Out On a Limb
The Virginian-Pilot, November
by Mal Vincent
''IT'S ALIVE! It's alive!''
Kenneth Branagh winced as he
was reminded of that cliched but still key moment that is a part
of most ''Frankenstein'' movies. It's the scene when the Creature
takes life, when man plays God.
''Yes,'' said the famed Shakespearean
actor, shaking his head. ''That scene is in my film, too, but
there's a difference. This time, it's not a mad, crazy, scientist.
It's a human, vulnerable, person who has let his own ambition
and vanity get out of hand. This is a work of monumental, classic,
Indeed, Frankie with the bloodshot
eyes has been given a bona fide upgrade with the tony ''Mary
Shelley's Frankenstein,'' which opened Friday. It's directed
by and stars the cocky, energetic Branagh, who usually specializes
in turning Shakespeare (''Henry V,'' ''Much Ado About Nothing'')
into hit films.
This time, Branagh is out to
make an even bolder crossover. His blond hair hanging rakishly
to his shoulders, he sat at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York
to, explain, somewhat nervously, why we need another ''Frankenstein.''
''It's never been told in a way
that was faithful to the novel,'' Branagh said. ''When I read
the original novel, I was reminded why this story continues to
have such a strong hold on people. The idea of a man playing
God and cheating death is a primal myth. It brings up questions
like 'Who is more evil, Frankenstein or his abandoned Creature?'
'What would you do if someone you loved died and you had the
power to bring them back to life?' ''
Branagh, 34, has spent more than
a year working on his version, which stars Robert De Niro as
the Creature. He said getting De Niro was a must in getting the
''Francis Ford Coppola came to
me with the offer to direct it,'' he said. ''I was playing in
'Hamlet' in London. I hesitated at first. Coppola didn't want
to direct it himself, after 'Dracula,' but he wanted it made
and he wanted De Niro for the part.
''De Niro checked me out carefully
before signing on. He took some nine months preparing and pondering.
At first, he thought I'd make him try to sound British. I promised
I wouldn't. Then, he even went and studied with a stroke victim
to try and recapture the difficulty of the Creature learning
One thing is sure: ''Mary Shelley's
Frankenstein'' would not exist if it hadn't been for ''Bram Stoker's
Dracula.'' Coppola's 1992 film got terrible reviews, but went
on to become a box-office hit anyway.
''Frankenstein'' does not have
the budget of ''Dracula,'' but Branagh said it does have the
romance and drama he intended.
''Victor Frankenstein, whom I
play, is a good man who lets his obsession and vanity get in
the way,'' he said. ''He creates the Creature and then abandons
it. The Creature is like a rejected child. It is a great soul.
Victor achieves greatness of soul, but it is too late. It's a
The movie, he added, is very
1990s. ''Scientists have almost caught up with the story now.
We have test-tube babies, multiple organ transplants, geriatric
and surrogate pregnancies, designer babies and the development
of artificial intelligence. We are trying to control life. Isn't
this what led to the tragedy in 'Frankenstein' ''?
There's one other sure thing:
You won't get Branagh, or any of his cast, to call it a ''horror''
Frank Darabont, who directed
''The Shawshank Redemption,'' co-wrote the new ''Frankenstein.''
''The studio is trying to sell
it as a love story because that worked with 'Dracula,' '' he
said. ''They're really a bunch of wimps. Of course, it's a horror
story. The horror is what pushes it forward - it's the horror
of trying to defy death, to control life. The love story is also
there, but it's essentially a horror film.''
I first met Kenneth Branagh more
than a decade ago on the first night of his first visit to America.
He and then-girlfriend Emma Thompson had just gotten off a plane
from London, and were in Los Angeles to promote the ''Masterpiece
Theater'' miniseries ''Fortunes of War.'' His publicist pushed
him as ''the next Laurence Olivier,'' a tag every new British
actor was getting at the time.
Branagh has, indeed, inherited
the British mainstream pop icon crown of Olivier. The similarities
are evident. He directs his own company - the Renaissance Theater
Company - goes from theater to film and has even married his
most famous leading lady. Thompson. They are the darlings of
the art-movie crowd.
