Kenneth Branagh, On the Rebound

Los Angeles Times, June 3 1995
by David Gritten

You're an accomplished actor-director and you have a good track record of critical and popular hits with small- and medium-scale films. Then you tackle a big-budget studio picture in which you star and direct. But reviewers and audiences alike are less than impressed; it's perceived as a bomb.

What do you do? Do you hole up in L.A., chew your nails, wait for the phone to ring and pray the studios will overlook your "lapse" and not declare your career dead? Or do you shrug, get on with your life, and simply make the next film that takes your fancy, with no regard for a career path?

Kenneth Branagh's taking the latter course. He was disappointed at the reception accorded his "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," a $40-million film that grossed only $22 million in U.S. theaters. But like a trouper, he aims to bounce back with a brace of ambitious Shakespeare films.

This month, Branagh heads for Italy to play Iago to Laurence Fishburne's Othello, in a Castle Rock production that also features Uma Thurman as Desdemona.

Next year he will star in and direct "Hamlet," a 3 1/2-hour epic that will employ Shakespeare's entire text for the first time on film. Branagh has said he envisages his film being on a similar scale to a David Lean film, and will cast a mix of British and American actors, as he did in his successful "Much Ado About Nothing."

These are lofty projects, to be sure. But it's what he has done in the immediate aftermath of the "Frankenstein" disappointment that defies expectations. He has come to this picturesque rural village, 40 miles south of London, to direct a movie, "In the Bleak Midwinter," from his own script.

"It's a very small film," he says modestly.

How small?

"Less than a million quid."

Translated, that means under $1.6 million. This represents quite a detour; one imagines the catering on "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" might have cost more than that.

In fact Branagh is putting up the money for "In the Bleak Midwinter" himself. When completed to his satisfaction it will be sold to an appropriate distributor, probably an American mini-major.

"There's been a lot of interest in the film so far," Branagh says. "People were calling to say don't spend your own money, let us do it. But this was how I wanted it."

"In the Bleak Midwinter" (the title comes from an ancient British hymn) is about a troupe of actors who decide to stage a production of "Hamlet" in a village church under threat from developers. By bringing theater to the community they hope to prove the church still has a part to play in village life.

Actor Jo Harper, played by Michael Maloney ("Truly, Madly, Deeply"), has the most at stake. He has been out of work for a year, was recently rejected by his girlfriend, and saw a Hollywood contract go to a less-talented rival. Jo decides to redeem himself by financing "Hamlet"; he chooses six actors, a crew of mostly losers, eccentrics, has-beens and never-weres, to play all 24 roles in Shakespeare's tragedy.

The cast of "In the Bleak Midwinter" is largely devoid of celebrity names, though Joan Collins has a small role as Jo's agent.

Moviegoers who like to match names to faces may recognize veteran British actor Richard Briers, who appeared in two Branagh films, "Henry V" and "Much Ado About Nothing." Then there's Julia Sawalha, who plays strait-laced daughter Saffron in the British-import TV sitcom "Absolutely Fabulous."

For one scene Briers must hand-roll a cigarette, look around dolefully and say the line: "That's a dog of a church." But for repeated takes he finds it hard to roll the cigarette fast enough, and the light is about to change as dark clouds move in.

Led by Branagh, who had a jokey, amiable relationship with Briers, there is much rolling of eyes and extravagantly mimed impatience among the company. After several attempts the scene works, and Branagh strides forward to the group. "Oh. Good work, rich work, love!" he shouts, parodying the flowery verbal excesses of a certain breed of older English actors.

One could play amateur psychiatrist and theorize that after his bruising over "Frankenstein," Branagh is retreating to a familiar milieu where he feels comfortable. It's no accident that "In the Bleak Midwinter" is about a troupe of actors; Branagh is himself a famed actor-manager, and has taken his Renaissance theater group on performances all over the world. It's also hard to overlook the parallels between himself and Jo, an actor trying to redeem his life after setbacks.

But Branagh doesn't see it in such terms. "It's a film I wouldn't have made any other way, and I'm very proud of it, but it clearly didn't strike the right chord with lots of people," he says of "Frankenstein." "But the fact is . . . it's done $100 million theatrically worldwide. I wish more people had liked it, but it'll make its money back. That's not much of a disaster."

Attempted parallels between his plight and Jo Harper's are overreaching. "I'd been synopsizing 'In the Bleak Midwinter' over the autumn (before "Frankenstein" even opened) and then I wrote it over the Christmas period," Branagh says. "It's an idea I'd been mulling over for three or four years."

He wanted to use the haunting image of an abandoned church, blended with his concerns about the acting profession.

"I have an obsession about the role of the actor now, the role of (legitimate) theater and whether there's any point in doing it anymore," Branagh says. "Are people still interested in going to see plays live? And why should they be? (Theater) is often so bad.

"The actor has so often been pilloried and mocked. But often he's his own worst enemy in that regard."

This is certainly true in Britain, where the media castigate actors as "luvvies," a word that springs from their habit of calling each other "luv," "darling" or some other gushing name. The criticism hits hardest when actors talk about their work in precious, highfalutin' terms, and also when they become embroiled in political (usually left-of-center) causes. Branagh's international successes and his willing embrace of Hollywood have made him a prime target for a British press, which likes to hack home-grown talent down to size; in some quarters he is viewed as the quintessential "luvvy."

He talks about this with some amusement. "I remember getting angry once about a director saying all actors are vain and selfish," he says. "I started off saying, 'Christ, that's outrageous, how dare he?' Then I thought, 'Well, I know what he means, luv.' " Branagh bursts out laughing at this memory.

"Actors are the best and worst of people. But all in all, much as I've wanted to strangle actors and have been appalled at my own behavior as an actor, they remain tremendous company, and people I'd wish to be in the trenches with."

Clearly "In the Bleak Midwinter" is a wry tribute to the camaraderie and intense relationships that arise with any troupe of actors thrown together for a short period. But Branagh stresses it's primarily a romantic comedy.

"The film takes its title because the events happen at the darkest time of year, and all the characters are going through difficult times. But it found its form finally through a version of Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland films, that thing about let's put on a show right here! . . .

"And like all Mickey and Judy films, we wonder will they get to do the show, will there be an audience? All that excitement and old-fashioned romance about theater and movies is in there."

He is treating his cast in the same egalitarian manner as he did with his Renaissance troupe: "All the crew are on exactly the same initial money as the actors," he says, "and everyone has (points) in the film. The percentage involvement reflects a hierarchy, so the director of photography has more points than the clapper loader. But if the film makes more money than it cost, there's no reason everyone shouldn't get more money."

Branagh has a full slate of future projects, apart from his ambitious plans to adapt the Bard for film. He's been helping to oversee the Los Angeles staging of his 1987 play "Public Enemy," which opens June 10 at the Court Theatre. He returns to acting next, appearing in Sean O'Casey's "Shadow of a Gunman" for BBC television. He is also likely to direct a studio film in the fall.

"In the meantime," he says, casting an amused gaze at his motley crew of actors playing actors, "this has been great fun."

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