Branagh Creates 'A Very Palpable Hit'

U.S. News and World Report
January 13, 1997

For years, Hollywood had dismissed William Shakespeare as the deadest of literature's dead white males. But that all changed in 1989, when Kenneth Branagh unspooled his brooding Henry V, directing himself in the title role. Since the success of that film, he has emerged as a Pied Piper leading moviegoers to the Bard, producing a lively Much Ado About Nothing and playing Iago in last year's Othello. His latest effort is Hamlet, opening nationwide this month, which he filmed without cutting a single line. Clocking in at about four hours, it may be the longest feature film ever released in English. (So much for brevity being the soul of wit.)

Born to a working-class family in Belfast, Ireland, Branagh is an unlikely missionary for the classics. After the onset of "the Troubles" in the late 1960s, his family moved to Reading, outside London. There, Branagh faced his first acting test: losing his Irish accent. Never much of a student ("It wasn't the coolest thing in the world to be a swot [nerd]," he recalls), he passed up a place at Manchester University to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. "I believe in learning by doing."

As a child, he loved watching actors like Spencer Tracy and James Cagney in old gangster movies. "I used to wander around the back of the television to see if they were really in there," he says. At 16, he attended a performance of Hamlet starring Derek Jacobi. "I went because he was playing I, Claudius on television," Branagh says. "I didn't understand it all, but it blew me away. It was great entertainment."

The play has been kicking around his consciousness ever since. For his mammoth production, he cast Jacobi as another Claudius, Hamlet's uncle who takes both the throne and his brother's widow. Branagh also dispensed with the traditional gloom: The film's Elsinore is a lush, well-lit palace. And his Hamlet is a popular lad--more frat boy than brooding graduate student--who is thrown into uncharacteristic navel gazing by the play's bizarre events. "Earlier in my playing days, I felt a stronger need to label him, to say he was this or that kind of Hamlet," says Branagh, 36, who has portrayed the Dane four times before. "He is many, many things and I try to let the audience work up what kind of man he is."

Presenting the play in its exhausting entirety is another act of hubris from a man who was the Royal Shakespeare Company's youngest Henry V (at 23) and who wrote an autobiography at age 28. A shorter film would have excluded subplots and characters, he argues. "When a lot of intense set pieces are squashed together, it's harder for the audience to absorb." But early critical acclaim says that once again, Branagh's gamble paid off.

Around the turn of the century, Johnston Forbes-Robertson, the greatest Hamlet of his day, started a theatrical tradition: handing down a small red-bound copy of the play to the finest Hamlet of each successive generation. The volume has belonged to Michael Redgrave, Peter O'Toole and Jacobi. As shooting on Branagh's Hamlet drew to a close, Jacobi passed the trophy to the young man from Belfast, ushering him into Shakespeare's pantheon.

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