Will Hamlet Cheer Him Up?
Sunday Times, November 11, 1995
by Iain Johnstone
Bruised by Frankenstein, Kenneth
Branagh reckons that a full-blooded version of a real tragedy
might be a comfort
There was a dinner after the
premiere of Kenneth Branagh's film Frankenstein at the opening
of last year's London Film Festival. You can't avoid mentioning
the movie on these occasions, so I said, "I think you've
made a very durable film." He gave me the sort of look that
stage actors give if you go round afterwards enthusing about
But I meant it. Cruelly dismissed
by the critics and the public, especially in America, the movie
has grossed more than $100 million, and now it is on video it
will move nicely into profit. What of the effect on the golden
boy of the British stage and cinema? Those close to him suggested
that it was not a subject I should broach when we met again a
year later. So I did.
"It was bruising,"
said Branagh. "I stopped reading the notices when I realised
what was happening. I've had hostile reviews before, but these
were very personal and hurtful. In a sense it was impossible
for me to remain sane if I was to identify with any of that hostility.
You can't do anything about people being irritated by you or
what you are. But some people didn't like the movie, and that's
Was there, therefore, a lesson
to be learnt from the less ad hominem critical response?
At first he wasn't sure. "I don't know what lesson one does
learn. De Niro gave a brave performance. I made the film I wanted
I sensed it was something he
had avoided analysing, and pressed him further. "It was
a piece of art that a lot of people didn't like," he acknowledged.
"I hope this doesn't happen every time--it would be slightly
easier to get up in the morning if it didn't. Our film was necessarily
different from the traditional versions, and maybe people think
there was a hubris in going up against the classics. We were
trying to do Mary Shelley's book, which is different--Frankenstein
has a more unfathomable motivation and the monster is more sweet-natured--and
not necessarily better than the camp black-and-white movies that
James Whale made (Frankenstein, 1931, The Bride of Frankenstein,
1935) with all that neck-bolted iconography."
Some good, however, did come
out of the movie--money, enabling Branagh to take some from his
bank account and become the sole investor in his next project,
In the Bleak Midwinter, which opens here next month. He asked
cast and crew alike, from Joan Collins to the clapper loader,
to do it for minimum money, promising them a percentage later
that would reflect their hierarchical position. "I warned
them they might get nothing at all," he said, "but
we've now sold the film to Castle Rock in the States, everybody
has already got a cheque and I can pay my tax. I had worried
whether it was going to travel--one always does with comedies--but
it's played already at the Venice Film Festival, and I watched
it with Italians and subtitles and they laughed. They even gave
us a prize--I think they made one up for us--which wasn't surprising
since all the other movies were 2 1/2 hours of tragedy."
Branagh himself is about to commit
3 1/2 hours of tragedy to the screen in the shape of an uncut
Hamlet,and In the Bleak Midwinter might be seen as a limbering-up
exercise. It's a backstage story of Joe Harper (a Ken Branagh
kind of guy played by Michael Maloney), a struggling actor who
decides to round up some chums and put on a production of Hamlet
in a village church. After innumerable troubles, which come not
single spies, but in battalions, the performance looks about
to happen when the call comes from Hollywood offering Joe a big
part in a mindless movie. Which show does he decide must go on?
"The idea had been brewing
in my mind for about four years," said Branagh, "but
I wrote it in a three-week splurge. Many characters were based
on people I knew and who ended up being in it in some instances.
The Richard Briers character (who plays Claudius, the Ghost and
the Player King) is based on Richard Briers. He's obsessed with
Henry Irving and he's a wonderful whinger. I remember when he
was about to go on as Lear, in Tokyo, he sat in front of his
mirror and he said, 'I hate fucking touring. I hate fucking acting
and I hate fucking Lear.' Then, as usual, he played the part
In the film, there is a lack
of female applicant for parts, so John Sessions ends up as Gertrude,
a move opposed by Briers, whose character observes, "Gertrude
was not written as a shirt-lifter." Branagh recalled: "Many
years ago I did a show with John in which he played Billy Twinkle
the panto queen. But he was more interested in the serious dark
side of his character, which so often accompanies bright comic
genius--so terrifying. The black gloop. In the scene where he
is reunited with his son I didn't have to direct him."
