An Interview with Kenneth Branagh

TÚlÚrama, 14 May 1997
By Pierre Murat
**Thanks Isabelle for the article and translation

A humane Hamlet
He is not more melancholic or more withdrawn than Ophelia is fragile. They love each other, and I show it. She experiences her first carnal passion. He has just lost a loved one, therefore he feels the need to have an intense physical relationship so as to ward off death and assert the power of life.

I didn't want to show the Court as a pack of manic-depressives. They lived happily before the murder. What does Hamlet suffer from, at the beginning? From imagining his mother in the arms of a man other than his father, which happens to a lot of sons. And the fact that she waited for such a short time before remarrying. "Within a month!" he murmurs. That is what seems unbearable to him.

After the revelation of the murder, Hamlet becomes a time bomb. If you follow the text you can see that the others talk about him as about a popular man, a politic leader. If he lived nowadays I would quite see him as the Secretary-General of the United Nations, or as a relief worker.

What is great about this play is that it is never spoilt by the directors' ideas, even mine! Shakespeare stands up to everything. I saw an incestuous Hamlet, a gay Hamlet, a Hamlet living on the moon, in a circus or in a lunatic asylum. As for me I wanted the humanest possible Hamlet. A man who is filled with contradictions - heroic and cowardly, cruel and funny. Wanting to explain them seemed illusory to me.

Claudius the murderer
Claudius is not the big rough inebriated man as he is sometimes shown. Derek Jacobi plays him with a matchless charm. It seems to me that ke killed his brother out of sheer passion: he adores Gertrude, his sister-in-law, he can't breathe without her. Then, as the plot progresses, he loses his love for her and falls in love with power. As soon as this passion prevails, Claudius is only a survivor waiting for his death.

Dad's ghost
If I understand right you don't like my ghost at all! It is a convention of Elizabethan drama. So how can we represent this convention? Zeffirelli made the ghost into an ordinary man; he was a light in Tony Richardson's version, and the hazy vision of a suit of armour in Laurence Olivier's. As for me I counted on terror, at the risk of sinking into kitsch. I am not looking for excuses: I hold that my solution was good. No doubt I could have done it better with slightly more time and money.

But you know, Shakespeare poses problems which are long to solve. For instance, I'd like to film "Macbeth" in a few years. I have been chewing over this plan for a long time. How can you film witches at the end of the 20th-century without making people laugh? Since the plot takes place in Scotland, do you have to keep kilts or not? It seems stupid. All the same, my mind is as seething in the witches' cauldron!

The scenery as a character
I had the idea of the mirrors in the great hall of my palace while visiting the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. They suggest the ocupants' vanity and paranoia: everyone feels spied on. Sometimes they are alone, they turn round suddenly, and their reflection is watching them. People's eyes are fixed on them. They are on show constantly. That is why I chose to transpose the play into the 19th-century. A few large families reigned over Europe then. The blazing sumptuousness of the decors hid secret bonds between them.

A matter of tempo
In "Frankenstein" I used a Steadycam. In "In the Bleak Midwinter" I used still shots but the editing gave an impression of speed. Here, the camera moves a lot, but not to excess: I wanted an epic film but also a dignified film. My aim was to involve the audience: this is my constant concern. Without banking on speed necessarily. In this kind of film, you risk letting reconstruction prevail over the rest, limiting yourself to a heavy and overly moderated illustration. I have tried to avoid giving the audience the feeling of visiting a museum.

The most difficult scene
The final duel. I shot Robin Williams in December, Derek Jacobi in February, Rufus Sewell in March, Richard Attenborough in April! For months, the actors' least movement and each camera angle were in my mind. And I had to keep tempo. It was not easy.

The short version
The pressures were strong. Some American cinema managers said: "We want to show "Hamlet" ... but not if it lasts four hours." However much I told them about "Gone with the Wind" or "Doctor Zhivago", it was hopeless. Other managers got excited: "Who is going to decide if our small town is or is not clever enough to deserve the four-hour version?" I had 16 million dollars, I was still short 2 million to balance the budget. I got them by agreeing to edit a short version. While hoping and praying that it would never be released.

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