Magnificent Obsession

The Scotsman, February 15 1997
author unknown

Filming the last minutes of Hamlet's life, when he's trying to kebab his old friend, Laertes, Kenneth Branagh was tempted to show at least some of the scene in slo-mo. But in the end, he decided against it. He didn't have time.

Making a film that lasts 242 minutes last longer still was something even a Shakespeare-addict like Branagh felt he could not inflict on his audience.

There's an old joke in which the question is asked: What is Hamlet about? Answer: It's about four hours.

This time it really is. Branagh's Hamlet, which opened yesterday, is the complete work, the first time ever that any Shakespeare play has been filmed in its entirety. Every word the Bard ever wrote about it is in there and so, it seems, is every thought about it Branagh has ever had.

The cast is equally definitive. It's drawn from the highest echelons of the theatrical court. Tiny roles are burnished by great stars: Charlton Heston is the Player King, Billy Crystal pops up as the gravedigger, and Ken Dodd, in a flashback, puts the flesh on poor Yorick's bones. Such is Branagh's pulling power, he can cast actors such as John Mills, John Gielgud and Judy Dench, and give them not a single line.

Gerard Depardieu has a single scene, playing Reynaldo, a character who is almost always cut and whom most people will have forgotten ever existed at all. Robin Williams is the foppish Osric, Jack Lemmon is Marcellus, one of the guardsmen who sees the ghost, and every spear carrier, it seems, has a Hollywood history as long as this yarn. Then there's Julie Christie as Gertrude, Kate Winslet as Ophelia, and Derek Jacobi as Claudius. Even the Duke of Marlborough, who loaned his home Blen-heim Palace, gets a walk-on role (he is Fortinbras's second in command).

In the midst of it all is Branagh, playing Hamlet as a blonde. Some critics have said he's the angriest Hamlet they've ever seen, the sanest, the clearest headed and the least confused. Others that this is his mid-life crisis (he will be 37 in December), and that though it may be the best thing he has ever done, it is all down hill from here.

Hamlet is Branagh's longest love.

He has been obsessed by the play for more than 20 years and as director and star, he has approached this version with the unashamed conviction that Hamlet says everything about life that there is to be said. It's a ghost story, a political thriller, a revenge tragedy and a close up view of insanity. As though all that wasn't enough, Branagh sold it to his American backers by promising that it begins like Jaws (with horrible suspense), and ends like stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf going in for the kill. Even the advertising promises "more artificial snow than in Doctor Zhivago", for this is a cold, snow-swamped Scandinavian court - an Elsinore on ice.

Every young actor wants to play Hamlet, to pitch themselves against Shakespeare's severest test.

The role, as Daniel Day Lewis dis-covered, can crack a psyche, never mind a heart and he fled from the stage, mid-performance, convinced his own father was haunting him. It would be impossible to imagine the level-headed Branagh doing such a thing, yet his obsession with the play is stronger than most. He fell for it at 15, when he saw Richard Chamber-lain and then Derek Jacobi in the role. At 17, he auditioned for it, and at 20 he played it. Since then he's done it at the RSC, on the radio, and ends his autobiography with a quote from act five: The readiness is all.

At the time, Branagh was ready for anything. It was 1988-89 and he had just made his directorial debut with Henry V, got two Oscar nominations for it, founded Renaissance, his theatre company, and was about to marry Emma Thompson. He was an Olivier in waiting. Now, much has gone wrong. His marriage is over, wrecked on the rocks reserved for hubrisitic celebrities who get above themselves. His career has gone off the boil. Mercilessly attacked for duds like Dead Again, Peter's Friends, and In the Bleak Midwinter, he was all but finished off by the criticism of Frankenstein. Reviews could not have been worse if Mary Shelley herself had put a curse on it.

Branagh, therefore, came to this Hamlet in a very different frame of mind. Obsessed with the story, he was determined, almost compelled to make it before he could do anything else. It's as if he believed if he could only understand Hamlet, everything else would fall into place.

Tonight, in a TV documentary on making the film, Branagh suggests the whole play turns on the lines: "If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all."

It is Hamlet accepting his fate, making peace with himself and, in Branagh's interpretation, answers the question: To be or not to be? Finally, his response is "Let be." If he has to die, he's ready - although not without considerable self pity. His eyes fill with tears, and Horatio is so moved, he embraces him.

Many a Shakespearian scholar would say this is nonsense. They claim that, far from being his resig-nation to his fate, "Let be" is simply an aside, a recognition that his conversation is about to be interrupted by the arrival of the King and Queen.

The scholars will squabble, but Branagh at least is trying to find his own peace with the Dane.

Hamlet is not the first text Branagh has looked to for answers. DH Lawrence is another obsession.

When he made a TV play about the writer's early life, he not only read everything Lawrence had written, he also spent ages touching his signa-ture, wishing they had met. Acting for Branagh was, from an early age, a means of escape, a way out of his teenage angst.

When he was nine, his parents moved the family from Belfast to Reading to avoid the bloodshed. It left him displaced and insecure, and in an effort to cope, his accent became English at school and Irish at home. In his autobiography, he writes: "For as long as I could, I kept up the double life, but my voice gradually took on the twang of suburbia." The chance to act became a licence to find himself through other people, but it came at a price.

Complaining of his lack of emotion, Emma Thompson used to call him a walnut, and he's admitted he finds it natural to be protective of his own emotions, "so that you make an advance decision not to involve yourself as much as you might".

Playing Hamlet, for all its traumas, must seem like much safer ground.

All Branagh's emotional energy has been ploughed into his work.

He's affable and talented and to begin with it was a great success. He founded his own theatre company, wrote his biography, aged 28, to pay for it.

He had the chutzpah to give much older stars, such as Judi Dench, their first chance to direct, and when he was researching Henry V, to ask Prince Charles about the unease of waiting for a crown. He worked his socks off, and America, if not the UK, loved him for it. Meanwhile, his private life was coming apart.

Shakespeare, they are saying in America, is this season's Jane Austen, the subject of at least ten films in the last 18 months. Still to open here is the new Romeo and Juliet by the Strictly Ballroom director, Baz Luhrmann, set in contemporary Los Angeles, where a "sword" is a make of gun. It's MTV meets Tarantino, says one critic, and Branagh's Hamlet may look boringly conventional by comparison. But Luhrman's film may not have got made at all had not Branagh made the Bard popular again, with his Henry V and Much Ado. Unlike Olivier, who seemed to close off opportunities for others to film Shakespeare, Branagh perhaps has opened them up.

This side of the Atlantic, Hamlet is receiving a middling response.

There's a raised eyebrow or two that Branagh should have won an Oscar nomination for adapting a text which uses every word of Shakespeare, and some say that within the sprawling structure of this epic, there is a better, chamber piece, trying to get out. It may be that Branagh, good as he is, isn't quite good enough actor to make as great a Hamlet as he hopes. But it seems certain he won't find the key to it until he stops looking for it only in the play.

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