Loneliness of the Long-distance Director

Evening Standard (London), January 27 1997
by Michael Owen

Kenneth Branagh's four-hour epic film of Hamlet opens here soon. He talks of the pleasures and pain of his present life

It is mid morning and Ken Branagh has come to a standstill on a London pavement. 'I'll just finish this before I go in,' he says almost guiltily, pulling hard on a half-finished cigarette.

He looks like an everyday Joe in a nondescript sweater over jeans, the arresting bleach-blond hair he acquired last year replaced by his own reddish, no-nonsense thatch.

When the cigarette butt hits the gutter, Branagh turns purposefully for the swing doors, then settles in a modest suite. For an hour the conversation ranged from Hamlet, the film that is fast restoring his movie-making reputation to its earlier Henry V high status, to his friendship (and more?) with Helena Bonham Carter; from peace prospects in his Belfast home town to his hitherto unknown role on rhythm guitar and backing vocals for a band called The Fishmongers.

But first, the four-hour Hamlet. Since he saw Richard Chamberlain play it on TV when he was a 15-year-old Ulster schoolboy, Branagh has dreamt of making this movie. The American reviewers have acclaimed it, and the London premiere was achieved amid cheers and celebration - although the British critics do not register their verdict until the 14 February opening day.

It is unlikely to be a St Valentine's Day massacre; certainly, the reception will be far kinder than that which greeted his last film epic, Frankenstein. Branagh's Hamlet is a massive achievement, a highly ambitious sweep through the unexpurgated text. Its greatest strength is the actor's own performance in the title role, where he charts an immaculately clear and cohesive progress through the turbulent Dane's downward spiral.

It is not a perfect film and, as director, he will be held responsible for lapses in the performances in minor roles. The momentum does occasionally slacken. But - say it loud - overall the film is Branagh's triumph and will have a shelf life that will outlive him.

HE CAME to the film having played the role three times on stage; but as soon as I concentrated on his achievement as an actor he turned the conversation around.

'On the strength of my previous knowledge I was convinced the play is about more than one man. There are two families' fortunes at stake here (Hamlet's and Ophelia's); it was making sense of the lives of the other people that mattered. That's why we had to go for the four hours.

'The female characters, particularly, have suffered in other versions and Gertrude most of all. Many distinguished actresses have played the part and come away disappointed. She is involved in the events so much but has fewer lines than the First Gravedigger. I needed someone like Julie Christie, but I also wanted a production that would support her.'

Ophelia is played by Kate Winslet and fleshed out, quite literally, with flashbacks to graphic couplings with Branagh as Hamlet. 'We had to show the physical passion that explains her journey. It's all part of needing to know the background story of what happened between the death of the old Hamlet and the start of the play.'

It is in its earliest scenes that the film nearly becomes derailed almost before it has started. Jack Lemmon, just one of the many megastars called in for cameos, chews up the text lamentably as Marcellus when the Ghost of old Hamlet cranks into life.

BRANAGH was unapologetic. 'Jack delivered exactly what I wanted. He has that peerless quality of being the average guy, who is here suddenly exposed to exceptional events.

'Those first scenes were us nailing our colours to the mast. It was a creative and artistic risk and I know some people find it tricky, but it worked for me.'

He also has Charlton Heston as the Player King, Billy Crystal as First Gravedigger, Robin Williams as Osric, Gerard Depardieu (risibly) as Reynaldo - plus Gielgud, Attenborough, Dench and even Ken Dodd flitting through the action.

But the acting honours belong mainly to the core home team of Richard Briers, brilliant as Polonius, Michael Maloney as Laertes and Nicholas Farrell as Horatio.

'I had a free hand in casting and, by bringing together the team we did, I wanted to get the message across that Shakespeare is for everyone, just as we did on Much Ado. When you have these American stars on the set it creates an excitement.

'They are intrigued by people like Derek Jacobi (Claudius) and the English theatrical tradition - and vice versa. There was real respect all round, it made each day an event and it sure got the actors' juices going.

Everyone was full of stories. And if you put Robin Williams in tight trousers, squeaky boots and facial hair, it's a recipe for hysteria, I can tell you.'

I wanted to know how much his control as director freed him to find his own performance. Or perhaps the workload threatened to undermine his actor's concentration? 'I suppose it's a combination of both. Making a film of that size certainly had its anxieties.

