Cinemania Interview: Kenneth Branagh

Cinemania, December 1996
By Tom Keogh

Kenneth Branagh's room at Seattle's Inn at the Market hotel has an invigorating view of vendors and shoppers and all sorts of bustling activity at the city's open-air Pike Place Market. Behind the street scene is a resplendent Puget Sound, looking particularly expansive and inviting for idle gazers on a crisp, clear winter's day. One might expect an out-of-towner to meander a little toward Seattle's waterfront, but Branagh is resigned to the fact that he has no time allotted for that on this trip, just as he didn't the time before or the time before that.

"It's a painted backdrop," he says sadly of the life outside his window. It's no wonder Branagh has no slack in his timetable. Since the last time I talked with him in 1993, he has directed three films (Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, A Midwinter's Tale, and the new, four-hour Hamlet), costarred in one (Othello), narrated another (Anne Frank Remembered), and has recently finished production on Shakespeare's Sister, in which he stars opposite William Hurt and Madeline Stowe. If he is alarmingly prolific, he can't be accused of cutting corners: Hamlet is the first film production of William Shakespeare's most famous tragedy to feature the playwright's entire, unabridged text.

Is there going to be a shorter version of the film?

There will be a shorter version. It won't be released in theaters. It will be available to countries that won't take a four-hour film, and possibly for airlines.

Does that disappoint you?

No, it's what I agreed to when they took the very courageous step of financing a four-hour version. It seemed unreasonable to deny them the opportunity to show it in countries that want the film but not as long a film. I think to some extent there might be some interest in a shorter version from people who've seen the long version.

Really? Why?

Somebody made the point that on a plane from, say, Seattle to Chicago, you'd have to circle the airport for an hour to finish it. That's a legitimate point, I suppose. There's no question that I set out to do the long version, and they were kind enough to let me do it. They require the short version, and I don't see how I could have said no. But it's done; it's two hours and five minutes.

Doesn't that just make it Hamlet's greatest hits again?

There's a bit of that. We've been pretty bold with it, I must say. I don't know. What I knew is that once the long version had the life that was it's due, I felt released. I felt like doing another film. So it has coherence, and for some people maybe it will work better. Not for me.

You say in your book about the making of Hamlet that you haven't been completely satisfied with your past performances of the role until you made this film.

I think over the years I've understood a little more about the way the part paces itself, and I feel a little more confident with playing all his various extremes. The more I did it, the more I realized what a contradictory man he was, what a contrary man, like human beings are. And I worried far less in this one about trying to define who he was. People like to label Hamlet: the neurotic Hamlet, the romantic Hamlet, the lyrical Hamlet, the manic Hamlet. I think he's all of these qualities. This time, I felt I could surrender more to the complexities of the part. And the film suited me. On a personal level, the process of playing Hamlet in the theater at the full-length version, which I did three or four years ago, is exhausting. You get to certain parts later on in the play and you wish you had more puff, basically, especially for the bloody fight. The gravitational weight of the performance was greater by the time I came to do it in this film.

It seems that the film is not so much trying to be a New Definitive Hamlet, but just Hamlet, in a way that we haven't seen before on film.

That's what we tried to do. We tried to give it a strong inflection, if you like, an interpretive inflection, by getting it away from a Gothic world and putting it in a 19th-century world of color, opulence, sexiness, and power. That's a strong thing to do with the story, and then it was important to actually get out of the way of the play as much as possible. One of the things I noticed a bit more was the way in which the magic of Shakespeare's writing works very mysteriously. In the same way, I think audiences don't necessarily need to understand every word that's said, but they will [intuitively] get the gist of things and be convinced that they know what's going on. The same goes for actors and interpreters of the play. You have an obligation to tell a story as clearly as possible, to assume no one has seen it before.

There are very few scenes--when Ophelia slips a key from her mouth, for example--that go into a cinematic dimension beyond a text-driven production.

Our work has definitely placed a high value on the poetry itself, on the words. Within that, the film is cinematic but definitely walking hand in hand with the words. There were many things in the story that would have provided for cinematic opportunities, but the film would have run another three-quarters of an hour, and we already wanted to include all the text. So there a decision was made. One hopes the sense of cinema is provided by the fact that it's 70mm, so the look of it is very different.

You can do all the things in cinema you couldn't do on stage. For instance, getting out to the plains to see Fortinbras. Seeing the pictures in Hamlet's mind when he has the chance to kill Claudius but rationalizes not killing him. Using illustrative flashbacks. When you've determined that you're using the whole text, there's no question that you're making a significant choice there. Which means that in terms of sheer pictorial invention, you are limiting yourself in a way. But that's just a personal taste thing from my point of view, because I like the words as well.

