Hello Bristol - Branagh's Listening

BBC, 18 September 2003
by by Caron Parsons
Gilderoy Lockhart in the flesh!

**Thanks, Beck

Actor/ director Kenneth Branagh has been in town with his latest work - a short, virtually silent film which he wrote and directed.

We took a look at the film and caught up with Branagh at Bristol's Watershed.

Watershed's Cinema 1 was packed with interested filmgoers and star -spotters for the beginning of Bristol Silent's latest season of silent movies. For instead of the black and white classics of the 1920s and 1930s, the organisers were screening something of a first, a contemporary film, not totally silent but with "limited dialogue".

Starring Bristol-based actor Paul McGann and Frances Barber, "Listening" is a bit of a departure from director Kenneth Branagh's usual Shakespearean classics and major epics. This is a small film with a big heart, which manages to tell a story of love and loss in a short amount of time and with virtually no words.

"I wanted to see if I could tell a story in a compressed way," explained Branagh. "To convey an accelerated intimacy that comes from not having words."


The simple, but powerful, story is set in an English retreat where autumn turns the leaves to gold and red. The beautifully filmed countryside provides the perfect backdrop for a scene of peace and tranquility into which McGann appears, seeming in perfect harmony with his speechless surroundings.

The film starts slowly and peacefully, meandering through the spiritual retreat where people have come to get away from noise and the pressures of modern life.

Into this world crashes Frances Barber, with a squeal of brakes, a mobile to her ear and the look of someone grimly holding on to the edge of sanity. She and McGann meet up and sparks fly as the two fall in love. But McGann is concealing a secret and the two are separated by an unwillingness to communicate all of their selves, leaving the audience as emotionally battered as the characters.

Question time

After the film there was a great opportunity for the people of Bristol to quiz the esteemed film-maker.

Questions ranged from the gushing, through the "look at me and how much I know about films," to the perceptive and intuitive - and Branagh and executive producer Simon Mosley answered them all with grace and good humour.

There were plenty of questions about the making of "Listening" - where the ideas had come from, the constraints imposed by the length and format of the silent short and the reaction of the actors.

"The idea came from reading lots of short stories, particularly by Thomas Hardy and his quirks of fate," explained Branagh.

"I wanted to show a sense of lives passing and missing each other, and layers of meaning culminating in a beautiful melancholy."

Branagh explained that the actors were sometimes left to their own devices, with a deliberate lack of rehearsal and at other times liked to be constantly motivated through scenes.

"Both found it interesting in a concentrated way to convey the truth of a character without words," he said.

Shooting the film

The 23 minute film itself took six days to shoot last year.

"There's the film you plan, the film you shoot and the film you edit - and they can all be very different," said Branagh.

MAJOR SPOILER WARNING - if you haven't seen the film and don't want to spoil the ending, do not read on!

Members of the Bristol audience also wanted to know the reaction of deaf people to the film and if a deaf actor had been considered for the role played by Paul McGann.

"I spoke to a deaf actor in this city and showed the script to several people who are deaf - but I wanted to make the issue his personality rather than his deafness," said Branagh.

"I also wanted his face to have what Paul has, a beatific, otherworldly quality like James Cagney, a 'far away fella'."

Then there were the more general questions, such as who Branagh would have cast if he could have chosen any actors of the past for the roles, "Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn," and his own plans for the future.

Future plans

"Simon and I are developing a romantic comedy from a British novel and another novel that's a murder mystery," he said.

"I'm not a natural writer, I don't have the discipline, but I am reading lots."

Branagh told the Bristol audience he is also thinking of continuing his shorts career with a series of films dealing with the other four senses.

On the basis of this one film, enthusiasts could well have a treat in store.

Back to the Listening page | Back to Articles Listing | Back to the Compendium