders, we have a laugh.
In fact, we had a great
laugh on Hamlet. We formed a crap band called the
Fishmongers - you know, three cord wonders, and we had a real
One of Branaghs many talents
is his ability to motivate. He has the knack of persuading people
like Billy Crystal (First Gravedigger), Robin Williams (Osric)
and even dear old Ken Dodd (Yorick, seen in flashback ) to get
on board the Hamlet special. He also, perhaps with a steady eye
on the all-powerful American box office, mixes and matches his
cast so it reads like some hybrid of the American and British
versions of the Actors Directory - theres Charlton
Heston (Player King) alongside Brian Blessed (Ghost), Jack Lemmon
(Marcellus) with Richard Briers (Polonius). 'I like the clash
it provides, and it makes for an interesting atmosphere on set.
The various techniques come together. Someone like Robin [Williams],
for instance, was great. He liked to improvise and was able to
do so, within the framework of the lines, and thats very
helpful in terms of getting some of the spontaneity into Shakespeare.
Some of the outtakes are hysterically funny. But he was shitting
himself, let me tell you. Jack Lemmon was up for the gig. But
he was very nervous too.'
Branagh was also able to persuade
the big-name cast to do the job for a fraction of the fee they
would normally receive. Most of them earned the kind of
money that was the equivalent of a weeks expenses on any
He has been intrigued, some would
say obsessed, with the play since he fist saw it as a 15-year-old.
I was completely stuck by the power of it. I was astonished
by what a terrific thriller it was. It had everything - murder,
violence, passion, a ghost - and I experienced a part of what
made Hamlet so profoundly powerful. It was utterly
It has taken him seven years
to bring the play to the screen (he has wanted to do it ever
since he finished Henry V). Filmed on epic wide-screen
70mm - the first British film in more than 20 years to use the
format - Hamlet used up five soundstages at Shepperton,
with exterior shots at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. It looks,
quite simply, magnificent and, as Branagh says himself, if you
think Hamlet by necessity means gloomy castles, dour costumes
and pudding-bowl hairstyles, think again. The sets are scrumptious,
the costumes luxurious and the whole thing positively glows on
screen. Branagh has, undoubtedly, given an awful lot of himself
Coming back to this project
was like digging my feet in the earth, he says. They
are publishing a screenplay and a diary of the project and I
was asked to do a foreword. I said, Im sorry, I just
cant do it right now. I have nothing else to say because
its all in the film. And thats how I feel.
Its been full of
anxiety and responsibility, directing a film like this with a
finite budget and in a certain amount of time, but it was really
enjoyable. This was the last point when I could fill the age
requirement for Hamlet and, at the same time, have
the right amount of life experience to inform the part in ways
that, perhaps, you are not even conscious of but that somehow
lend it a bit more weight.
The film has a kind of
maturity, or at least I hope it does. By virtue of me having
made more films and having had some practice with the part and
the play, its a more assured and naturally confident piece
of work. Its not apologizing for itself, its not
too hysterical. I didnt feel I had to try too hard, and
that allowed me to enjoy the experience of directing much more
than I have done in the past.
In other words, the man we see
before us is more confident and at ease with himself. For all
those years when the world was telling him he was a genius, he
didnt quite believe it. Now, after hes been criticized
and endured what was probably the worst time in his life, he
has come out the other side.
There are things that have
happened to me that I dont really understand, but I feel
less worried about it now. I think its quite a hard thing
to get a great level of success when you are young. Somebody
once said to me, Youre supposed to go through a
period of obscurity, do a bit of rep, have some hard times and
be out of work now and then, and if you dont then theres
a price to pay. Well, I think there has been, and Ive
Certain things have happened
to me, things have gone by - including a great deal of peace
of mind - over the past few years. But I think Im heading
into some sort of light now, I really do...
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