Busy Branagh

Newsday, November 2, 1994
by Karin Lipson

He's created a monster, `Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,' amd written a play, which has its New York premiere tomorrow

I've always liked the idea of basically good men who go wrong, who make some fatal turning, have some fatal tragic flaw," says Kenneth Branagh, explaining why a man whose favorite role is Hamlet would be attracted to making a monster movie.

The movie, of course, is "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," Branagh' s latest acting- directing venture, which opens Friday at area theaters. And on a recent, bright October morning Branagh is ensconced in a New York hotel, knee-deep in interviews to promote the film.

Whether it's Shakespeare or Shelley, notes Branagh, the stories of men who start with "the best of intentions, [and] just go beyond the boundaries of what is perhaps good or right," are those that excite him the most.

He may be conjuring a world of high-strung, convention-defying characters, but Branagh himself is affable and relaxed; looking fresh in a crisp white shirt, sandy-red hair framing his face in a modified lion's mane, he seems charmingly at ease with the publicity juggernaut set in motion for a major actor-director and a major new movie.

Certainly Branagh, who wrote his autobiography at 28, is no stranger to the requirements and blandishments of publicity. Since he first trod on the international scene that same year with his widely praised film version of "Henry V" - he both directed and starred - the now 33-year-old Belfast-born Branagh has been heralded as a wunderkind of theater and film, an Irish Orson Welles, a possible heir to the royal mantle of Olivier.

And "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," which follows on the heels of "Much Ado About Nothing" as the fifth feature film that Branagh has both starred in and directed, is indisputably getting the big-movie ballyhoo. Produced by Francis Ford Coppola as a companion piece to his "Bram Stoker's Dracula," it co-stars Branagh as the titular doctor who's the ultimate believer in better living through chemistry, and Robert De Niro as the hapless monster produced by Dr. Frankenstein's excessive tinkering.

So Branagh's breathless travels, which will be whisking him to openings in L. A., London and Belfast, is pretty much what you'd expect. More surprising is the other venture that's taken him into the tiny Irish Arts Center, located on an unprepossessing Manhattan street off 11th Avenue where the pungent smell of horse manure (from nearby stables) is stronger than the proverbial smell of greasepaint.

It's there that Branagh's play, "Public Enemy," written when he was only 25 for his own, now-defunct Renaissance Theater Company, is having its American premiere. A stylized thriller about a young Belfast man (played in the original production by Branagh), his obsession with the films of James Cagney, and the fallout from the Catholic-Protestant conflict in Northern Ireland, "Public Enemy" will open tomorrow, just a day before "Frankenstein."

"Flying over here, I thought . . . what do I want to be put through two reviews for?" says Branagh with a laugh. "I can imagine turning the newspaper from one terrible review to another terrible review."

Whatever the critical response, there's a certain charm in the dual openings of two such apparently different works. On the one hand, we have a $30-million-plus production that boasts the biggest exterior set ever constructed at a British studio; the use of 1 million gallons of water for a single scenic effect; and a large cast augmented by the services of electric eels, mock brains, blood-dripping hearts, and even an animatronic toad.

By contrast, "Public Enemy" has been given a staging that could hardly be called other than modest. Its biggest name (besides author Branagh's) is that of actor George Coe, but its surprise discovery may well be Paul Ronan, as the Cagney-obsessed youth who finds his life taking on murderous patterns right out of his idol's gangster films. "He's a star, isn't he?" says Branagh, generously. "I tell you, this lad's better than me in the original production. He's just right."

Despite his schedule filming "Frankenstein," Branagh has been involved in the current staging of "Public Enemy," sitting in on a key casting session, approving all changes, and doing some rewriting for the American premiere.

"He seemed to be genuinely thrilled that this little theater existed and he could put on this little play," says "Public Enemy" co-producer Don Kelly.

In fact, says Branagh, when a "Frankenstein" interviewer "was talking to me about whatever this sensibility is that I have, I said you really should go see `Public Enemy,' because there's some strange connection."

