The Reigning Prince of Shakespeare

San Francisco Chronicle, January 19 1997
by Mick LaSalle

Kenneth Branagh enhances his title as cinematic interpreter of the Bard

Kenneth Branagh has already created a body of work that stands a good chance of being remembered past next week, next decade and . . . well, we'll let next century take care of itself. His Shakespeare adaptations -- ``Henry V,'' ``Much Ado About Nothing'' and his latest, ``Hamlet,'' which opens Friday -- rival those of Olivier. And he's only 36.

It's extraordinary that he's been allowed to make his movies at all. Hollywood is, as we know, the land of Beavis and Butt-head, not Beatrice and Benedick. ``Somebody said to me the other day that it's a miracle that a film of this length and this subject got made,'' Branagh said recently in San Francisco.

Miracle is right. Imagine going into a room with studio executives and telling them you want backing for a four-hour, full-length adaptation of ``Hamlet.'' Oh, yes, and in 70 millimeter, please. Imagine keeping a straight face.

But Branagh was able to go into that conversation with a couple of advantages. His previous Shakespeare adaptations have made money. And he was ready with a good ``pitch,'' which he kindly re-created.

``They said, ` ``Hamlet'' has been done,' '' Branagh recalled. ``I said, `Yes, but each of those films cut many parts of the play that will, in fact, make the play seem quicker. The set pieces won't be squished together, so the audience won't be forced to take in this intense scenario all at once. It will be more entertaining, and that's the goal, isn't it? There will be the musical breaths and rests that Shakespeare built in, so you can make a dramatic point, let the audience move into another mood, and then build up again. And we can make it an event and offer people a unique experience to see a complete version of one of the greatest works of art ever produced. And That ain't a bad thing to do.' ``And of course, they said, `But will it make money?' ''

At one point, Branagh said, he was offered $9 million to make a ``Hamlet'' half the length, but he held out for the full version. The result -- an extravaganza, with Branagh, as Hamlet, backed by a cast of internationally known British and American actors--looks like a $60 million blockbuster. In fact, it only cost $18 million to make.

``Everyone was paid the daily rate,'' Branagh said. ``The cliche is that every penny is on the screen, but in this case it's true. People like (Sir John) Gielgud, who appears in a flashback scene, said, `Don't pay me, just give whatever you'd give me to cancer research.' ''

Branagh, who looks rather short and thickly built on screen, is taller (about 5 foot 10), thinner and better looking in person. Like his wife, Emma Thompson, from whom he's separated, Branagh is warm, intelligent and fast on his feet. There's nothing affected about him. Talking to him is like talking to a working guy--in this case, a working guy in pictures.

He was glad, he said, that Castle Rock decided not to release a short version of ``Hamlet'' in smaller cities, but to release the full version everywhere. ``After all,'' said Branagh, ``who is to say to Flagstaff, Ariz., `We don't think you're bright enough or interested enough to get the full version.'?''

Branagh's approach to Shakespeare is similarly down-to- earth, balancing a fidelity to the text with a vigorous, cinematic approach. In ``Hamlet,'' Branagh gives audiences a better bang for the buck by including such sex-and-violence flashbacks as the king's murder and Hamlet and Ophelia's lovemaking.

``It reminds people that people were having sex 400 years ago,'' Branagh said. ``Shakespeare knew about sex and romance.''

It was Branagh's intention, he said, that Ophelia (played by Kate Winslet), who goes mad late in the movie, should start out ``fiery, spunky and full of life.'' Likewise, his approach to Hamlet was to play him as a ``man who's not mad, not predisposed to melancholy, but dealing with something that would knock anyone sideways. I wanted to play as many facets as possible, rather than say, `I think he's a lyrical Hamlet, or a manic-depressive Hamlet.' The goal is to try not to box him in but to let the part fly.''

Branagh also tried not to limit himself to a particular period, setting ``Hamlet'' in a vague 19th century that never existed. ``You work to find a period that releases as much of the mystery of the play as possible. Find a context in which we can accept that people talk differently, and then get out of the way. To confine it by saying `This is 1927 in the Bronx' can cramp the play. It's one of the prices you pay when you do something as strong as (Baz Luhrmann's) `Romeo & Juliet' or (Richard Loncraine's) `Richard III' last year that you do certain bits absolutely astonishingly and other bits get lost.''

The sudden wealth of Shakespeare films in the '90s, which also includes a recent ``Othello'' and ``Twelfth Night,'' is directly attributable to Branagh's previous successes. ``These things come in cycles,'' Branagh said. ``Actually, it surprises me that there have been so few Shakespeare films.''

Branagh, who has seen the old Hollywood Shakespeare adapta- tions, said that his ``favorite is Joe Mankiewicz's (1953) `Julius Caesar' -- that one really holds up.''

As for future Shakespeare films, Branagh hopes to do versions of ``Macbeth'' and ``Love's Labour's Lost,'' one of Shakepeare's most tedious efforts. ``That's one you'd have to cut,'' Branagh admitted. ``But there's something wonderfully melancholy about it that I like. In any case, nothing will happen for another three years or so.''

When Branagh does get around to making these films, there's a good chance Thompson will be acting in them with him. ``We're separated, not divorced,'' Branagh said. ``We're friends, we do talk, and we will work together again.''

Back to Articles Listing
Back to the Compendium