The Prince Returns

W, December 1996
by James Fallow
**thanks to Virginia Leong

Kenneth Branagh is hoping the longest screen Hamlet yet will reignite his career.

The roisterous tale of Kenneth Branagh's career is fittingly Shakespearean. He soared to world renown as an actor and director by age 27, then six years later stumbled badly; his biggest-budget movie flopped, his marriage collapsed, and though he was never out of work, he was seen as a star in decline. The quandary he now faces is whether he can force the wheel of fortune to turn in his favor again.

His first push will come with the release this Christmas of Shakespeare's Hamlet.

"I'm grateful for the roller-coaster ride -- mainly because it's over with," Branagh says, confidently chuckling as he sits in the well-worn office at Twickenham Studios in west London he's using while editing the film.

"When we got an Oscar nomination for Henry V it didn't really register because I was in the middle of working on a play. In the same way, thank God, the bashing I took on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein didn't sink in," he says. "It's a strange baptism by fire. When it all happens to you, you can't see it at the time.

"In the end, f--k, all I do is make films and sometimes people don't like them. You can't worry about it or else you wouldn't get up in the morning."

Yet all the criticism had to disturb him, even though Branagh claims that for the last two years he's simply put his head down and continued to work, playing Iago to Laurence Fishburne's Othello, for instance. He admits his fall from grace may partially result from resentment of his rocket-like ascent. Perhaps it had all seemed too easy for him.

Branagh first emerged with his portrayal of Judd in Another Country (which also helped launch the careers of Daniel Day-Lewis, Rupert Everett and Colin Firth) in 1981, immediately after leaving the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. He followed that with triumphant performances on British television (such as the miniseries Fortunes of War with Emma Thompson) and on the London stage. At age 25, he was already producing and directing plays in London and in 1987 formed his own theater company, Renaissance, which packed London's West End with productions of Shakespeare, Chekhov and even his own play Public Enemy. By 28 he'd produced an autobiography, Beginning, which traced his rise from middle-class Northern Ireland boy to the top of the British theater world. That little tome got him criticized for the size of his ego.

His 1988 film of Henry V -- also deemed audacious by some given that Laurence Olivier's version was considered a classic -- was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic and was followed by successes Dead Again and Much Ado About Nothing (with Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, and Emma Thompson). Even his wedding in 1989 to Thompson was near-royal in its proportions and was on the front pages of almost every newspaper in England. Two great actors were going to create the kind of dynasty the country hadn't seen since the Redgraves or since Olivier married Vivien Leigh.

"Ken and Em" were feted by everyone from Prince Charles to Hollywood's most powerful tycoons. He and Thompson seemed charmed -- almost too lucky, too talented and too happy to be mere mortals.

"It was crazy," Branagh, 35, says now. "Like the coverage of our wedding -- it was the August silly season and there was nothing else to write about so the papers wrote about our wedding. Em and I never courted the publicity, yet it came."

Then having praised him for years, the British media turned on Branagh following the release of Frankenstein in 1993. Even though it took in $99 million at the box office worldwide, the expensive two-year project was a critical and financial flop in both the U.S. and the UK.

For a year, as the film rolled out across the world, the press criticized him for all his alleged past excesses and even his appearance, which had one British critic writing that Branagh had "the face of a bruiser, famously lacking lips."

Branagh is in fact winningly boyish in his enthusiasm and sheer optimism. There's a feeling that he can do anything he sets his mind to. He cheerfully talks about film, fame and fortune, rattling off quotes from Shakespeare, Orson Welles and Kenneth Tynan to illustrate his points. But the qualities that make him attractive can also come across as arrogance or hubris, which in any Shakespearean hero are fatal weaknesses that are immediately punished.

Stories abounded that the failure of Frankenstein had turned him into a grumpy egotist who was blaming everyone but himself. It also was said that he was increasingly jealous of the success of Thompson, who about the same time won an Academy Award for her role in Howard's End and another Oscar for best script adaptation for Sense and Sensibility.

The backlash against Branagh increased when the couple separated last year after six years of marriage. He began seeing his Frankenstein co-star Helena Bonham Carter, while Thompson was seen with her co-star in Sense and Sensibility, Greg Wise. Branagh insists the breakdown of his marriage was no one's fault and that there were no others involved at the time. Thompson has agreed, admitting in interviews that the couple's problems began three years before they separated.

But he's cagey about his current relationship with Bonham Carter, hinting the two are no longer together. "The old private-life issue is as private as ever," he says. "In all honesty, at present I don't have one. I'm finishing Hamlet, organizing a charity gala for Paul Newman and I started a movie in early October, so when I get around to having one, I'll let you know."

And Branagh becomes visibly nervous when asked about the separation from Thompson, staring out the window and jiggling slightly as he talks about it. "No one can pluck the heart out of a relationship between two people," he says cautiously. "Even if you do talk about it, it's a secret thing. When the doors close it's inevitably their business because there are things that can never be brought to light. You'd have to write books and books to reveal it all. We can't even really discuss it with our families because the conversation would be too long. Where would you start?

"Things just happen," Branagh adds, the words coming quickly now. "But there will always be something special between Em and I. She's a great, great woman. I adore her and we will always be mutually supportive of each other. We've always been two mates who genuinely celebrate each other's work. That was the case even before either of us was famous."