Talk about the decision to place the story in the 19th century.

In Europe, which was controlled by several royal families, there were often intermarriages, bribery, and scandal. It was a very opulent period; people looked very sexy. It was glamorous, but underneath you could feel the corruption and incestuousness. So that seems to me to be very true of the play, which is in part a study of the pressure--Shakespeare often talks about this--felt by people who are in positions of power, privilege, and isolation and are dealing with perfectly normal human problems like the loss of a parent. But they're under a microscope, so those problems are intensified. So the world of the 19th century seemed volatile enough, sexy enough, far enough away to make it acceptable that they spoke the way they did, yet it is close enough to us to make them seem like a recognizably powerful royal family. The palace where we shot it suggests power, gets us away from the Gothic element and the suggestion that these people are all manic-depressives. They're really alive and curious, and Hamlet's natural mood is not to be melancholy.

What about all the mirrors in the film?

Mirrors seemed like a very resonant idea for images in the play. This is a court which is partly narcissistic and vain, partly paranoid. So I wanted a place that was full of two-way mirrors and hidden doors. Mirrors are great things, and they're often talked about in Shakespeare. Holding a mirror up to nature is what he wishes to do with Hamlet and to have Hamlet say. So much of this comes from my intuition about the play. I'm credited with much more intelligence than, alas, is the case, but I've got a strong intuition about these stories--at least the ones I've chosen to tell. Not a definitive intuition, but a strong one, and it's usually that that I follow. In the end, I can't really rationalize why it had to be set in a mirrored room, but retrospectively it helps in lots of ways.

As with Much Ado About Nothing, you were working with very different kinds of actors on Hamlet.

We had a bunch of different actors, which I was very keen to do. Get a group of people who sound very different from one another. I think in life, people can live in the same place and sound completely different. I wanted different accents. I liked the difference in approach. I like people coming at the story from different backgrounds. Julie Christie, who'd never done Shakespeare and very little theater working alongside Derek Jacobi, who'd done lots of both but not much film. It makes them very vulnerable with each other in a good way. We rehearsed for a couple of weeks--

Literally, just a couple of weeks?

Yeah. I mean, I spent lots of time with people in advance of that. I came out to America for solo sessions with Billy Crystal and [Charlton] Heston and Robin [Williams]. But we did a whole rehearsal by candlelight in that main hall [on the set of the palace at Elsinore]. Julie Christie had a nervous breakdown: "Why do we have to do this?" Well, you know, it'll tell you some things. It's not a performance, but you'll find that doing it all in order will answer some questions that you're asking me about but that I can't tell you because it has to do with the experience of playing the part. So we did that and talked about grief and death and betrayal and politics and did silly games and tried to bond as a company. We enjoyed the uniqueness of the project, enjoyed the pressure of feeling that nobody has done this before and probably will not do it again in this way. We had the whole play to say. Actors couldn't moan about some great line being cut, as they always do. It was a very enjoyable time, actually.

You’re currently on tour with the movie. Have you had an opportunity to really see America? To drive across it?

I'll tell you, if I get a chance to make another film--although film companies never want you to do this kind of thing--I'm literally going to drive across America. Get out of the planes and get myself in a car and just break up the trip so I have enough time to travel and have a bit of a break and see more of the country from the ground up. But I know Chicago, and I know Washington a bit well-ish now. And Los Angeles--which isn't America, of course. I get frustrated because I've come here [Seattle] three times now, I know some people here; I know a bit about the theater scene here. It's a very attractive town to me. I'm now at the point where I'm fed up with the tantalizing glimpses of this country. I'm going down to Savannah at the end of this month to make a film there, and I'm very much looking forward to that.

I was just going to ask you if you were ever going to make another film in the US.

I'm just acting in this one. Robert Altman is directing from a John Grisham screenplay--not from a novel--called The Gingerbread Man. It's set in Savannah. So I've been reading a lot about the South. I just read Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil, which is set down there, a very interesting book. I'm really looking forward to it, because that's the way you get to know places is by working in them, going to buy the milk and leading a slightly more normal life than this nonsense.

One last question: Are you going to star in the next Star Wars trilogy?

Not that I know. The rumor started from a trading card. An Australian artist drew a picture of me saying, wouldn't I be a good person to play the young Alec Guinness. And poor old George Lucas has been plagued with these rumors ever since. I gave him a ring to say, it's not us. We're not lobbying for the part.

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