Is This A Winner I See Before Me?

Belfast Telegraph, May 21 1999
by Eddie McIlwaine

Can Kenneth Branagh succeed with his new screen version of Macbeth where other movie legends have failed?

When Kenneth Branagh shoots his modern version of Macbeth later this year the inspiration will belong to a nondescript semi in Mountcollyer Street off the Shore Road in Belfast where Ken had a kind of misspent youth.

In the hours after school awaiting the return from work of his joiner dad Billy and mum Frances from her part- time job young Branagh did his homework and for the rest of the afternoon watched old black and white movies on television.

"That's where I got hooked on big pictures for the first time, where my future was honed," he has told me several times.

And the film that caught his eye was the 1948 Orson Welles version of Macbeth with Welles both taking the lead and directing which impressed the youngster no end.

And that is precisely what Branagh, who left Belfast and settled with the family in Reading when he was nine, intends to do in 1999 both play the title role and direct the action, only in modern dress.

A kind of action replay of Welles only, he is praying, with much better results at the box office.

The big attraction of course would be his true love Helena Bonham Carter, of the impish face, as Lady Macbeth. She would be perfect in the role. And her opposite Ken would be a box office dream.

Orson was dogged by ill luck right from the first whirr of the camera in 1948.

Ken will be keeping his fingers crossed that he will be more fortunate with this Shakespeare classic than his hero who once played the Opera House in Belfast.

This was unquestionably the movie that gave Orson his biggest headache.

There is no doubt though that the great man got it all wrong. With a limited budget he inexplicably set out to produce his work on a western ranch using all the economics and logistics of a B-western on a tight three week schedule.

The result was mayhem despite that marvellous Welles voice, which couldn't save the production. It wasn't helped at all by an abject Lady Macbeth from Jeanette Nolan. It was so bad Welles didn't make another Hollywood movie for 10 years.

Branagh will have noted all the pitfalls that even the legendary Orson couldn't avoid. He will be mindful of experts who say Welles took on too much as both director and star.

Nevertheless, he will ignore the warnings and take on both exacting roles too.

Ken was still watching from the settee in his parlour when the 1960 George Schaeffer- directed version of the Shakespeare piece reached the television screen. It was memorable at least for the performance Schaeffer coaxed from Judith Anderson as Lady M.

However, the critics dismissed it as solid and uninspired.

So perhaps the time is right enough for Branagh, who has had considerable success with Shakespeare up till now, to give us his interpretation.

But will he pay any attention to the most controversial Macbeth of all - the 1971 film directed by Roman Polanski in which delectable Francesca Annis delivered the Lady Macbeth dream speech in the nude?

When it reached the screen there was uproar, not so much because of the bare limbs, more because of the extreme violence and gore.

Roman's personal life and the fact that this was a Playboy enterprise didn't help at all.

I look forward to Ken Branagh's Macbeth with interest. No doubt he will bring it to Belfast for a charity premiere. He has done that with most of his big movies. He never forgets the city and likes to take a dander around north Belfast when he is here.

The question being asked of course in movie circles concerns his relationship with Miss Bonham Carter.

There has been talk that they will wed soon but Ken after his failed marriage to Emma Thompson who is still a good friend, it has to be said will be more cautious this time.

You have to admire the way Branagh goes about his life quietly, ignoring the trappings of stardom and with a word for everyone with whom he comes in contact. The taxi driver who delivers him to the set is given the same treatment as the industrialist investing millions in his next tussle to put Shakespeare on a big wide screen.

I like that.

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