Branagh Calls for Batman
Mail on Sunday (London), October
by Victor Davis
Why Keaton joined the Hollywood
superstars flocking to make Much Ado about Shakespeare with our
THERE'S one question the jealous
luvvies of show business, huddled in their green rooms, constantly
ask: How does Kenneth Branagh get away with it?
With the British film industry
on the mortuary slab, how does he lure million-dollar Hollywood
stars across the Atlantic to perform Shakespeare for what they
would normally regard as coolie wages?
He might simply say: 'I'll see
you get a nice villa to stay in, but don't expect any chauffeured
stretch limousines or location trailers with showers and air
conditioning. We can't afford any of that Tinseltown cosseting
At this sally, your average Hollywood
star, not to mention his agent, business manager, personal publicist
and trainer, would run crying to his analyst.
Yet among those who have now
braved Shakespearean film-making with our Ken, The Wonder Thespian,
are Michael 'Batman' Keaton, Denzel Washington - soon to be seen
as black revolutionary Malcolm X in Spike Lee's controversial
movie - 28-year-old Keanu Reeves, once a teen dreamboat in movies
like Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure, and Robert Sean Leonard,
the handsome young student from The Dead Poets' Society.
This summer Kenneth Branagh led
them out to Tuscany and introduced them to doublet and hose,
cod pieces - and Much Ado About Nothing. Why hit upon Much Ado
to lure the Americans away from Beverly Hills?
Branagh says: 'It's a play that
says something about how important love is. I feel a need, in
these hard and violent times, to send out a positive message.
'I have always been drawn to
decent characters like Henry V and Hamlet, who leave an audience
feeling better about their lives, warm-hearted, uplifted. It
is important right now to do this, rather than illustrate another
piece of appalling evil or wrong-doing.
'There is a soft, romantic, hopeful
quality about the human condition I am searching for. With this
film. I want to make the point that Shakespeare is for everyone.
I don't want to do museum Shakespeare. I want it to be as real
And that is a clue to part of
Ken's magic: he makes a good, off-the-cuff inspirational speech.
But his mesmerised cohorts are following a path pioneered by
l%98past Hollywood names, like Richard Chamberlain and Robert
Ryan, who came to Britain and braved the critics in Shakespearean
Ryan, a superb screen villain,
memorably said to me: 'Why should I risk my reputation as an
actor by doing this? Well, I'll tell you: Shakespeare is what
separ-ates the men from the boys.'
And that's the second clue to
crafty Ken Branagh's technique. He dangles roles in front of
big stars that vanity and guilt make it hard for them to refuse.
It is a rare screen idol who
doesn't ask, in the silence of the night, if he is actually worth
a couple of million dollars for three months' work. As the late
Robert Ryan said: 'Shakespeare is one way of making sure you
pay your dues as an actor.' Today Belfast-born Kenneth Branagh's
precocious reputation has Hollywood in thrall. At 32, this slightly
built, unglamorous figure runs his own company, Renaissance,
has had the nerve to face up to Olivier's long shadow and make
his own highly praised film version of Henry V - and even, on
Holly-wood's own turf, spoof Hitchcock with a glossy thriller
called Dead Again, a box-office hit.
He has phenomenal energy, colossal
cheek - and a suspect modesty. 'I'm dull,' he says, kicking dirt.
A likely story! There's steel under the boyishness.
When he found that Donald Sutherland
wasn't willing to be a team player on Dead Again, he had no compunction
in bouncing him from the cast and replacing him with Derek Jacobi.
He sweet-talked Michael Keaton into taking a comic role in Much
Ado About Nothing and rehearsed him privately - a service he
also performed for Keanu Reeves.
Denzel Washington already had
classical experience, on Richard III in Central Park.
Shakespeare set Much Ado in Sicily
but Branagh chose Tuscany with its dazzling light, vineyards
heavy with grape, medieval townscapes and cobbled streets.
This is the first time the play
has been filmed. Branagh directs and plays Benedick. His wife,
Emma Thompson, plays his lover Beatrice. Keaton is foolish Dogberry,
with our own Ben Elton as his accomplice, Verges. Washington
is Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, and Reeves is his half-brother,
Don John. Leonard is Claudio, a Florentine lord.
Reinforcing the Hollywood crew
are Branagh's regulars - Imelda Staunton, Richard Briers, Brian
Blessed and Phyllida Law.
Co-producer David Parfitt says:
'Ken made it fun for everyone. We were one big happy, relaxed
Branagh and his team, who are
backed by American producer Sam Goldwyn Jnr, will make Much Ado
About Nothing for less than £5 million, a modest budget
by Hollywood's high-spending standards.
There was no star treatment.
But everyone knew they were playing a part in Branagh's latest
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