He dismisses suggestions the separation resulted from their flourishing careers. "The special nature of our game does make it difficult, but the same dangers can exist in jobs that are deemed regular ones. We enjoy an extraordinary privilege in what we do and I don't believe our problems are any more unusual than anyone else's. They're different, but in the end you can't blame fame or work. They're not part of the implicit scenes of the tragedy."

Branagh was working on Hamlet as his marriage ended, but he'd begun thinking about the project long before. "I've been planning Hamlet for eight years and dreaming about it for 20, ever since I first saw the play," he says. "It gets into your system in a way you can't articulate with words. When I first saw it I felt like I was encountering a force of nature. There was this vitality that grabbed me."

The movie is based on his own adaptation of the play and for the first time includes all the less-important scenes that many stage and film directors have cut in the past to shorten it. His version follows Laurence Olivier's 1948 classic, Tony Richardson's 1969 outing and Mel Gibson's praised 1990 version.

It's a three-and-a-half hour film with an intermission. Extreme length isn't Branagh's only nod to epic films of the past -- his Hamlet is shot on 70-millimeter film, which he says is probably the first time the format has been used in Britain since Sir David Lean's grand Ryan's Daughter.

Branagh -- who has played the Dane three times on stage -- believes that adding these sections gives a much more complete vision of Hamlet and Denmark, which is preparing for war at the same time the royal family is riven by internal battles. It also turns the play from what is traditionally considered a tragedy into "a good old ripping yarn and a celebration of life. It has something to say to all generations about politics, families, war, love affairs and the loss of a parent," he says.

"In the end you don't feel Hamlet is melancholy or suicidal. You feel he's reached some sort of peace," Branagh says. "He's often unpleasant, but what redeems him is his intense courage in confronting his problems. He's grieving for the loss of his father and feels his mother married too soon afterward, but underneath all that you can see this incredible potential."

The $18 million film has a cast of stars, including Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Jack Lemmon,Gerard Depardieu, Kate Winslet, Sir John Gielgud, Lord Richard Attenborough and Charlton Heston.

"It was wonderful having so many stars involved. All actors in the end are as star-struck as their audience and they loved meeting one another -- Billy Crystal was in love with Julie Christie forever, and in the middle of the night we'd be sitting in an overcrowded trailer listening to Jack Lemmon talk about being fired from his first acting job."

One coincidence for Winslet was moving from working with Thompson in Sense and Sensibility to Hamlet, in which she does nude scenes with Branagh.

"I've never really given it a second thought because I'd never really known them when they were Ken and Em; I'd only met them as two totally separate people," she says. "I just consider myself lucky to work with two such fantastic actors. Emma's a great writer and Ken's an amazing director. They are two people who are so prominent in the British film industry and essentially make it what it is. They certainly put it on the map."

Branagh admits the initial reaction of movie-goers to Hamlet may be, "Oh no, Shakespeare." His hope is that they can get over that and through the theater door. Then he believes the story will grab them.

"Hamlet is a very complex human being and people may think, 'No, I don't want to watch this. He reminds me of me, with all my daily doubts and anxieties,'" Branagh says. "But the stories still appeal to us today. It's just a film, just like Shakespeare says when he wrote, 'It's just a play;' we're just trying to please you.

"Shakespeare was amazingly cunning about his plays and if he were around today he'd be a major Hollywood player looking at the movie grosses. He wrote entertainments and if they didn't work, he wrote another one. Hamlet is an entertainment and people have to realize that."

He's naturally anxious about the reaction to a film in which he invested so much effort and time. Branagh says his experience with Frankenstein didn't make him any more thick-skinned, although it taught him to roll with the punches -- "Otherwise a bit of you dies."

"It's unfortunate you aren't able to adjust your personal involvement in it to deal with the reaction, but that's the way it is," he says, lighting another cigarette and sipping his ice-cold coffee. "We could win 5,000 awards and all be knighted or it could be a critical flop. Madness lies in both."

The completion of the film does mark a momentary pause in his writing and directing careers, however, and in his missionary-like zeal to popularize Shakespeare. For the immediate future he plans to focus only on acting, and his agenda is full. He's already started shooting Shakespeare's Sister (which happens to be the name of a British rock group), playing a Catholic priest opposite Madeleine Stowe. After that, he's signed to star in a film based on an original John Grisham script, The Gingerbread Man, for Island Pictures. No start date or co-star have yet been named, but Robert Altman's name has been mentioned as director, though that's not confirmed.

"I have a kind of responsibility fatigue and I still do get a real delight in acting," Branagh says. "Plus I feel I could learn a great deal from working with other directors."

And Branagh laughs when questioned if Hamlet marks the beginning of a rebuilding of his career, asking, "If I needed to rebuild, would I be doing a three-and-a-half hour Hamlet? Anybody would call that career suicide.

"You can't think too much about failure or rebuilding," he adds. "You just have to get on with it, which is where things have always led me. If I feel Hamlet hits the targets I'm aiming for, that's the best I can hope.

"Whether I am canonized or made a pariah doesn't matter. I've gone through versions of both. Believe me, there aren't too many more horrors out there that I haven't already seen."

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