Indeed there is. Though one is based on Mary Shelley's early-19th-Century Gothic novel, and the other is consciously modeled on American B-movie melodrama, both are about obsession, and about the dangerous power of the creative impulse - whether the creation is human life, as in Frankenstein's case, or an unflappable, Cagney-esque persona, as in the case of "Public Enemy's" young Tommy Black.

If Dr. Frankenstein is one of those flawed idealists who go too far, "Public Enemy's" unemployed Irishman, too, starts out innocently enough, putting on his Cagney act to reject the drabness and poverty of life amid sectarian conflict. As fantasy overtakes reality, he becomes a killer.

"You know, I've talked to people in Belfast, prior to this amazing period where maybe we've got a chance at peace," says Branagh. "When they looked at all the political obstacles," he says, they have sometimes been drawn to the dramatic idea of "a single act - `Let' s blow them all up,' or something.

"It's the kind of thing people say that they don't remotely mean, " Branagh explains. "But it struck me that there would, from time to time, be these people with not only the imagination to think up such a scheme, but the terrifying ability to actually follow through."

Less terrifying, certainly, but no less determined, has been Branagh's own rise from Protestant working-class roots in Belfast to international stardom. Though his young childhood was free of the worst of "The Troubles," he had a taste of the intimidation practiced by sectarian gangs: "When you'd go to a park or played football somewhere you hadn't played before, if rival gangs were around you'd suddenly be set upon by a group of guys, and it would be, `Are you a Catholic or a Protestant?'

"You'd try to psych them out," he recalls, "but the thing is, you're always going to get a thick ear anyway." That bullying atmosphere, and the "dangerous, stupid men" that young Branagh observed in the parks and pubs of Belfast, have become the background of "Public Enemy."

Later, Branagh's family moved to Reading, England, where the young Irish outsider - who soon learned to disguise his regional accent - eventually won a place in the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

From there his rise was practically meteoric, aided by a certain brash, "anything-is-possible" quality in Branagh. When he dared, at 28, to film "Henry V," he was inviting inevitable comparison to Olivier' s great 1946 film. (The set of "Henry V" also was where Branagh and actress Emma Thompson fell in love; they were married in 1989, forming one of filmdom's most professionally ubiquitous couples.)

Not everyone praised Branagh's Henry, some critics noting that he lacked the thrilling grandeur and brooding handsomeness of Olivier. But if Olivier's Henry was noble, heroic and patriotic, Branagh's film had something else: a sense of the mud, the muck, the sheer, flailing awfulness of battle.

Viewers of "Frankenstein" will find a similar visceral quality, perhaps nowhere so clearly as in the frenzied scene where the impassioned doctor wills his creature to life.

At first, notes Branagh, it's an act of "lovemaking, in a sense . . . like a great orgasm." Only after the creature stirs to life - no bolts through the neck a la Boris Karloff, just a giant, deformed newborn, slimy and writhing, - does Frankenstein realize the results of his "lovemaking." And promptly go into a state of post-partum depression.

"This `thing' is deposited, and he can't even make him stand up properly," says Branagh. "He's no longer a sort of omnipotent creator. He's a guy who can't lift a great big piece of flesh that doesn't even know what it's doing." Frankenstein's immediate rejection of the childlike monster, says the director, was modeled on "those poor mothers, where they have a very strong physical reaction against their child, immediately after the birth."

With Branagh's own artistic "child" due to take its first steps, thoughts naturally move to the future. There've been reports that Branagh will play Obi-Wan Kenobi in a pre-quel to "Star Wars." ("A rumor," insists Branagh. "No one has approached me about it.") He would, he says, love to make a movie of "Public Enemy," and to film a complete, four-hour "Hamlet." ("A big `if' - who's going to finance it?")

As for the immediate future, he knows exactly what he'll do. Once the "Frankenstein" premieres leave him in Belfast, vows Branagh, he' ll stop "for a pint of Guinness and a plate of Irish stew. That's what I will enjoy."

Back to Articles Listing
Back to the Compendium