Alas, Poor Kenneth!
Esquire, January 1997
by Elizabeth Kaye
He's been called the new Olivier,
the next Burton. He's made Shakespeare hip for the masses and
now has a much-anticipated film of Hamlet on the way.
So what's bugging Kenneth Branagh? That is the question.
When the filming begins, he has
so much riding on it. Too much for anyone whose immediate ambitions
include remaining sane. At stake are his credibility, his future,
his claim to seriousness, his hope of securing a reputation as
anything other than that over-reacher who used to be married
to Emma Thompson. It is not something he can afford to think
about, so he tries to ignore it, and ignoring it persuades him
that you don't have to think about something to panic about it.
Hamlet is not the first Shakespearean work that Kenneth Branagh
has acted in and directed, but, perversely, it was easier before.
"I had the advantage there," he would say of his initial
project, Henry V "of truly not knowing what I was doing."
In that instance, he relied on
the goodwill of others, good luck, and his own ravenous hunger
"And I had a passion for
the story," he recalls. "But in terms of knowing how
to execute it, I had a sort of happy ignorance about how many
things could go wrong."
But nothing went wrong, and at
age twenty-seven, the refugee from Belfast's York Street was
annointed, in the words of London's Evening Standard, "the
golden boy of British acting." And the unstoppable progress
of Ken and Em presented the rapacious British press with a couple
who seemed brighter and more gifted than anyone else. So the
press duly celebrated them, until it took to reviling them when
they were rewarded for being brighter and more gifted with Oscar
nominations, fame in America, and comparisons to the Oliviers.
In a Britain notoriously uneasy about success--the meritocracy's
challenge to the established order--the couple proved even easier
to chastise and envy than they had been to love. And as they
went on to make Dead Again, Peters Friends, and Much Ado About
Nothing, with all the attendant publicity, the impression grew
that the gorgeous Ken and Em had, in the eyes of one observer,
"stuffed their gorgeousness down the public's throats."
Then came Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,
a $43 million project whose thunderously negative reception freed
once-fawning journalists to write that Branagh was losing his
touch and his mind, and to initiate interviews with him by saying,
"You must be feeling terrible." Two years later, he
would still refer to that experience as "bruising and humiliating."
"At this end of things,"
he would occasionally say, "I have a very specific example
of how things can go wrong."
Nonetheless, he arrives at Blenheim
Palace, in the piercing, unyielding chill of an English winter,
to shoot Hamlet's exterior scenes, accompanied by a crew of eighty
and a cast of five hundred. Each morning, he awakes uneasy and
edgy, his apprehensions multiplying as a driver conveys him through
the straw-colored landscape and the location draws nearer. Branagh
knows, of course, that if he botches a film of Hamlet, he can't
blame it on the script. Not that he is much for affixing blame.
He took the fault for Frankenstein entirely on himself, insisting
that the final, much-maligned product was the picture he wanted
But Hamlet goes beyond that.
It is the film he has to make, and Branagh is portraying the
young Danish prince at the last point in his life that he possibly
can, the age of thirty-five, halfway through, as he often points
out, that biblical allotment of threescore and ten.
One day in March, Branagh puts
on a black high-collared jacket, stands alone before the camera,
and delivers the speech that begins: "To be or not to be
... " When he started acting, his teacher cautioned that
while he had the requisite passion, he had trouble locating the
poetry. This is no longer the case. As he utters the best-known
speech in the English language, he illuminates phrases and subtleties,
drawing on an innate theatricality yet never compromising his
basic admonition to actors, taken from Hamlet's advice to the
Players: Speak clearly and be natural. After that, he feels a
bit better. He sees a portion of the assembled film and decides
it has more coherence than his panic led him to believe. Suddenly,
he can feel the whole thing working.
"Though it didn't change
the anxiety," he notes later, "just turns it around.
You get more genuine confidence about it at a base level, but
then you start worrying about maintaining it."
"You have something rather
good here," he begins telling himself. "Don't fuck
it up, don't fuck it up."
"We're on to something,"
he tells a friend. "But every day, I think, There must be
an easy bit coming up. And there never is."
He is an unexpectedly engaging
figure, his harsh image having no bearing on the reality. Reputed
to be arrogant and temperamental, he manages to work, year after
year, with the same gifted professionals - among them Sir Derek
Jacobi, Sir John Gielgud, and Richard Briers - whose long-standing
loyalty is absolute.
