Branagh's Mad Science

Boston Globe, November 1994
by Jay Carr

The timing couldn't have been better, Kenneth Branagh was saying, explaining his involvement in ``Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,'' which opens Friday with Branagh as director and title character and Robert De Niro as the monster. ``It came and found me,'' Branagh says, slimmer than ever, ginger hair longer than ever, eyes dancing -- and speaking of the script, not the monster. ``I was playing Hamlet at the time, a man preoccupied with death and what life means, what the point of anything is. Although you may laugh and say, `Oh, big deal, what an original thought to have! A bit of existential despair!' -- well, `Frankenstein' was full of things I was preoccupied with.

``And it makes so much more sense today. People can almost create life now, can't they? We've got test-tube babies, we can choose the sex of our own children,'' Branagh says, warming to the picture of every-man-his-own-Frankenstein, reveling in the fact that the film's grand staircase (to the studio's distress during shooting) literally and metaphorically contains no safety handrail. ``The fact that we're only a short step away from creating life means you suddenly have a different reaction to the story. You have to be a little more personally involved in that moral dilemma, which, probably, we're not that far away from facing.

``We are, in a sense, just like in Shelley's time. They were facing the Industrial Revolution and a period of great uncertainty about what was going to happen. And I think partly the way we did this picture was a thing about that. Maybe in five years we'll be watching movies on a box or with virtual-reality helmets. Maybe there won't be that many chances to make big epic pictures with massive scores, so we decided to sort of just go for it.''

Branagh adds that reading Mary Shelley's original 1816 novel was what clinched the decision for him. ``A sort of feverish quality runs through the book. You put it down and you think, `Whoa!' It really takes you over. And I thought, `It should be made.'

``There were times when I thought I was going crazy when it came to the creation sequences and planning to shoot them. It was a very confined set. I knew the camera had to swoop around a lot, beyond cranes and steadicams and flying cameras and things like that. I used to just go in at the weekends and go onto the set, thinking, `How do I do this big creation thing?' I guess the obsession and the determination to get it right was gonna feed in naturally to playing Victor Frankenstein, who had that same kind of mad drive. I think I must be driven in some pretty powerful way. I don't think of myself as a workaholic because I still find it hard to conceive of what I do as work in the sense I grew up knowing work. There's a great Noel Coward song called, `Why Must the Show Go On?' He makes a point about actors getting terribly upset, emotional and tortured about how difficult their lives are, and he just does a lot of comparing with doctors and nurses and miners. I still think of my lot as pretty remarkable.''

Surprisingly, the 33-year-old Branagh, who moved with his family from his native Belfast to Reading, England, when he was 9, had more American movies in his mental data bank than the American De Niro had. That knowledge certainly shows in Branagh's work: His ``Dead Again'' was a tribute to gumshoe noirs, and his play ``Public Enemy'' is about a Belfast murderer obsessed with Jimmy Cagney (it's getting a fine, crackling staging off-Broadway at the Irish Arts Center, with an electric performance by Paul Ronan). And avoiding echoes of earllier takes on Frankenstein didn't preoccupy De Niro nearly as much as it bothered Branagh: ``He wasn't intimidated by Karloff,'' Branagh says of his star. ``I don't think he felt as intimidated by those movies as I did.''

Both acknowledged one irony, he recalls: All actors have a bit of Frankenstein in them, given any actor's way of piecing together a characterization from this or that model or bit of observed behavior. The big difference between this ``Frankenstein'' and the version everybody knows is the creature's intelligence and tragic awareness -- and the fact that, Branagh says, he has a greater, nobler soul than his creator. In addition to the usual cautionary (and reactionary) dimensions, this retelling strikes another contemporary nerve by presenting the monster as, essentially, an abused and abandoned child lashing out.

``The idea of someone who is born an innocent, is rejected by mankind and then becomes this avenging monster -- it appealed to him. I don't know that he fancied doing it in prosthetic makeup for 12 hours, and it took us a while to work out the speech.'' In the end, De Niro studied stroke victims to get a purchase on speech that is struggling to emerge. ``He didn't want to sound urban and New York -- you know, that stereotypical (and here he mimics Travis Bickel) `You creatin' me? You creatin' me?' He had a twinkle in his eye about that himself.

