'Midwinter' A Reflection of Branagh

San Francisco Chronicle , February 18, 1996
by Ruthe Stein

Autobiographical tale comes amid director's split with Emma Thompson

When Kenneth Branagh brought his new film to the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, it was called ``In the Bleak Midwinter.'' The movie is coming out this week with a cheerier title: ``A Midwinter's Tale.''

If only it were that easy for Branagh to erase the bleak part from his own life. Within weeks of his saying in Toronto that he and his wife, Emma Thompson, were on the phone several times a day when apart and were ``working on'' starting a family, the couple separated amid rumors that both were having affairs.

Was this a case of the husband being the last to know? Or was Branagh simply playing the part of a contented husband, knowing that if he so much as hinted at trouble between Britain's pre-eminent acting couple the press in Toronto wouldn't leave him alone?

It's irresistible to look for hints of marital discord in ``A Midwinter's Tale,'' since the movie, which Branagh wrote as well as directed, is so obviously autobiographical.

``Almost every incident comes from some sort of life experience. It's all sort of personal and real,'' Branagh, 35, acknowledged in an interview in a Toronto hotel room, fingering the beard he had grown to play Iago in the movie ``Othello'' and hadn't bothered to shave off. The actor insisted his stubble didn't stop his wife from kissing him, implying she was still doing that sort of thing.

The character in ``A Midwinter's Tale'' closest to Branagh is Joe

--an itinerant stage actor tempted by the lure of Hollywood. He is played by Michael Maloney, an old chum from Branagh's Royal Shakespeare Company days before he left the stage for a movie career. Unlike ``Henry V,'' ``Much Ado About Nothing'' and ``Dead Again,'' all of which Branagh both directed and starred in, he doesn't appear in his new film.


``A Midwinter's Tale'' is about a ragtag theatrical troupe attempting to put on a production of ``Hamlet'' in a provincial English town. In the middle of rehearsing the title role, Joe, whose love life is messed up because he is always away somewhere working, asks a fellow company member: ``Do you think being in love is always about being in the same place at the same time?'' The instantaneous reply: ``Well, it helps.''

During their six years of marriage, ``Ken and Em'' -- as the British tabloids dubbed them -- spent long periods of time away from each other. In the announcement of their breakup, they admitted this had caused them to drift apart.

In another instance of the movie possibly imitating Branagh's life, Joe ends up falling for his Ophelia, played by Julia Sawalha (Saffron in BBC-TV's ``Absolutely Fabulous''). At least one critic has pointed out that with her mass of curly dark hair, Sawalha resembles Helena Bonham Carter, Branagh's co-star in ``Mary Shelley's Franken stein'' with whom he was rumored to have had a romance.

In his salad days, Branagh toured with a bare-bones theater company like the one in ``A Midwinter's Tale.''

``The actors were all like family who you fell in and out of love with and had bad moments with. Traveling together brought out the good, bad and the ugly in everyone,'' he recalled.

That troupe offered ``such rich material'' that Branagh immediately seized on the idea of making a movie about it. But he was kept busy on other movies, including the 1994 box-office bomb ``Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.''

Branagh admits being ``depressed'' over the shellacking he took on that film. The critics, as if waiting to get him after his string of successes, were merciless. ``But I got no more depressed than one is supposed to get. It was the usual Sunday teatime suicide hour kind of depression,'' he added.

In the wake of ``Frankenstein,'' friends and even strangers would come up to him on the street in London, squeeze his arm and give him a sympathetic look.

``I thought: `Have I got a strange disease? Yes, I've got failure disease.' ''

Branagh came out of the debacle resolved to finally make his little movie about a theater company. The $1 million budget was out of his own pocket, he said.

``Not everybody has a million dollars, but I got paid well for `Frankenstein.' The money was in the bank and I thought I must use it to do something that is very releasing.''

Although people in the business told him it was foolish to use his own money, he became convinced it was the only way after meeting with a potential backer who loved the idea of the movie but tried to dissuade him from shooting in black and white. By financing it himself, Branagh got to film it his way -- in black and white.

As he did a few years ago with the low-budget ``Peter's Friends,'' Branagh cast many British stage and TV actors unfamiliar to American audiences. However, ``A Midwinter's Tale'' does boast one Hollywood-size star: Joan Collins, who has a small but hilarious role as Joe's supportive agent.

Collins was cast after Branagh ran into her at a film premiere. ``She told me she had an appetite to do different kinds of things and would like to be in something where she had to really act. She talked as if she was a very young actress,'' Branagh recalled. ``Joan worked like a real trouper.''

``Hamlet'' is performed in bits and pieces in ``A Midwinter's Tale.'' Branagh said he did this to show the text isn't holy. ``It's not like whispering in church. Shakespeare can be laughed at, he can be fiddled with, he can be cut.''

Since his first Shakespearean film, ``Henry V'' -- for which he got Oscar nominations as best actor and best director -- Branagh has become Hollywood's expert on the Bard. He is credited with initiating a rash of Shakespeare adaptations and with the idea of casting American actors in the films even if they had never done Shakespeare before.

Laurence Fishburne consulted with Branagh before playing Othello to his Iago. When Keanu Reeves was preparing to do ``Hamlet'' on the stage in Canada, he got tips from Branagh.

``We're always talking about `Hamlet,' Keanu and I,'' Branagh said.


``A Midwinter's Tale'' is a warm- up for the full-blown 3 1/2-hour ``Hamlet'' Branagh is in the process of filming. ``Having come this far, I might as well just go all the way.''

He'll play the Danish Prince, Julie Christie will be Queen Gertrude and Kate Winslet will play Ophelia. As an example of how incestuous the British acting community can be, Winslet starred opposite Thompson in ``Sense and Sensibility'' and was a confidante when Thompson and Branagh's marriage was breaking up.

It's the sort of situation Shakespeare would have understood and made plausible in one of his plays. As Branagh put it, ``The quality of Shakespeare's wit and his perceptions about human relationships are very illuminating.''

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