He has confidence in people he
hires," says his composer, Patrick Doyle. "He wants
them to have input."
"He trusts us," says
Michael Maloney, who portrays Laertes, "and we trust him
enough to do whatever he asks."
Still, knowing his reputation,
Branagh takes pleasure in playing at it on the set. "I think
I'll go intimidate a few people," he says one day. "Ken,
we have a problem," someone tells him.
"Well," he says, suppressing
a grin, "I'm very sympathetic to your problems, but push
off for now."
A director's set is a kind of
Rorschach test, a professional fingerprint, no two of which can
be the same. On Branagh's sets, the supreme level of competence
is matched only by the absence of frenzy. "Shall we do another
take?" he asks his cinematographer, "even though we
have two and there's acres left to accomplish? Advise me."
At other times, he jokes with
the crew, lightening the mood at potentially tense moments. "You
drink in the morning, don't you?" he asks a grip. "I
don't have a problem with it, except for the way it affects your
Ever since he was in his teens,
enthusiasm and energy have been the core of Branagh's magnetic
charm, lending him a distinct allure and a street fighter's grit
to complement the ruggedly unconventional face that evokes James
Cagney and that might have qualified him as one of nature's character
actors. But he had that honeyed voice, a coiled intensity that
read as sexuality, and the star's essential ability to communicate
while holding something back, to remain a mystery by being at
once unusually present and unusually elusive. Similarly, in conversation,
he manages to be both guarded and frank, as if pulled between
the urge to keep others at bay and the desire to make a connection.
Like many people inclined to
extremes, he strives for equilibrium. "At last, I can see
that a balance between personal and professional life can be
achieved," he wrote after finishing his film of Henry V
in 1989, and I hope that I continue to keep it in view."
And he did, but only for a time,
though it was a blessed time. This was during the making of Much
Ado About Nothing, the fourth film in which he acted with and
directed Emma Thompson and the point at which it all seemed to
come together: the private life and the public one, the balance
between fear and aspiration, work and love, striving and contentment.
And there was the lush Tuscan landscape the healing sun, a story
that had, as he says, "much sunshine in it" and the
sense of well-being that would, in retrospect, convince him that
he had never been as happy as he was then.
Three years later, in 1995, when
he had made two more movies and she had made five, their marriage
ended. "I have to make an appointment to see her,"
Branagh was quoted as saying.
"Ken is so tired,"
Thompson said when asked whether they planned to have children,
"his sperm are on crutches."
And in the time following the
breakup, as his new alliance with Helena Bonham Carter solidified,
Branagh, who was known for dealing with his problems by hurling
himself into his work, began thrashing out the issue he perceived
at the root of Hamlet: What does it take to be happy? What does
it take to be a human being?
For as long as he could remember,
he had been drawn to what he calls the world of make-behave as
"some kind of alternative to living." And now he took
to studying characters in plays and fiction, seeking to find
in them the answer to a question he so often asked himself. What
is it that allows someone to obtain some form of peace of mind
or acceptance, that lets you not get quite so worked up about
Growing up in a working-class
Protestant household in Belfast, he discovered the movies, watching
them on television for hours, rapt and motionless, bewitched
by Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy. "I used to go
around the back of the television set," he recalls, "trying
to work out whether they lived there."
That world of the movies compelled
him. He wanted to understand every component that went into their
making, initially out of curiosity and later because that process,
as opposed to the processes of real life, was subject to a pattern
and logic that he could comprehend.
Establishing his name in that
world, he quickly realized that his communication with actors
on the set was more engaged and impassioned than his interaction
with people in the everyday situations that invariably left him
"What you need," he
was told long ago by a friend, the actor Brian Blessed, "is
to be stimulated by great adventures, great endeavors."
Filmmaking was precisely that for him, and the more immersed
in it he became, the more he fed his inborn thirst for emotions
and occurrences played out on the epic scale. And it was not
by accident that Shakespeare's exalted universe came to mean
so much to him.
"I feel I must be a big
disappointment to people in life," Branagh recently told
a friend. "When I'm working, I can go in and be lionish
in the context of taking on a great deal of responsibility and
being very careful and caring for a great number of people and
taking that very seriously. In life, I am duller of spirit. I'm
sort of empty."