``But it's not lost on us that he's been very cruelly judged by appearances and given no kind of emotional education or sustenance. Once we figured out what the creature would know, De Niro and I spoke very clearly about what the creature's philosophy was. It was something very wise and simple and profound. What he wanted was simple human companionship. He wanted a friend. For the sympathy of one human being, he would have made peace with the world, he says. The tragedy of the creature is that he achieves wisdom and weight and moral authority, but at a terrible price. This creature is never given a name by Victor Frankenstein, who creates it and then abandons it, horrified by the appearance of this thing that he created. So the theme of parental responsibliity is very strong. The notion of what it is to be responsible for life, not just to create it, runs all the way through this tale and makes for a great deal of ambiguity about who is the more evil.

``Victor Frankenstien we tried to present as a sane, rather good man, trying to change the world. He's not a mad scientist, but a scientist with some sort of altruistic vision who's let his obsession and vanity get in the way, and then tries to fix it. He still could have fixed it, when the creature says, `All I want is the sympathy of one human being, then I'll go to the furthest reaches of the pole and you'll never see me again.' But in the book, Frankenstein is worried that the creature will breed, that there'll be a whole tribe of these creatures. Victor's tragedy is that he's too late. He makes that Faustian decision, shakes hands with the devil, then the wheel of tragedy is spinning away and he just can't get off it. He's like the guy splitting the atom because the equation was so sexy to solve. Then, suddenly, it's oops, you can blow the entire planet up. Oh, we didn't think about that. I think the reason you had these gothic stories maybe was that as the Industrial Revolution and its earth-shattering developments arrived, people needed some sort of mythic framework through which to process it.''

One thing ``Frankenstein'' does not have that Branagh's other films did is an appearance by his actress wife, Emma Thompson, so prominent in ``Henry V,'' ``Dead Again,'' ``Peter's Friends'' and ``Much Ado About Nothing.'' ``We talked about it,'' he says, but they they decided to give it a rest after four consecutive films together. ``Emma's just done a couple of pictures back to back. She's got `Junior' coming up with Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger and I've just delivered this monster. We're gonna have a holiday after this.'' It might include putting their feet up in their house in North London, which Branagh says they consider their permanent residence.

He and Thompson aren't much for parties, he adds. Four friends over for dinner is their idea of a good time. ``Our house has a lovely study,'' he says. ``I like to sit there. The walls are full of ghosts. There's a little open fire and cup of tea. I can put my feet up and read a book or drink a glass of wine. That's my idea of heaven. I don't like going out and being pecked apart in one of those social situations where you're rent-a-celeb.'' And actually, England has not been as quick to embrace Branagh and Thompson as completely as America has. Part of it may be that Branagh considers himself ``Irish more and more. It seems manifest. It seems to come out. I mean I look at this film and think, `Well, there's a Celtic imagination at work.' Also, there's this funny thing about the English and success. I think there's a kind of communal guilt.

``We're not very far away from having had this incredible empire. Now we can't win a gold medal at the Olympics, we can't win a football match, we don't win Nobel Prizes. We're not captains of industry. We're not pioneers. But we have a legacy and a heritage and a history, which continues to make us want to believe that we are world leaders. Somehow I think it makes us very cross about the nation. Thatcher especially embraced this ferocity in a very, very small-minded and petty-bourgeois way, which resulted in a kind of very confused attitude toward ourselves and success. The British press have a kind of ongoing dialogue with themselves about whether they are the worst press in the world. There's this perennial discussion about whether they're really irritating people enough. In Ireland -- I mean anybody from those islands, Liam Neeson, Stephen Rea -- it's like sporting heroes. Doesn't matter how far away they live, they're our boys. There was nothing much to find fault with about having insisted on making this film in England, but there was this sort of idea of, `Don't think that will somehow guarantee you an easy passage.' ''

Some would call Branagh a classical populist, others a popular classicist. ``Actually in England, I'm partly perceived as a brash git,'' he says, smiling, the Cagney in him breaking through the soft-spokenness. He's still nurturing the idea of reappearing in ``Public Enemy.'' And, of course, more Shakespeare. Branagh set box-office records at the Royal Shakespeare Company when he appeared in ``Hamlet.'' He'd like to restage it in New York (he previously appeared in the US on stage in ``A Midsummer Night's Dream'' and ``King Lear''), then film it. ``If I were to put it on film, I'd want to do it sooner rather than later,'' he says. ``As for staged Shakespeare, down the road a wee ways there's talk of `Macbeth.' I'd like to play some of those villains -- Iago, Richard III, a few of those. And Chekhov's `Ivanov' is a play I think I might well do. Right now, though, I'd like to make a very, very quiet film. With nothing going on, just people talking.''

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