Branagh Returns to a Labour of Love

Daily Telegraph, 17 May 2005    (Please see correction at the end of this article)

Kenneth Branagh's mission to make Shakespeare accessible took a blow when his film of 'Love's Labour's Lost' flopped, but now he's back with a Japanese-inspired 'As You Like It'. He talks to John Hiscock.

Five years have passed since Kenneth Branagh last steered William Shakespeare to the screen with an all-star, singing, dancing version of 'Love's Labour's Lost' that not only failed to find an audience, but performed so dismally that it torpedoed his plans for two more Bard-based frolics.

Undeterred, Branagh changed direction and took roles in other films, television productions and on the London stage. Now he feels enough time has elapsed for him to return to his first love.

So, with financing in place, enthusiastic producers and an intriguing cast, the man often described as "the new Olivier" is once again immersed in Shakespeare, this time directing an ambitious, Japanese-influenced film of 'As You Like It'.

"Sometimes it's good to go away from Shakespeare for a bit," says Branagh, whose diverse recent roles have included acclaimed performances as the Nazi Richard Heydrich, the British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, Edmond in David Mamet's play of the same name at the National Theatre, and the vainglorious Professor Gilderoy Lockhart in 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets'.

"Then you come back and try to inform it with work from other materials and other mediums. I've always had less of a career plan than people think. The main thing is I've been lucky enough to be approached with good work and I've made my choices based on that."

The cameras began rolling on 'As You Like It' last month with a cast that includes Kevin Kline, Bryce Dallas Howard, Alfred Molina and Romola Garai, and Branagh was plainly delighted that the project he first conceived 15 years ago was finally getting under way. "I'm just thrilled because it's been a long time," he says. It has also been a somewhat chastening lesson that no matter how big one's reputation, it is money and box-office receipts that ultimately dictate power in the film industry.

When in 1998 Branagh first announced plans to film three Shakespeare adaptations under the new banner of the Shakespeare Film Company, which he established in partnership with Intermedia and Miramax, Hollywood applauded and eagerly awaited its dose of culture.

After all, Branagh's 'Henry V' in 1989 had won him international recognition and two Oscar nominations, while 'Much Ado About Nothing', his 1993 romp through Tuscany with then-wife Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves, had been an art-house hit and paved the way for such films as 'Shakespeare in Love' and Baz Luhrmann's 'Romeo+Juliet'.

But to Hollywood you're only as good as your last Shakespeare. And 'Love's Labour's Lost', a breezy 93-minute musical with songs by George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, aimed at popularising Shakespeare for a mass audience, was a flop.

Consequently Shakespeare, so recently on a roll, was now bad news. Intermedia and Miramax pulled out of backing Branagh's next two films, 'As You Like It' and 'Macbeth', and so did another producer, Walden Media. The original stars set for 'As You Like It', Ryan Philippe and Reese Witherspoon, moved on to other projects and Branagh was left to fend for himself.

An unlikely saviour arrived in the form of the adventurous American cable television network HBO, for whom Branagh had won an Emmy as Heydrich in the award-winning 'Conspiracy'. The network wanted him to star as Franklin D Roosevelt in its television film 'Warm Springs', and to his delight agreed to finance 'As You Like It'.

The 45-year-old Branagh seems a lot more relaxed than he was in the days when "Ken and Em" - as he and his wife Emma Thompson were known - were Britain's premier theatrical couple and he was writing, directing and acting all at the same time, constantly juggling projects.

They were a dynamic couple who starred in the television drama 'Fortunes of War'; performed in the variety series 'Thompson'; appeared on the American stage in 'King Lear' and 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'; co-starred in the films 'Dead Again' and 'Peter's Friends'; and appeared in 'Look Back in Anger' both on stage and television. Their individual careers were equally hectic.

Now the frantic days are gone and he has an easy-going air about him. Although he talks engagingly and articulately about his work, he is reluctant to discuss his private life. After he and Thompson divorced in 1995 he was romantically involved with Helena Bonham Carter for five years. Two years ago in New York he quietly married Lindsey Brunnock, an art director he met while they were working on the television drama 'Shackleton'.

The evening before we talked, HBO had thrown a lavish Hollywood party for 'Warm Springs' at which he found himself being treated with the reverence Americans accord famous Shakespearean actors.

Cynthia Nixon, who played Miranda in 'Sex and the City' and co-starred with him as Eleanor Roosevelt in 'Warm Springs', said: "I was nervous about meeting him the first time - after all, here am I, known for a half-hour show about sex and he has been Henry V!"

Branagh chuckles when told of her comments. "I'm trying to make Shakespeare accessible and inspire the opposite of reverence, but it seems to trigger strange areas of intimidation in people," he acknowledges.

Not, however, in the children who have been approaching him in the street ever since his Harry Potter appearance. "The kids just think I'm a bit stupid," he says contentedly. "They're not intimidated by any association with Shakespeare; they just think I'm that daft bloke with the silly hair and the Cornish pixies."

His approach to 'As You Like It' has been influenced by his voluminous research into Japanese literature and his interest in the English adventurers who went to Japan in the 19th century. Although it is being filmed at Shepperton and on location in West Sussex, Branagh wants to invoke what he calls the beauty and simplicity of the Japanese landscape, while making the Forest of Arden a much wilder, more surreal place. He is also taking advantage of the Japanese setting to borrow from the martial arts world and to underline the dangers inherent in the play which he feels are often neglected in stage productions.

"The research is an enormously enjoyable part of it," he said. "Sometimes I think I'd rather spend six months doing the research and not do the film."

Not in this case, however. Even after 25 years in showbusiness, Branagh has retained his capacity for wonder.

"I find it miraculous how these things get done," he marvels. "You spend a year, 10 years, 15 years trying to get it together and it's absolutely amazing that one morning we have a call sheet and we begin to shoot 'As You Like It'.

"I shoot one actor for a bit and then someone else and someone else and I'll put it together and somehow at the end it becomes this big thing with 600 people watching it and you think, 'How on earth did this happen?' "

Correction published in the Daily Telegraph, 10 June 2005

Kenneth Branagh
Following our interview with Kenneth Branagh (May 17), we have been asked to point out that Miramax was not involved in his shakespeare three-picture deal and Intermedia did not pull out: their option expired. Branagh did not agree to make 'As You Like It' with Resse Witherspoon and Ryan Philippe for Walden Media.

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