Kenneth Branagh Is Having a 'Bleak Midwinter'

Associated Press, June 17, 1995

His new film project is a calculated markdown from costly 'Frankenstein.'

LONDON - It's an unseasonably clear, dry spring afternoon, and Kenneth Branagh is pining for one of those drab, gray days that descend on Britain over Christmas.

When the film is titled ``In the Bleak Midwinter,'' sunshine can blight a director's life.

``Occasionally there are crisp, bright days,'' said Branagh, aiming his camera away from a tree in full spring bloom.

``We're trying to shoot wherever there's an evergreen so the logic Nazis don't write in,'' he said during a break in filming at Shepperton Studios.

The last time Branagh stepped behind a camera, for the critically and financially disappointing ``Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,'' his principal concerns were Gothic special effects and 19th-century period fidelity, not seasonal foliage.

With a tiny budget of barely $1.6 million, Branagh is moving away from high-priced studio fare (``Frankenstein'' cost $44 million) to return to the terrain of his 1992 film, ``Peter's Friends'': a modest, contemporary ensemble comedy about issues close to the director's heart and life.

Those issues are clear from the fifth scene, more than three pages of continuous dialogue that are being shot on day 20 of a six-week shoot.

Joe, the central character played by Michael Maloney, wants to direct a self-financed production of ``Hamlet.'' But his hard-nosed agent, Margaretta (Joan Collins), thinks he should go for ``fame and money and lifelong security'' - all of which he claims to disavow.

``People need flotsam,'' Margaretta tells Joe. Besides, she argues, the only actors Joe will be able to rustle up over Christmas will be ``eccentrics, misfits and nutters.''

The appeal of the Bard prevails, and before long Joe has ``Hamlet'' on its feet, with a cast played by Britons from veteran Richard Briers to John Sessions, Nick Farrell and Julia Sawalha, who plays the put-upon daughter in TV's ``Absolutely Fabulous.''

Branagh said doing a film about a play appealed to him because the stage offered ``an image of something romantic and, alas, disappearing that is very powerful as a symbol for what drew many artists to our profession.

``It's a modern version of an eternal question: artists asking why they do it and whether their art gives them any extra meaning as to why they live their lives.''

Although the 34-year-old Branagh has starred in his other directing efforts, on this occasion he is remaining off-screen as writer-director. ``I wrote it with Michael in mind,'' he said of Maloney, 37, who played the Dauphin in Branagh's ``Henry V'' and may be best known for his performance as Juliet Stevenson's kindly boyfriend in ``Truly Madly Deeply'' (1991).

An unexpected on-set visitor is Branagh's wife, Emma Thompson. She is at Shepperton Studios in pre-production on her next film, ``Sense and Sensibility,'' and has come by to provide moral support and tea.

``Here you are, you old tart,'' says Thompson, handing her husband a fresh ``cuppa.''

Stung by the reaction to ``Frankenstein,'' Branagh has made no pretense about wanting to cut back. He even decided not to try to pre-sell ``Bleak Midwinter'' to any film companies.

``In the complicated world of film finance, I just wanted to make it as simple as I could,'' he said.

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