'Midwinter' A Reflection of Branagh
San Francisco Chronicle , February
by Ruthe Stein
Autobiographical tale comes
amid director's split with Emma Thompson
When Kenneth Branagh brought
his new film to the Toronto International Film Festival last
fall, it was called ``In the Bleak Midwinter.'' The movie is
coming out this week with a cheerier title: ``A Midwinter's Tale.''
If only it were that easy for
Branagh to erase the bleak part from his own life. Within weeks
of his saying in Toronto that he and his wife, Emma Thompson,
were on the phone several times a day when apart and were ``working
on'' starting a family, the couple separated amid rumors that
both were having affairs.
Was this a case of the husband
being the last to know? Or was Branagh simply playing the part
of a contented husband, knowing that if he so much as hinted
at trouble between Britain's pre-eminent acting couple the press
in Toronto wouldn't leave him alone?
It's irresistible to look for
hints of marital discord in ``A Midwinter's Tale,'' since the
movie, which Branagh wrote as well as directed, is so obviously
``Almost every incident comes
from some sort of life experience. It's all sort of personal
and real,'' Branagh, 35, acknowledged in an interview in a Toronto
hotel room, fingering the beard he had grown to play Iago in
the movie ``Othello'' and hadn't bothered to shave off. The actor
insisted his stubble didn't stop his wife from kissing him, implying
she was still doing that sort of thing.
The character in ``A Midwinter's
Tale'' closest to Branagh is Joe
--an itinerant stage actor tempted
by the lure of Hollywood. He is played by Michael Maloney, an
old chum from Branagh's Royal Shakespeare Company days before
he left the stage for a movie career. Unlike ``Henry V,'' ``Much
Ado About Nothing'' and ``Dead Again,'' all of which Branagh
both directed and starred in, he doesn't appear in his new film.
A RAGTAG THEATRICAL TROUPE
``A Midwinter's Tale'' is about
a ragtag theatrical troupe attempting to put on a production
of ``Hamlet'' in a provincial English town. In the middle of
rehearsing the title role, Joe, whose love life is messed up
because he is always away somewhere working, asks a fellow company
member: ``Do you think being in love is always about being in
the same place at the same time?'' The instantaneous reply: ``Well,
During their six years of marriage,
``Ken and Em'' -- as the British tabloids dubbed them -- spent
long periods of time away from each other. In the announcement
of their breakup, they admitted this had caused them to drift
In another instance of the movie
possibly imitating Branagh's life, Joe ends up falling for his
Ophelia, played by Julia Sawalha (Saffron in BBC-TV's ``Absolutely
Fabulous''). At least one critic has pointed out that with her
mass of curly dark hair, Sawalha resembles Helena Bonham Carter,
Branagh's co-star in ``Mary Shelley's Franken stein'' with whom
he was rumored to have had a romance.
In his salad days, Branagh toured
with a bare-bones theater company like the one in ``A Midwinter's
``The actors were all like family
who you fell in and out of love with and had bad moments with.
Traveling together brought out the good, bad and the ugly in
everyone,'' he recalled.
That troupe offered ``such rich
material'' that Branagh immediately seized on the idea of making
a movie about it. But he was kept busy on other movies, including
the 1994 box-office bomb ``Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.''
Branagh admits being ``depressed''
over the shellacking he took on that film. The critics, as if
waiting to get him after his string of successes, were merciless.
``But I got no more depressed than one is supposed to get. It
was the usual Sunday teatime suicide hour kind of depression,''
In the wake of ``Frankenstein,''
friends and even strangers would come up to him on the street
in London, squeeze his arm and give him a sympathetic look.
``I thought: `Have I got a strange
disease? Yes, I've got failure disease.' ''
Branagh came out of the debacle
resolved to finally make his little movie about a theater company.
The $1 million budget was out of his own pocket, he said.
``Not everybody has a million
dollars, but I got paid well for `Frankenstein.' The money was
in the bank and I thought I must use it to do something that
is very releasing.''
Although people in the business
told him it was foolish to use his own money, he became convinced
it was the only way after meeting with a potential backer who
loved the idea of the movie but tried to dissuade him from shooting
in black and white. By financing it himself, Branagh got to film
it his way -- in black and white.
As he did a few years ago with
the low-budget ``Peter's Friends,'' Branagh cast many British
stage and TV actors unfamiliar to American audiences. However,
``A Midwinter's Tale'' does boast one Hollywood-size star: Joan
Collins, who has a small but hilarious role as Joe's supportive
Collins was cast after Branagh
ran into her at a film premiere. ``She told me she had an appetite
to do different kinds of things and would like to be in something
where she had to really act. She talked as if she was a very
young actress,'' Branagh recalled. ``Joan worked like a real
``Hamlet'' is performed in bits
and pieces in ``A Midwinter's Tale.'' Branagh said he did this
to show the text isn't holy. ``It's not like whispering in church.
Shakespeare can be laughed at, he can be fiddled with, he can
Since his first Shakespearean
film, ``Henry V'' -- for which he got Oscar nominations as best
actor and best director -- Branagh has become Hollywood's expert
on the Bard. He is credited with initiating a rash of Shakespeare
adaptations and with the idea of casting American actors in the
films even if they had never done Shakespeare before.
Laurence Fishburne consulted
with Branagh before playing Othello to his Iago. When Keanu Reeves
was preparing to do ``Hamlet'' on the stage in Canada, he got
tips from Branagh.
``We're always talking about
`Hamlet,' Keanu and I,'' Branagh said.
``A Midwinter's Tale'' is a warm-
up for the full-blown 3 1/2-hour ``Hamlet'' Branagh is in the
process of filming. ``Having come this far, I might as well just
go all the way.''
He'll play the Danish Prince,
Julie Christie will be Queen Gertrude and Kate Winslet will play
Ophelia. As an example of how incestuous the British acting community
can be, Winslet starred opposite Thompson in ``Sense and Sensibility''
and was a confidante when Thompson and Branagh's marriage was
It's the sort of situation Shakespeare
would have understood and made plausible in one of his plays.
As Branagh put it, ``The quality of Shakespeare's wit and his
perceptions about human relationships are very illuminating.''
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