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 for work.

"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 to make.

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 judgment."

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 things?

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 feeling restless.

"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 eyes.

In the final scene, in which Hamlet dies, Cruttwell is initially dissatisfied with Branagh's performance.

"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 feeling is."

"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 with Hamlet.

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 watching this."

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 is lost.

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 been broken.

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," he says.

"I will obey, m'lord," says Winslet.

"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?", he asks.

"What did you think?" Cruttwell counters.

"I liked it," Branagh says with a grin, "but I was happy earlier on."

"I liked it, too," says Cruttwell.

"Then go tell Kate how good it was."

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," he says.

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 verifiable fact.

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 anything."

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 around.

"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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