His traditional upbringing gave
him a sense of the family man he ought to be. But now, his marriage
over, he is beginning to think that his happiest, most absorbed.
hours are those spent working.
"At this end of the century,
that's a tough thing to say without feeling you're some kind
of leper," he says. "`I'm happiest in my work.' Oh,
my God, what does that mean about me? Because something tells
you, Why aren't you out very consciously smelling that rose and
proving that you're a complete human being?'"
The indoor set on which Hamlet
is being filmed is contrived from a sweeping succession of rooms
spread out across two immense soundstages at Shepperton Studios.
The floor, with its endless expanse of black and white squares
in a chessboard pattern, is an intimation of order in a domain
where everything is destined for entropy.
Branagh works with the cinematographer
to set up a shot, then stands before the camera, preparing himself
for the scene in which a raging Hamlet tells Ophelia, "We
will have no more marriages."
An assistant director calls for
silence. Branagh paces, moving faster and faster. "I hope
I remember the fucking walk," he says. "I hope I remember
the fucking lines."
He continues to pace, aiming
to reach the heightened emotional pitch at which the scene begins,
a challenge somewhat eased by a movie set's charged atmosphere.
"You have all that tension," says Branagh, " and
you can just explode it."
Often, he relies on the kind
of sense memory he describes as "just an awful, actory trick."
These tricks vary with each performer. "For me," Branagh
says, "it's usually to think about people you miss, people
you adore who won't be there for you."
As he works, he is intently observed
by the film's two consultants, Russell Jackson of the Shakespeare
Institute, whose title is text consultant, and Hugh Cruttwell,
who previously spent twenty-four years as principal of the Royal
Academy of Dramatic Arts, where he became Branagh's mentor, and
has since served as acting adviser on most of Branagh's films.
Seated in director's chairs,
dressed in corduroys and sensible, worn leather shoes, jackson
and Cruttwell are gentlemen in that word's most classic and affirmative
sense. Describing a speech as "wonderfully felicitous,"
considering a subtlety in the text by saying, "It really
merits pondering," they review every aspect of each day's
work, from whether it makes sense for Claudius to kneel beside
the pool of blood that trickles from the dead Polonius (it doesn't
make sense, but Sir Derek Jacobi is determined to do it) to whether
Laertes and his sister, Ophelia, should kiss goodbye with closed
In the final scene, in which
Hamlet dies, Cruttwell is initially dissatisfied with Branagh's
"Yes, yes, physically it's
fine," he tells him, "but we still don't have the essential
feeling of a man who's about to die."
"Hugh, I've never died before,"
says Branagh. "I don't know what the fuck the essential
"I can't tell you,"
Cruttwell replies. "I'm just saying it's not there."
Branagh relies on Cruttwell to, as he says, "challenge my
execution of it." And at times, Cruttwell reshapes Branagh's
conceptions, as he will during the filming of the pivotal scene
in which Polonius, played by the much-lauded Richard Briers,
forces his daughter, Ophelia, to tell him about her relationship
Ophelia is played by Kate Winslet,
the twenty-year-old actress nominated for an Academy Award for
her performance in Sense and Sensibility as the middle sister,
Marianne. Wanting her Ophelia to have a certain modernity, she
imbues her with more strength and willfulness than the character
is usually given.
Branagh likes that interpretation.
"One of the things that can go wrong with Ophelia,"
he says, "is for her to be too limp and submissive. And
giving her spunk will register with some fourteen-year-old girl
Throughout the scene, Kate Winslet's
Ophelia vibrates with anger and resentment. Speaking her final
line, a response to Polonius's insistence that she relinquish
her relationship with Hamlet, she spits out the words. "I
will obey, m'lord," she says.
"Cut!" calls the assistant
director. Still in character, Kate Winslet glares at the retreating
back of Polonius. "You ahse-hole," she says.
From his seat just off the set, Hugh Cruttwell frowns. "Any
actress who can say 'You ahse-hole' after that scene," he
says quietly, "is not inhabiting Ophelia."
Branagh approaches Cruttwell.
They huddle together, speaking softly so the others will not
hear. "She's too strong," Cruttwell tells him. "That
girl isn't going to go mad, and she isn't going to give up Hamlet."
