From Classics to Gothic: Branagh Turns to Frankenstein

Boston Herald, October 30 1994
by James Verniere

NEW YORK - With "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," Irish actor-director Kenneth Branagh leaps from the classics to the gothics.

Acclaimed for his big-screen versions of "Henry V" (1989) and "Much Ado About Nothing" (1993), Branagh, who was born in Belfast of Protestant descent, has bypassed the Bard this go-round to direct and co-star with Robert De Niro in the Francis Ford Coppola-produced gothic thriller (opening Friday).

What led him to make another version of this oft-made tale of a scientist who dares to imitate God and of the creature he creates?

"I wanted to do it again because our world has changed so much," says Branagh, 34, as he relaxes on a sofa in a Manhattan hotel suite. "We come at the story in a different way. The possibility of creating life is so much closer now. Everything about the story becomes much more urgent and emotional.

"And I thought if we could capture an operatic quality in the creation sequences, you could suggest the exhilaration of those guys who split the atom and agreed years later that the excitement probably blinded them to the consequences."

In some ways, Branagh's $40 million version transforms the House of Frankenstein into the House of Atreus. Branagh's Victor Frankenstein is a Faustian-romantic hero, a Lord Byron of the test tube.

His monster (De Niro) is no shambling hulk. He's a Miltonic anti-hero, an arch-fiend who turns on his maker. In many ways, the Branagh version is also a dark fairy tale about the horrors of childbirth.

"I think that's all Mary Shelley," he says. "Her own mother died in some agony nine days after her birth. She was abolutely haunted by the death of several of her own children in childbirth. Giving birth was always much messier, much more dangerous and frightening then, and she was a woman of a morbid imagination, incredibly well-read in classical literature.

"For me, the script has the texture of the book and of Shelley's own life. It made those things grand and gothic and Shakespearean, not to make great claims for it."

How did he get De Niro for the role made famous by Boris Karloff?

"He was first choice as far as I was concerned. I was looking for somebody who could be truthful and frightening, and who would take a risk and come up with a different point of view."

What was it like to wrestle with De Niro in the nude in the film's creation scene? "The diffculty there," laughs Branagh, "was instead of amniotic fluid, we had a ton of K-Y Jelly, and a lot of rubber eels that tended to slap around. Bob, who had been in makeup for 12 hours, is very effective at simple tricks to make it all more real.

"In this case, he spun around in place until he couldn't stand, so it was like picking up a bloody dead weight. By the end, we were laughing hysterically, and after four takes I couldn't go on."

Of course, the passion, drive and hubris Victor Frankenstein brings to his quest may be the chief attribute of Branagh, who took the London theater world by storm in the mid-'80s and was labeled "the new Olivier."

That brash, daring, go-for-broke attitude may have given the younger Branagh the chutzpah to establish his own theater company and to write to Laurence Olivier and Prince Charles for advice about roles he was going to play and to direct and star in a film of "Henry V" even though Olivier's 1945 version was considered a classic.

Is it true he wants to do another film version of "Hamlet," even though the Mel Gibson version was released in 1990?

"It's swirling around inside me," he admits. "Yesterday I was looking at an incredible location, but I'm extremely ambivalent about it. There must be 60 film versions of 'Hamlet.' "

Perhaps more to the point for fans of Branagh and his wife and frequent collaborator, Emma Thompson: Would he consider teaming with her in a film version of "Macbeth?"

"I have been talking to a couple of people about making 'Macbeth,' although I would not direct it, and I think I have to get the 'Hamlet' out of my system first. I've got to do that sooner rather than later. We'll see. . . . "

What new worlds will be left for Branagh to explore? If luck, rumor and Thompson is on our side, we may soon see Branagh try his hand at yet another genre: playing the young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the next installment of the "Star Wars" saga.

"I've heard nothing from the sources about this alleged Obi-Wan Kenobi business, but I've read the rumors, too," says the actor, whose wife is a die-hard science-fiction fan.

"And I must say I'd be inclined to do it," he adds, producing music to the ears of "Star Wars" fans all over the world.

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