Evergreen Bard Intrigues Branagh

Sacramento Bee, January 27, 1997
by Jennifer Borjorquez

There's a part of Kenneth Branagh that would love to do an action movie. Something where he would dodge a lot of bullets, save the world and get the girl in the end. But there's a problem with those roles. ``I find the plots and the dialogue so bad that they are uninteresting, '' says Branagh.

Maybe because he's used to working with a better screenwriter. Over the past several years, Branagh has become Shakespeare's most famous advocate. He has made several films based on the Bard's plays, all with plenty of action but not a lot of car crashes. Now, Branagh directs and stars in his most ambitious movie yet, a four-hour version of Hamlet. ``It is the role every actor wants, but more than that, it is a great story,'' says Branagh during an interview in a San Francisco hotel.

The story of the young Danish prince is one of the most often told in the English language. There has been almost every interpretation of the play you can think of. (Hey, there was even a Gilligan's Island episode of Hamlet. A musical, no less.) There was a production with Hamlet as a woman, Hamlet as a biker. There was even a production with the young prince - who is supposed to be 30 years old - played by a 74-year-old actor.

At 35, Branagh doesn't worry about age. His concern is bringing the film to a new audience, the kind of audience that flocks to action movies. Branagh says Hamlet is timeless. ``The story is just as applicable today as it was in Shakespeare's time.''

Like many of Shakespeare's works, Hamlet has all the elements Hollywood loves. And this has been a good year for Shakespeare at the movies.

In the past few months alone, several films based on Shakespeare' s plays have been released, including Richard III with Al Pacino and Twelfth Night, starring Helena Bonham Carter. Romeo and Juliet, starring Leonardo DeCaprio and Clare Dane, was a huge hit, especially with young people. But Branagh's Hamlet is by far the most ambitious.

Starring an international cast that includes John Gielgud, Charlton Heston, Jack Lemmon, Billy Crystal and Robin Williams, the film cost $18 million. Says Branagh: ``I hope it does well because I think it' s a good film.''

So what makes this story so special?

The revenge tragedy was a standard plot line when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet almost 400 years ago. The stories were very popular with audiences. They all had pretty much the same elements: a father's murder, a son' s revenge, a ghost. Then, four years after the death of his own son, Shakespeare wrote Hamlet.

``What makes this play different is the character of Hamlet,'' says Georgianna Ziegler, reference librarian at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. ``The audience gets to see him struggle with his situation. In a way, it's like watching someone go through therapy.'' If anyone can bring Hamlet to the masses, it's Branagh. Confident and charismatic, his films are bold and alive.

``People have this image of me as someone who walks around in tights, quoting the Bard, but as you can see, it's not true,'' says Branagh.

The actor says this line - which he has repeated in several interviews - and laughs as if saying it for the first time.

Branagh holds a Marlboro in one hand and reaches for another as soon as he is done. He is casual and friendly, dressed in gray slacks and a loose shirt. He is as far from the stiff Shakespearean actor stereotype as you can imagine.

He points to the window.

``Whenever I come here, I expect to see Dirty Harry coming down the street,'' says Branagh, talking about the Clint Eastwood film.

Branagh loved going to the movies as a child growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland. But his first love is the stage. And the first play he fell in love with was Hamlet. Branagh was 15 years old when saw his first production of Hamlet. Derek Jackobi (who plays Claudius in Branagh's Hamlet) starred as the young prince. Branagh says he did not understand everything that was going on in the play. ``But I was overwhelmed. That day changed my life.''

Shortly after that, Branagh, who grew up in a working class family, began acting. Soon he was the toast of London. At the age of 27, he was nominated for an Oscar for acting and directing Henry V. A few years later, he and his then-wife Emma Thompson starred in Much Ado About Nothing. Branagh says he wanted to make Hamlet immediately after Henry V but heard that the Franco Zefferelli version starring Mel Gibson was to be released. ``I decided to put it off for a while and try other things.''

One of those other things was the much-maligned, $60 million Frankenstein. The negative critical reaction to that movie stunned Branagh. ``I take full responsibility for that film,'' says Branagh, choosing his words carefully. ``I think in time, it will be considered a better movie.''

He started work on Hamlet after that setback and the collapse of his highly publicized marriage. He is older, wiser. He has known pain. ``Yes, absolutely, these past few years have been hard, and they've made me approach the character of Hamlet differently than I did when I played him on the stage.''

Branagh starred in several stage productions of the play, and every time he came to the speech, the one every child learns in school, the same thing always happened. Audience members would recite the lines with him.

``To be or not to be,'' Branagh would begin, tuning out the murmur in the audience. He laughs at it now. ``I never minded, actually, except one time when there was this man sitting up front who was very loud,'' says Branagh. ``A real Shakespeare fan, I guess.''

Back to Articles Listing
Back to the Compendium