Branagh always comes up with
a few surprises after he has rounded up the usual suspects--Keanu
Reeves in Much Ado About Nothing, for instance. In Midwinter,
Joan Collins, as Joe's agent, is the actor from another planet.
"I met her at the Frankenstein premiere, and when she heard
about the project she said, 'My father was an agent and I know
all about it.' I always like people who come with some appetite
from a slightly odd place. She is a very accomplished comedienne.
In the Bleak Midwinter is a very
accomplished comedy, witty and waspish, rich in insight into
the actorial condition. But it is, as Branagh says, "a wee
film" compared with his Hamlet, which he starts to shoot
in January. "Yep, I'm going to do the gloomy Dane."
It will be his largest Shakespeare enterprise to date, and his
largest part. He has just finished playing Iago in Oliver Parker's
film of Othello, for release next year with Laurence Fishburne
in the title role and Irene Jacob as Desdemona.
It might seem a bit soon for
another screen Hamlet. They could well have used the funeral
baked meats of Mel Gibson's version, which was made a mere five
years ago, with Helena Bonham Carter (Branagh's leading lady
in Frankenstein) as Ophelia. Was Branagh just retreating into
the safety of Shakespeare after experiencing less luck when his
films didn't have a critic-proof text to rely on?
His response reminded me of the
occasion at a National Film Theatre lecture many years ago, when
a young man told Rod Steiger that he couldn't decide whether
or not to become an actor. The audience scoffed at the naivete
of the question, but Steiger stilled them. "I can answer
your question," he told the embarrassed student. "If
you want to become an actor, you don't need me to tell you to."
So it is with Ken and the Dane.
"I'm obsessed by it. For me this play sums up the process
of living. What is the fucking point? I saw Derek Jacobi do it
when I was 16, and as Joe says in Bleak Midwinter, 'It changed
my head and my heart.' I went by train from Reading to the New
Theatre, Oxford, and when I came back, I wouldn't have needed
the train to transport me, I was so uplifted by the whole experience,
and shocked and scared. It was magnificent. Everything seemed
possible. Everything I looked at from that night on was more
vibrant and in sharper colour."
His words are messianic but his
delivery is more modest. Branagh is always ready to defuse any
lofty claim with some self-deprecating wit. There is even a character
in his new film called Keith Branch, one of the many misnomers--Colin
Brenningan, Keith Brennan--by which he was known for many years.
But there did seem to me a certain validity in his job proposal
that he was the man destined to make the, by calculation, 60th
screen version of this play, one that was fit to celebrate the
centenary of cinema.
"I'm encouraged by the ongoing
mailbag of kids of 13 and 14 who are managing to see Much Ado.
Many say it helped them get into Shakespeare and add: 'Please
do some more.' This will be a culmination of everything my particular
group of collaborators has learnt about presenting Shakespeare
on film. I want it to be as sex-ridden and violence-ridden as
the play itself, yet as naturalistically spoken as possible.
I want to make the language interesting and find a cinematic
vocabulary for it. There are going to be a lot of special effects.
Not computer-generated--we can't afford them--so we're going
back to all the trickery of the silent days, with multiple exposures,
hanging miniatures and model shots. I've learnt many camera techniques
from Abel Gance's Napoleon, and that was made in 1927."
The casting includes Derek Jacobi,
Richard Briers, Julie Christie, Kate Winslet and, as Branagh
added with a smile, "for a touch of international filmness",
Charlton Heston and Billy Crystal. Would Emma be in it? "She's
a bit too young for Gertrude and too old for Ophelia. So we'd
have to think up something else for her." He grinned again.
"This play sums up the process
of living," he says again as we part. "I can't not
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