"Well, Kate has a very definite
instinct about how it should be played," says Branagh, "and
I don't want to mess with it too much."
"But we must believe that
she will give Hamlet up," says Cruttwell. "This scene
must bring her to that point."
"I want her to have a bit
of spirit", says Branagh.
"As long as we believe she
is in an oppressed situation. She's really driven back on the
ropes, and we should get that."
Winslet goes back onto the set.
Branagh whispers to her. She listens, nodding. He calls for another
take. Another follows. Each time the scene is repeated, Winslet's
Ophelia breaks a little more. Again, Branagh whispers to her.
Gradually, the tone of the scene is transformed.
Now, protesting her father's
overbearing tactics, Ophelia arises from her seat in the chapel's
confessional, attempting to get away from him. Polonius pushes
her back down into the confessional, and it is clear that she
Branagh calls for another take,
then another. "What you need to get a certain effect"
he will say later, "is not necessarily something you can
tell an actor on the first take. Often, you have to wait until
they've done it a few times and got it into their system and
they're a little more inside it."
Patient, nourishing, he provides
whatever time is required to achieve the sense that Ophelia has
They play the scene again.
"I will obey, m'lord,"
Winslet says softly.
"Terrific," says Branagh.
"Let's keep running," he tells the camera operator
while never taking his gaze from Winslet. "All right,"
he tells her, his voice so hushed it is barely audible, "Let's
go again from the beginning."
The scene starts. Branagh moves
closer watching intently.
"Once again, that last line,"
"I will obey, m'lord,"
"Slower," says Branagh.
"I will obey, m'lord."
She seems tortured as the line
is squeezed out.
"Once more," Branagh
whispers, "even though it's impossibly painful to say again."
" I will obey, m'lord."
"Just close your eyes."
With her eyes shut, she whispers
the line, and her Ophelia is swamped in defeat and agony.
"Cut," says Branagh.
He goes to her and squeezes her
shoulder, then hastens to Cruttwell. "Did you like it?",
"What did you think?"
"I liked it," Branagh
says with a grin, "but I was happy earlier on."
"I liked it, too,"
"Then go tell Kate how good
Cruttwell goes to Kate Winslet
and cradles her in one arm. She looks small and young and drained.
She peers up at him apprehensively. "That was brilliant,"
Branagh watches them from a discreet
distance, blue eyes alight, too pleased to smile, having demonstrated
what those who work with him consider his greatest strength:
to bring out the utmost in everyone around him.
Actors trade in the particularities
of identity, and in his own life Branagh was confronted with
this matter of identity at the age of nine. it was then that
his father, who worked as a joiner, uprooted the family from
Belfast and moved it to Reading, some forty miles west of London.
After that relocation, Branagh lost something so fundamental
that he had never noted its presence. "Belfast was the last
place where I felt completely myself," he says now, "where
there was no question of knowing who you were."
An isolated child, he retreated
to his attic room to dream about the distant, enchanted realms
of film and theater. He yearned to belong to them, and once he
did, recognition of his uncommon gifts would isolate him further.
But early on, in England, where class lines are meant to be unbreachable,
he began to sense that he was transcending the limits of the
working class into which he was born. In his parents, home, there
were no books, but he began to read and even to collect books
by authors he liked.
"I loved seeing, for the
first time in our house, a shelf with books on it," he recalls.
Soon, he was reading plays and
going to the theater, where he was bedazzled by Derek Jacobi
in Hamlet. It was not long before he was acting in plays at school.
"It's possible," one of his teachers said, that you
could do this professionally."
With that encouragement, he began
exploring how one becomes an actor. His mother, who had never
seen a play, sometimes used the phrase "I must be cruel
to be kind."
"Do you know," he asked
her when he was fifteen, "that you're quoting Hamlet?"
