Branagh and the Bard

Fairfield Weekly, February 7, 1997
By Roger Moore

Here's a cheeky question for Kenneth Branagh, the leading modern film interpreter of Shakespeare.

Is there a bad Shakespeare play?

Branagh, the star of Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello and Branagh, version of Hamlet, chortled.

''Well, even the bad ones have good things in them,'' he said. ''Henry VIII has a great part. Pericles has one great scene in it, at the end, where father and daughter meet. A very hard play to get right, I think.''

Branagh stopped rubbing his chin and smiled.

''But that's nitpicking. If I could write a play as good as Shakespeare's worst play, I'd be a happy man.''

Branagh's latest film, Hamlet, is scheduled to open in the Triad on Friday.

Since he first came to film fame with his bloody, audacious and Oscar-nominated adaptation of Henry V, Branagh has gladly worn the mantle of his generation's great popularizer of Shakespeare's plays. That places him in esteemed company. Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles and John Gielgud also worked to bring Shakespeare to the masses. For Branagh, the way to do that is to film the playwright's works in a vivid and realistic fashion, not in the stylized, arch manner that has long been associated with Shakespeare productions.

''The naturalism thing is very important to me, the feeling that this is happening before your very eyes,'' he said. ''I strive for a naturalism in performance, people sounding like human beings, not actors `reciting Shakespeare.' Welles and Olivier, great though they were, were of their time, and there's a distance to the characters they played because of that. Acting now seems more human.

''And yet, that has to be done understanding what's being said in the lines, and those lines have to be delivered crisply and clearly, yet lightly. It's all a sleight of hand, balancing that against this overenunciating you hear so often.

''The goal is a kind of effortlessly entertaining movie that hits every target, compels from moment to moment, has enough variety in it -- visually, aurally and in every other way. You understand every single word and you're emotionally caught up in the acting, which is widely different and marvelous and multicultural.'' Branagh sat back in his chair, his thesis on how to film Shakespeare complete.

''A lot of ambitious targets to hit, and I certainly haven't hit all of them in three films (he did not direct Othello), and I won't even in a lifetime of films.''

Branagh, 36, came by his love of Shakespeare as a boy of 14. That's when he first saw Derek Jacobi play Hamlet on the stage. Branagh, a native of Belfast, Northern Ireland, soon abandoned his plans to become a journalist and took to the stage. After college at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, he co-founded Britain's Renaissance Theatre, which is where he first played Hamlet. He got hundreds of performances in the role under his belt before doing a full-length radio adaptation for the BBC in 1992.

That was when Branagh decided that this play, so often whittled down to a manageable length by stage and screen directors, can best be appreciated in all its uncut glory. Though Hamlet has been filmed almost 50 times over the years, Branagh's is the first to give audiences the full play, all four hours' worth.

''Cumulatively, by the end of the show, there's an emotional weight to this Hamlet that you don't get in shorter versions,'' he said. ''The characters become more complex human beings in this longer version. I think it's easier to follow, uncut. The dimensions you get, the Norwegian conflict (which is often cut) puts more at stake. It's not just a family story, uncut. It's the end of a dynasty, two complete families wiped out, a new ruler is on the throne, all springing from a single act of treachery. All of that makes it a bigger event.''

Branagh speaks of Hamlet as a living, breathing thing, a play with its own life-rhythms. He said that restoring all of Shakespeare's dialogue, characters and scenes makes it all make more sense. It's no longer just a play with sex, blood and the occasional big speech.

''There have been excellent filmed versions of Hamlet . . . versions that don't show us Polonius (Ophelia's father) spying on his son, enjoying his mistress, the things which make that character much more sinister thanhe is often played. You cut that scene and you get a funny Polonius, he is often played. You cut that scene and you get a funny Polonius, which, considering that this guy is the king's right-hand man -- `the head is not more native to the heart . . . than is the throne of Denmark to thy father' -- is wrong. This guy's a silly old man who lectures his boy on `to thine own self be true'? Nooooo. This guy is an ace politician, who spies on his boy, sets him up with a whore, all after that sweet speech about `thine own self.'

''The scene after the `To be or not to be' speech is usually cut to ribbons. It's jarring for the audience and hard on the actors. The rhythms are wrong. Hamlet has time to reflect on things, to work himself up into a state for killing.''

Branagh said that as his understanding of Shakespeare's works deepens, he learns how much he does not know. After acting in most of the plays on the stage and directing three films based on Shakespeare plays, Branagh's big, lush Hamlet has earned glowing reviews and spawned talk of more Oscar nominations for him.

For Branagh, every Hamlet reflects the era in which it is produced. ''Maybe it's the level of self-absorption that's the real response of our times to Hamlet,'' he said. ''The way in which we, as individuals, in some post-Freudian half-informed psychobabbleze, happily persuade ourselves that we understand the workings of the human mind. We are forever searching, through whatever means, to `love the child inside ourselves,' or blame toxic parents for our lives. We look to be working on ourselves, and this (Hamlet) is the story of a man doing a lot of work on himself.''

Branagh's first film, his 1989 adaptation of Henry V, earned two Oscar nominations. That might have seemed like heady stuff for a 29-year-old Brit who was unknown in this country before Henry V came out. But then, Branagh and his now-estranged wife, Emma Thompson, were the first couple of the English theater. Branagh had already written a first installment of his autobiography (Beginnings). People were calling him''the New Olivier.'' Seven years, a handful of films, including Dead Again, Frankenstein, Much Ado About Nothing, Peter's Friends and A Midwinter's Tale, a separation, and an altogether more glamorous, jet-setting lifestyle make one wonder if he has ''gone Hollywood.''

''I haven't literally gone Hollywood,'' he said with a smile. ''I did one film there. I've had many opportunities to go and work there, and I've chosen not to. But I'm very glad I can do films over here, in Boston or Savannah.''

Even over here, even Branagh's non-Shakespearean acting has taken on a touch of the Bard. The movie he just finished filming in Boston is called Shakespeare's Sister.

''It's a drama set in 1935,'' Branagh said. ''Wealthy couple, Madeleine Stowe and William Hurt, who have everything but children. They decide to use a surrogate father, and all sorts of things go wrong. A Catholic priest, played by me, discovers the skulduggery and becomesembroiled in a situation where he finds himself related to one of them. . .. Tragedy, mayhem and muuurrrr-derrr ensue. _Duh duh duh_.''

Branagh just started shooting a film of John Grisham's The Gingerbread Man in Savannah, Ga., directed by Robert Altman. ''I just read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,'' he said. Branagh described that book, set in Savannah, as the perfect primer for working in that city.

''I'm working with an accent coach that I've had for a month or so," Branagh said. ''I started this long-distance correspondence course on the American legal system. I'm trying to read some of the things that lawyers read, all through law school. I'm talking to lawyers, trying to establish the sorts of things they might have on their desks. Some of the lawyers have done lines from the movie for me, on tape. I sit there with my little Walkman and listen to me tapes and read me script.'' And after that, there's always time for more Shakespeare. Branagh said he has a couple of possibilities in mind.

''I'm mulling about the idea of Love's Labour's Lost or the Scottish play (Macbeth). Of course, if we did it, Love's Labour's Lost would be a musical.''

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