'You don't sleep much. You worry about the cast, was I giving everyone enough time and attention? When you come back to your own performance it is almost with relief. It may even have relaxed my performance."

THE FILM, shot at Blenheim Palace and Shepperton, looks a miracle on its comparatively modest budget of 11 million. 'That was the absolute bottom line we could do it on. All the actors worked for the barest minimums, and you'd be as surprised as their agents were if you knew how little."

He first saw the film with a paying audience in New York. 'That was an incredibly painful experience. Every time a bottom shifted in a seat I thought: 'Oh God, they loathe it.' But it went well. I was pleased with the amount of laughter we generated and the fact it was a pretty young audience.' The omens worldwide for Hamlet are good. Branagh enjoys the foreign territory openings where he is unencumbered by the baggage that pursues him at home. 'There is a sense of freedom going to other countries, but obviously I'd love it to be a success here. Every new project is the one you are scared to death about at release time. It sort of defines where you are. Last time, with In the Bleak Midwinter, I was supposed to be clawing my way back from the disaster of Frankenstein. Well, if that's the way they want to see it...'

He is amazingly even-handed about the amount of flak that comes his way.

'Basically I have no complaints, even though it can be irritating and I do have the normal human response to some of it. It's the price you pay for putting your head above the parapet, and I accept that. You just try to keep it in perspective. So many people have real problems of pain in their lives. I'm one of the lucky ones. I take the view you never complain, never explain.'

Since Hamlet, Branagh has acted in two American films and endured a relentless period of travelling broken only by a Christmas holiday in the Caribbean. Now he is determined to sink his roots deeper in this country and has bought a 1 million mansion in Sunningdale which he is in the process of renovating.

By curious coincidence, the first US movie was called Shakespeare's Sister but has nothing to do with the Bard. He plays an English Catholic priest who casts celibacy aside for shady, surrogate fatherhood with Madeleine Stowe.

He is next off to film John Grisham's The Gingerbread Man with Robert Altman in Savannah, Georgia, starring as the lawyer who gets caught on a murder charge.

'When that's over, I'm done with moving around all the time. I feel a strong desire to live at home for a while. For the first time in my life I have no long-term plans. I'll just get on with the house.' As he talks, a surprising subtext creeps into his words - it sounds as though Branagh is lonely. 'Yes, directing can be solitary at times, like being the captain of a ship. It's part of what you accept, that you won't always have the same sense of fun or contact as the rest of the cast.'

Now 36, he is still not divorced from Emma Thompson, though the couple separated two years ago. I asked him about the apparent lack of a partner in life. He grimaced: 'I have nothing I wish to say about that except to say I am content with what little personal life I have.'

Did Helena Bonham Carter, with whom he has been romantically linked, figure in that? Another grimace. 'We're great chums, let's leave it at that. I don't want to talk about it but, yes, we're great friends. I'm very fortunate. I have a circle of good friends here, which is why I want to spend more time living here.'

He also has his immediate family in England, though there is a network of cousins, nephews and nieces in Belfast. 'And don't forget my 93-year-old granny.' He opened Hamlet in Northern Ireland - in the new 1,700-seat Waterfront Hall.

'That place is a wonderfully confident addition to Belfast. They have had a magical 18 months in the city while the peace process was underway. There was such a sense of uplift, but now it's all gone frisky again. In England, for all the seediness in political life, I do feel a breath of fresh air, and I'm not just talking about the election. There's certainly a confidence in British film-making. We've had too many false dawns so I'm reluctant to announce another one but so many of the signs are encouraging. We just need to find some consistency.'

He has a couple of screenplays of his own under way. The first, enticingly, is a thriller about bribery and corruption in the film industry and the second a political piece about Ireland. 'Too early to talk about that one, but coming from there I'm bound to have some ongoing thoughts on what's been happening.'

Branagh is a gifted mimic and relaxed into some hilarious accounts of Robin Williams at work - 'he says himself he's a whore for laughs and he's right' - as well as Dickie Briers chuntering around the set: 'This is a brown trousers job, Ken, that's what it is, a brown trousers job.' Then he revealed his new musical pursuits and the band called The Fishmongers. 'It's me and some film editor friends. We get together and just like to jam. I offer my three beautifully held chords on the guitar and sort of sing along.

'No, I don't think we're ever likely to be ready for real gigs. The great British public has done nothing to deserve an earful from us .'

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