The British press, though, yelled
''sellout'' when it was announced that he was going to make a
Hollywood horror film.
In fact, Branagh and Thompson
have become frequent targets of Fleet Street. He's blasted as
being ''egotistical'' and ''cocky.'' Although Americans are charmed
by her down-to-earth humor, which contrasts with her serious
movie roles, she's regarded as sometimes gauche.
''Yes, the British press have
been on our case, off and on,'' Branagh said, again shaking his
blond locks. ''I think it happens when you have some success.
You'd think anyone who encourages filming in England would be
welcomed. I haven't run off to Hollywood. I make my films there,
but they regarded us as something of a phenomenon because we
had some success.
''Now, things are settling down
and we're entrenched a little, accepted. We'll be heroes when
we have a few failures.''
With Thompson away in Hollywood
to accept Oscars (''Howards End'') and star with Arnold Schwarzenegger
in the upcoming comedy ''Junior,'' the usual rumors of marital
trouble have surfaced. ''Em and I are fine,'' he said. ''Actually,
we're together a great deal. We live across the street from her
Branagh is actually an Irish
lad - born in Belfast and raised in England. After studying at
the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he won an award for the most
promising newcomer in his first play, in 1982. Since then, it's
been upward. He went to Hollywood to direct the hit thriller,
''Dead Again,'' then returned to England. His play ''Public Enemy,''
about a young man who idolizes James Cagney, is playing off-Broadway.
He admitted that it's difficult
directing himself. ''I was almost going crazy at one point with
'Frankenstein,' '' Branagh said. ''I have a guy who watches me
every moment - watches my acting. I have, you see, to set up
the scene and then go into it and play it. Then I study it on
play-back TV. It's very difficult. On weekends, I'd go down to
the set for the creation thing and sit there and write notes
on where the camera should move.''
The new bride of Frankenstein
is Helena Bonham Carter, the alabaster queen of costume films.
Surprisingly, Carter came on like gangbusters after the New York
premiere. She never liked the book, she doesn't like horror movies
and, initially, she didn't want to be in ''Frankenstein.'' Her
spunky retorts are the very opposite of the usually demure British
rose she plays.
''Did we go to great lengths
to be like the novel?'' Carter said, repeating the question.
''I hope not. I hope we aren't that turgid or boring. The novel
is badly written. Of course, Mary Shelley was only 19 when she
wrote it. I suppose she did well for 19.''
Carter debuted in the hit ''Lady
Jane'' and went on to star in the Merchant-Ivory epics ''Room
with a View'' and ''Howards End.''
''They, the Hollywood backers,
were not thrilled with having a Merchant-Ivory girl in the lead,''
she said. ''I'm sure they would have preferred a Hollywood name.
I'm sure they would have preferred Arnold Schwarzenegger as the
Creature. But Ken wanted me to play Elizabeth.
''I didn't want to be in it if
it was going to be a horror movie or if I was just going to be
decoration. I think this is the main way in which we changed
the novel. Elizabeth, Frankenstein's love, is now pretty feisty.
I mean, she does what she should do. She tells him that if he
doesn't get out of the laboratory some time, she's going to walk.''
Carter, 28, was not intimidated
about co-starring with De Niro, but said she was wary. ''He's
regarded as one of the great screen actors, yet I was really
dubious about how it would go.
''He repeats his lines over and
over while they leave the camera running. That is his method.
He'll say the same line over - three to 10 times. Then, they'll
edit it to pick the best one. Then, when he stops, I say my line.
I'm not sure I would want to work with him again, but I wanted
this experience - once.''
Carter, though, has the highest
praise for Branagh.
''I had never really properly
met him, just social chats,'' she said. ''From the press, I expected
him to be more haughty, but he is very humble, very relaxed.
He can jump in and out of character instantly to go behind the
camera. He has amazing energy and an amazing ability to communicate.
Ken sets off a very infectious energy.''
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