An Exclusive Ken-Friends Question & Answer Interview with Samuel Crowl
Q. What makes a perfect film and what Branagh film comes closest to
achieving that status?
SC: Perfect is tricky; let's substitute successful. A successful film is one
where vision, style, technique, and performance all blend together to
produce a robust, engaging, and challenging experience for the audience.
Films as diverse as Citizen Kane, Rear Window, Lawrence of Arabia, Some
Like It Hot, and 8 1/2 are classic examples. The successful Shakespeare
film must have the added ingredient of providing an intelligent and
imaginative approach to translating Shakespeare's text into the language of
film. I find Branagh's Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing his most
successful Shakespeare films, though Hamlet is clearly the most ambitious
and the hardest to adequately describe. I find Dead Again and A Midwinter's
Tale the most successful of his non-Shakespearean films.
Q. Which of Ken's films has not been given the attention it merits?
SC: I was puzzled by the response to his Love's Labour's Lost. I found the
film witty and amusing and nostalgic. The great Porter-Kern-Berlin-Gershwin
songs made, I thought, a perfect fit with Shakespeare's poetic exuberance
in this early comedy. I thought the film would appeal to the sophisticated
moviegoing audience, but then I am always equally puzzled by the tiny
audiences attracted to Woody Allen films. Match Point was a wonderful piece
of filmmaking and storytelling yet died at the box office.
Q. Is there a Shakespeare play that has not been made into a film that you
would like to see Ken direct?
SC: I think we'd all like to see his Macbeth, though we do have several other
interesting film versions of the play by Welles, Polanski, and Kurosawa. A
play that has not been filmed that I'd love to see him tackle is The Merry
Wives of Windsor, especially if he could convince Robbie Coltrane to play
Q. In writing about all of Branagh's films, what most surprised you?
SC: The importance of music to his conception and realization of the film.
Q. We "Ken-Friends" were thrilled by his film of Love's Labour's Lost. Why
do you think it failed to find an audience?
SC: See the second question.
Q. Do you see any significant differences between Branagh's Shakespeare
and non-Shakespearean films? Have the two types of films influenced each
SC: All of Branagh's films are distinguished by vivid and vital performances,
imaginative and fluid camera work, and the soaring, often operatic, romance
of Patrick Doyle's film scores. Both his Shakespearean and
non-Shakespearean films reveal his fascination with the codes, conventions,
and major genres of the popular Hollywood film. His great genius, as a
director, is for making a synthesis between rival traditions, most
obviously in the way he successfully unites Shakespeare with Hollywood and
American film actors with their British classical stage counterparts.
Q. What did you find when you developed your chapter on Peter's Friends?
SC: The film reveals the company-community ethos that lies deep in Branagh's
creative spirit and works as something of a trial run (large cast, multiple
story lines, shooting on location) for the far greater film of Much Ado
About Nothing. The film is really about Emma's friends, not Ken's, and so I
find his role within the film oddly out-of-place and uncomfortable (for Ken
as well as the audience).
Q. Can you talk about elements you view as "trademarks" of Ken's style as a
SC: Branagh clearly loves the communal spirit involved in filmmaking, an even
more collaborative art than producing a play. His film style is bold and
vigorous. He likes an active camera and builds his films around two or
three "signature" shots which define his visual relationship to his
material. Such shots include the great post-Agincourt four minute tracking
shot of Henry carrying the page back across the battlefield; several circle
shots in Dead Again; the amazing steadicam shots which open Peter's Friends
and close Much Ado About Nothing; the dance sequence with DeNiro's creature
in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; and the tricky mirror shot for the "To be
or not to be" soliloquy in Hamlet. Branagh also has an instinctive
understanding of the role music plays in a film and his collaboration with
Patrick Doyle is a major element in his approach to his Shakespearean and
Q. What do you think are the major influences on Branagh's work in theater
and film. Are they different from those Branagh himself has identified?
SC: Branagh's best work on stage resulted from his collaboration with the
director Adrian Noble. Both men are lively and keenly intelligent and both
have been heavily influenced by films: Noble by the great European
directors like Bergman and Fellini; Branagh more by directors like
Hitchcock and Lean. In his films Branagh likes to adopt and adapt
established film genres: the war film for Henry V; screwball comedy for
Much Ado; film noir for Dead Again; the intelligent epic for Hamlet, etc.
Branagh is most intelligent and articulate in discussing his own work.
Q. Are there aspects of Branagh's films you haven't been able to analyse
satisfactorily? What are they?
SC: Ouch. Tough question to ask the critic. I don't think anyone (and I've now
tried twice) has found a way to talk intelligently about Branagh's
accomplishment in his film of Hamlet. There's just so much of it and we are
so accustomed to Shakespeare films tailoring the material to suit the
medium that we haven't discovered how to talk about a film which gives us
all of the text. And so much more. It's the most hyperbolic Shakespeare
film ever made and I think it embarrasses the professional Shakespearean
who thinks he knows what a good Shakespeare film is.
Q. What Branagh film brings you the most joy?
SC: My heart leaps up and into a wide grin every time that line of seven
returning warriors thunders toward the camera in Much Ado. It stirs again,
in a much different fashion, when Beatrice and Benedict confront each other
in the "Kill Claudio" chapel scene. These are two stunning moments and to
my mind are unmatched in the long history of Shakespeare on screen.