Birth of a Monster

Evening Standard (London), October 21 1994
by Michael Owen

Kenneth Branagh stripped down for the birth of the monster he created and now stays cool as he prepares to deliver his 30 million Frankenstein film to the world

The advertising is up on the hoardings, the trailer is in the cinemas and the media has its first sneak preview this Sunday. After two years and nearly 30 million, Kenneth Branagh's film of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein - his biggest gamble to date - is at last on its way, arriving in a fortnight's time. Branagh swept a hand over the thick, unruly hair he grew to play the title role and said: 'I've delivered the final print and my feeling now is that I have done as much as I can to make it work as we first envisaged it. I can't honestly think I've ever been able to say that before.'

The film opens in 3,000 cinemas across America on 4 November, as well as all over Britain, and he is sufficiently Hollywood-wise to know that his future as a film-maker rests on what the box office takes in that first crucial weekend.

In the face of such pressure, I have never known him look more relaxed. He has taken the past month off for a holiday in Italy with his wife, Emma Thompson, and this week flew off to Los Angeles to join the drum-beating that will lead up to the American opening.

But he will be back for the British premiere on the first night of the London Film Festival, which promises to be a famous occasion in Leicester Square, and he is out to enjoy it.

'There is nothing more I can do now and no amount of worrying will affect what happens to it. I've done the best job I can and I know that in terms of acting, design, photography, whatever, it has some wonderful things in it. Now it's in the lap of the gods - so let's enjoy the party.'

The film was not Branagh's original inspiration. Columbia Tri-Star had a Frankenstein script going the rounds and sent it to him. His response was to accept the central role and direct it, to re-work the screenplay, insist it be made at Shepperton - starting the new wave of big-budget, dollar-financed movies that arrived on these shores - and wooing Robert De Niro into co-starring as the monster.

He said: 'Having been around Hollywood and looking at a subject as familiar as this, I was a bit leery at first. But I read the novel and it has everything you could want, a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions with a bit of Faust thrown in.'

The film certainly has scale. It starts in the Arctic, with Frankenstein fleeing the horror of his creation, goes to Switzerland where the experiments in life creation are conducted and is full of spectacular interiors, not least the 19th century laboratory which gives birth to the creature. He said: 'It's a big film, but I hope it's a passionate film. I want the audience to feel the powerful emotions at work. It has incredible ups and downs and by the end I hope they feel they've been through the ringer.' Branagh plays Victor Frankenstein as a robustly vigorous avenger, rather than a demented dabbler in dark arts, and strips half naked to wrestle his creation out of a water tank and into existence.

'I wanted the scene to have a naked, elemental feel to it, and also thought there was something sort of homo-erotic about it. So I got my kit off, probably to the amusement and derision of all.' Sensibly, he kept his pants on.

HIS take on the tale is that Frankenstein defies God out of anger at the death of his mother in childbirth. 'It's his rage and grief that a good person has been taken away for no reason that is the root of his obsession and his decision to fight the system.'

The only re-shooting required after the four-month schedule at Shepperton were scenes with Cherie Lunghi as his mum. 'To understand the degree of his pain, I thought we had to see a little more of her.'

Helena Bonham Carter plays the adopted sister and object of his passions, John Cleese is a mad professor and Richard Briers, Ian Holm, Tom Hulce and newcomer Trevyn McDowell also feature. But De Niro was the crucial catch.

'We met and, thank God, we seemed to get on. He relaxed a lot when he knew I was Irish rather than English. He does have a strong sense of humour, more than I expected. Watching him having a laugh with the English actors was just great.

'There is another side when things are not going the way he wants. I witnessed it once or twice and was very grateful it wasn't coming my way. He certainly can be someone you wouldn't want to cross. But friends of his tell me once you are in, you are in for life. We'll have

to see. But I wanted someone who could play the sweetness and innocence of the creature as well as the potential for aggression and violence. He was on set for hours for all the make-up and he was incredibly patient.'

As star, director and co-producer, Branagh carried the burden of the film for a full two years and spent the past six months locked in the editing room. 'There were times when I thought it would never end. Now it's over I feel like my life has been given back to me.

'It was a strain, but what keeps you going is that, in the middle of all the nonsense, we actually did have moments of such sheer fun. We could have a laugh and most days I ended up with a smile on my face.

'I just enjoy the company of actors. It was the same playing Hamlet at the Barbican. We had good reviews, sold out at the box office, a great reception, but the thing I remember most was how good it felt to be part of a company, just the chat, banter and laughing at things going wrong on stage.' If his words read luvvie-ish, they do not sound it in delivery. His cheerful bonhomie is no bloke-ish affectation but the genuine article, albeit backed by the iron-clad confidence which has fuelled his meteoric rise.

Ken is invariably good company. I asked him if the confidence ever wavered. 'It did at the Barbican. I remember standing in the wings before going on in Hamlet feeling absolutely petrified. I thought, 'I'm not doing this again, It's too scary'. I went on and totally forgot the first soliloquy. I tried to paraphrase and got it all arse over tit. But the audience didn't seem to notice. So I relaxed, got on with it and began to enjoy it.' He was lounging on a sofa as we talked, apparently without a care in the world, and enthusing over the recent rediscovery of simple pleasures. 'It's been great to pick up a book again, have a glass of wine or go to the pictures. I've even got out my guitar again, and I'm still chasing the same three chords I was after when I started at 16.'

Now 33, he has a clutch of possible projects including screenplays of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native, a film of hostage Brian Keenan's story called Blind Flight and Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, which he would direct with Emma starring. But he is saying No to all of them.

'I told Emma to direct the Austen herself, she knows it only too well. I feel resistant to doing another period piece. In fact, I'm not ready to jump straight back at all. I feel it's a moment of peace right now. I'd be a bit intrigued to be offered an acting job where someone else had a view of what I could do and would carry the impetus. Otherwise, I might just do a bit of writing.'

The only name that brings a rush of enthusiasm is Depardieu. 'We sort of keep in touch. He has a project for me and I have one for him. He keeps so busy, it's impossible, but he's such a life force and I would love to work with him.'

The theatre has no place on his immediate agenda - though, after two productions, he still says: 'Hamlet remains unfinished business as far as I'm concerned' - but there is a surprise waiting for him in New York where an off-Broadway group called The Irish Arts Centre is staging his play Public Enemy, first seen at the Hammersmith Lyric seven years ago.

It is the story of an Irish song-and-dance man who falls increasingly into the persona of James Cagney as the Troubles seethe around him.

'I'm very flattered by this but I'm not so naive to think it would have happened if Frankenstein hadn't been around. I got the play out again, did a bit of rewriting, but I was pleased to see it was full of energy. I'm looking forward to seeing it.'

After Hollywood, he will be back to Cricklewood, where the Branaghs keep house, and a quiet life. 'That'll suit me for a while. We're not great partygoers or on the celebrity circuit and I hate night clubs. Just spending time with a few friends is fine.

'If we go out, people don't bother us. You just keep your head down and keep going. It's a state of mind. I think it's worse for the people who are constantly on TV. That can be tricky.'

He stretched, got up and began farewells, full of warmth and camaraderie. His last words were: 'I hope you enjoy the movie - it only took two years.'

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