Method in His Movies

The Guardian (UK), January 19, 2000
by Michael Billington

Kenneth Branagh is our greatest living Shakespearean - and that's official. Michael Billington on why he won the Golden Quill

On Sunday Kenneth Branagh won the Golden Quill, established by the Washington-based Shakespeare Guild to honour the "greatest Shakespearean of our day". Clearly the guild's founder, John F Andrews, has a wry sense of humour. After praising the 38-year-old Branagh for introducing Shakespeare to a new generation through his films, he goes on: "In the process Mr Branagh has revived the sagging fortunes of a 435-year-old has-been and turned him into today's hottest screenwriter."

It is significant that the award is American and is given to Branagh primarily for his movies. In blasť Britain, where Shakespeare is still theatrically available and where Branagh-bashing is a popular sport, we have no idea of the impact the Belfast boy's movies have made in the US. I was in Chicago when Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company was playing King Lear and Midsummer Night's Dream.

The theatre was packed with young people, and at a panel on playing Shakespeare, in which Branagh took part, people talked about the Henry V movie with a glowing gratitude you wouldn't find in Britain. Americans, quite simply, have a hunger for Shakespeare which their theatre cannot begin to satisfy.

But Branagh doesn't merely have three Shakespeare movies made, with Love's Labour's Lost and Macbeth still to come. He has, in at least two of those cases, created a film that is comparable in linguistic richness and density of texture to a theatrical experience. Praising Branagh for making a movie that is like a play may seem a backhanded compliment, but in a medium where adapting Shakespeare usually involves textual dilution, Branagh has shown you can preserve the values of the original and still make exciting cinema.

Filming Shakespeare is always difficult. The Russian director Grigori Kozintsev once summed up the orthodox cinematic view: "The problem is not one of finding means to speak the verse in front of the camera... The aural has to be made visual. The poetic texture itself has to be transformed into a visual poetry, into the dynamic organisation of film imagery." This is easier if you're working in a language other than English; it's what Kozintsev himself did in Hamlet, Kurosawa in Throne of Blood - and Orson Welles in his sequence of Shakespeare movies, by treating the text as if it were in another tongue.

Branagh, however, has found a way of preserving the text and yet keeping the film visually alive. In Henry V, Derek Jacobi's Chorus, wandering through the battle-scenes like an ironic commentator, keeps the language constantly in front of us. Contrast the Olivier version, in which the Chorus is gradually reduced to an off-screen voice. Even more remarkable is the Branagh Hamlet, where we get a powerful image of Elsinore as a vast hall of mirrors and a place of imprisoning confinement, and the full four-hour text, which reminds us that the prince is part of a larger pattern.

Branagh has preserved the Shakespearean experience and yet produced popular cinema. What we forget, however, is that the Branagh movies, which triggered off a whole new cycle and made Shakespeare cinematically sexy, owe their exis tence to the Renaissance Theatre Company. Read Branagh's premature biography, Beginning, and you discover that, even as he was planning a Renaissance theatre season comprising Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It, he was insisting that filming on Henry V start the second it was finished. The momentum created by the theatre project carried through into the movie. It also helped that Branagh had already played Henry V for Adrian Noble at the RSC and understood the rhythm of the role.

In short, Shakespeare on screen often depends on a pre-existing theatrical culture: both Branagh and Olivier used their regular team of actors and even Baz Luhrmann's high-concept Romeo + Juliet was the product of a group who had grown up together at drama school in Sydney. As ever, cinema feeds off theatre. But if Branagh amply deserves his Golden Quill, it is not just for his remarkable chutzpah and energy. It is for showing that you can do Shakespeare on screen without sacrificing his density and richness and without relentlessly transforming the aural into the visual. Imaginatively handled, the aural becomes the visual.

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