Return of the Prodigal One

By Kate Woodward, O-Reading, 16 October 2000

On Thursday night (October 19) Reading Film Theatre (RFT) rolled out the red carpet for Reading boy made good Kenneth Branagh, who was there to introduce his new film Love's Labours Lost and to help champion the cause of the theatre itself. Kate Woodward caught up with him for an exclusive talk about this campaign and his work.

Arriving at the RFT on the Reading University main campus for an event such as this proves to be quite an exciting experience as the normally sedate crowd are buzzing with the anticipation of a British screen giant gracing their movie house.

Branagh himself turns up looking every inch the art house film maker with a smart casual get up finished off with a mustard colour jacket. The queue snakes out of the University's Palmer Building and comprises of many people waiting to be told that the event has sold out. The film theatre itself, located in the heart of the university campus, screens critically acclaimed films which can't find a place next to the blockbusters at the multiplexes.

Branagh's Love's Labours Lost lasted "about three minutes" in the major chains according to the man himself and the purpose of cinemas like the RFT is to give the more discerning film viewer "another choice." The evening kicks off with an introductory speech from Branagh who reveals that he used to sneak in as a teenager. "I used this place and was able to get in cheap and was sometimes able to sneak into pictures I shouldn't really have seen," he tells us.

Tonight's appearance is intended to bring a higher profile to the modest cinema, which is starting a campaign to increase funds with a long term plan of moving into a more central location in town, even though In the last two years Reading has seen the Warner Village multiplex storm in and push both the Odeon and ABC out of business.

Branagh's message is straight to the point. "Please tell all your friends about this place because I know everybody here wants to expand the audience and make it more reflective of what the different kinds of audiences want to see," he says.

"Films like Love's Labours Lost can't necessarily complete with the big pictures so it is places like RFT who offer a lifeline that we would not normally have. It's really to let the community know it's here, it's on. You can come along and you can also speak up and say 'I'd like to see this film.' It's yours. Come and use it - come and get involved with it."

As an actor/director who has appeared in a diverse range of productions from the Will Smith-starring "Wild, Wild West" to "Hamlet" Branagh is quick to distance himself from berating the bigger cinema scene.

"In many ways I think it's very positive," he says. "The whole multiplex thing has been one of the parallel influences over the last ten years. There has been more space and in some ways there has been less competition for screen space.

"After so many false dawns of the British film industry it does feel like over the last ten years there is something sustainable, that we actually do have something that appeals to people in the UK who do want to support British films."

Branagh's adaptation uproots Love's Labours Lost from Navarre to the late 1930's, starting off as the west moves towards war. The play is lavishly filmed and the music, colours and performances create a flamboyant and lighthearted production. It's a strange choice in many ways for a film maker who has previously tackled such heavyweights as Hamlet and Henry V. I ask how he went about pitching his idea to Pathé and Miramax, the studios behind the production.

"With great difficulty originally," he replies. "This obscure Shakespearian comedy, rarely performed on stage and then the suggestion that we do it as a musical, a kind of cinematic genre that hasn't been done or worked much was tough but they took a long term view.

"One of the good things about a Shakespearian film is that if they are regarded as being any good they have quite a long shelf life."

How difficult was it as a director to work the range of actors who have appeared in his films, especially when the dialogue is so challenging?

"Denzel Washington was a radar for the truth of the scene," he explains. "And whenever he seemed uncomfortable about saying something it was a character motivation thing not a language one. The interesting part of the experience for me is that everybody comes at it in a different way ­ all united in terror.

"There is something very beautiful about the play and it talks a lot about music and dancing so when we came do this film we decided we would take that to an extreme.'

The musical aspect of the film is very reminiscent of Woody Allen's charming, stylish and romantic "Everybody says I Love You." The integration of 1930's style news footage in the place of narration transforms a relatively second rate Shakepearian work into an impressive romance which suffers only from style over substance. As part of our cultural consciousness the Bard shows no signs of being ousted from his key position, especially in education. Branagh explains that this was one of the most satisfying things about tackling Shakespeare.

"Often the rewards with this kind of work are particularly kind of exciting and meaningful," he says, "when you get the letter from someone in Minnesota or some kid in Glasgow who was dreading some English test or a class on some play, and one of your films made some sense for them, or opened it up for them."

He is quick to point out that making any sort of film is difficult, especially one that contains such difficult language. "That little carrot at the end of it is very exciting so you keep banging your head against the brick wall." The three picture deal with Miramax has led Branagh to consider carefully which one of the plays he will tackle next.

He exclusively reveals that ŒMacbeth' is next up for adaptation. "It feels at this point that the Scottish play would be more contemporary. I will do the screenplay for it but not direct. Another director who we have been talking to for some time will do that.

"I think that it will be contemporary, but now we have enough contemporary versions of Shakespeare that you have to work hard to make sure you are not falling into another kind of cliché or genre.'

If the rapturous reception he receives tonight is anything to go by Branagh has established a trust with his audience, who know that when it comes to the Bard he will always deliver the goods. The RFT have their work cut out for them if they want to compete with the Warner Village and the Showcase but with events such as this they are providing Reading's cinema fanatics with an excellent reason to go and support them.

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