Eight years later, he appeared
as Henry V with the Royal Shakespeare Company - the youngest
actor entrusted that company with the role- giving a performance
that established him as the most promising actor since Richard
Burton. Eight years after that, having assayed many Shakespearean
roles -- including Hamlet, in a production staged by Derek Jacobi
for the Renaissance Theatre Company, the group founded and directed
by Branagh himself -- he returned to the RSC to play Hamlet in
a performance that alchemized his astonishing potential into
Kenneth Branagh had become a
student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art when he was eighteen,
a stagestruck, provincial lad who had never been in a taxi before
he went up to London for his audition. By the time his tenure
at RADA ended, when he was twenty-one, he had won the Bancroft
Gold Medal for outstanding student of the year and had seen his
name on the marquee of the Queen's Theatre, where he played the
leading role of Judd, the angry intellectual outsider, in Another
Country, for which he was nominated for Britain's prestigious
Best Newcomer award in 1982.
His response to this rapid rise
was cautious. "I had an instinctive fear," he noted,
looking back, "of being carried away by any success that
might later blow up in my face."
Finally, of course, it did, although
his Frankenstein brimmed with what had become his directorial
signatures: the dazzling choreographic shots; the immense, questing
ideas; the raw emotions. "And I can't see," he occasionally
said, "that we would have done anything differently."
The film went on to earn more
than $100 million, and Branagh was surprised to find himself
opening envelopes that contained profit checks from it. "That
didn't take away any of the pain of the experience," he
says now, "but it did sort of confirm that nobody knows
The ordeal left him with the
slightly removed air of a proud man whose alternating tenure
as an icon and a punching bag has created a residue of disillusion
he struggles against while showing him the marked degree to which
both victory and defeat are a state of mind.
It is the last week of the Hamlet
shoot. Branagh is encouraged by the work he, sees around him,
yet each passing day strikes him as more difficult. "As
you get close to the top of the hill," he tells a friend,
"it seems that you move further away."
Finally, the filming is behind
him, the risk taken. He begins to perceive the fallout from Frankenstein
in a new way. It was, he will say, "a releasing experience,"
for he has tasted the special freedom derived from confronting
the worst you can fear.
If, in the wake of that disaster,
the stakes were raised along with his anxiety, this is not, he
is convinced, an ill-favored thing. "Maybe some part of
me feels that that's where I should be," he says, "in
one of those almost all-or-nothing situations where I'm very
aware of the pitfalls, and you have finally a kind of helpful,
ongoing struggle with the fear. Because the intensity of that
fear, if in some way controlled and focused, can help the work.
"I think with me, the fear--at
its worst--creates a certain recklessness, a foolhardiness. At
best, it creates a kind of helpful madness. Which is courage
of a kind."
The man who, as a boy, looked
behind television sets to determine whether that was where the
stars of movies lived comes to Los Angeles to oversee the start
of Hamlet's marketing campaign.
He is aware that people in the
industry often misapprehend him. "They can be terribly suspicious,"
he says. "They think I'm going to turn up in black tights
with a floppy white shirt and the complete works under my arm."
He is also here for a rest, and
though he can relax by watching movies or playing guitar, resting,
as a rule, is not his forte. "When I go on holiday, I'm
making notes from day one," he says.
He still recalls being in Kyoto
with Emma Thompson at cherry-blossom time. "That's it!"
he suddenly exclaimed. "That's what we'll do. We' ll put
on the entire Shakespeare canon! We'll just do the lot!"
And the day he moves into a rented
Malibu beach house, he begins conceiving a trilogy of movies,
a family history set over the century in Belfast. "It just
started happening," he says. "It just came out. And
I would wish that wasn't the case, as I have all sorts of ideas
about workaholism and an inability to get a life."
Sharing the house with Branagh
is an old friend from RADA, John Sessions. "I cannot settle
down," he tells Sessions. "The sea, the sun, the sand,
all the calming elemental forces, and my mind is like one of
those war charts of the solar system with all the planets whirring
"And it wouldn't matter
if I'm on a fucking sheep farm in Australia with two cats and
a dog. There is no boat to take you away from yourself. So I'd
still have these fucking mad, turbulent feelings."
That familiar tension between
life and work is plaguing him again, stranding him in the perpetual
jousting match that, by his own reckoning, he cannot win. His
work, by agreement of his peers and critics, attests to the selling
power of excellence and makes Shakespeare viable to new generations.
But what it takes to accomplish this feat is Branagh's gift and
his albatross. "I'm certainly much more tortured by life
than I am by the work," he says. "I'm certainly better
at the work than at life. I'm always trying to transfer it back
the other way. And maybe that will happen. I don't know."
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