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 the lighting.

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 fair enough."

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 to make."

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 to perfection."

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 do it."

Back to Articles Listing
Back to the Compendium