Kenneth Branagh: Screen Prince

Scotland on Sunday, January 26 1997
author unknown

With a sense of symmetry that would have been worthy of Will Shakespeare himself, destiny has turned a neat full circle for Kenneth Branagh.

As a callow youth of 15 living near Reading he was lured to Oxford for a performance of Hamlet by Prospect Touring Theatre Company.

What caught his eye was a picture of Derek Jacobi looking haunted and billed as "TV's I Claudius".

"I went because I'd seen him on the telly, so I was expecting him to stutter. It was a bit of shock when he didn't. There was Timothy West as Claudius and Suzanne Bertish as a rather frisky Ophelia who shoved a crucifix up her nether regions, drawing lots of gasps. I remember overhead spotlights, lots of dramatic smoke, and thundering, seven-testicle music. The only previous event where I'd seen hundreds of people get that excited was at a football match," says Branagh.

"I went home thrilled and elated, and wondered how the actors could possibly come down after delivering such emotions. Now I know they'd be in the local curry house downing 15 pints of lager and a chicken biryani."

For Branagh, 36, as he has told anyone prepared to listen, during his formative years it fired him with a determination to join the profession.

It seems inevitable, after playing him three times on stage and once on radio, that he would return to the travails of the troubled Prince of Denmark to cap his series of Shakespearean adaptations for the cinema starting with Henry V which drew lofty comparisons with Laurence Olivier, through his jaunty romp Much Ado About Nothing to his thespy In the Bleak Midwinter, about a bunch of unemployed actors trying to put on a production of Hamlet in a village hall.

His efforts were less fraught as you might deduce from someone who had garnered box office kudos and clout by delivering a huge audience for Henry and Much Ado.

Even so, observers were astonished at the scale of his achievement in persuading Castle Rock to stump up $ 15m for his four-hour (plus intermission) Hamlet.

It took him two years to set it all up before filming began at Shepperton and the Duke of Marlborough's ancestral home Blenheim Palace and its environs which were covered under 20 acres of artificial snow. Even more remarkable was the stellar power of the assembled cast, many in fleeting cameo roles: Gerard Depardieu as a wily Reynaldo (servant to Richard Briers's Polonius), a bereted Billy Crystal as a gravedigger to poor Yorick, Charlton Heston as a noble Player King, Jack Lemmon as a bewildered Marcellus, Robin Williams as a foppish Osric and John Gielgud lending his presence in a non-speaking role as Priam.

Branagh's apocalyptic Hamlet, a brilliant Scandic blonde, is flanked by Derek Jacobi's chilling Claudius, Julie Christie's heart-rending Gertrude, and Kate Winslet's fevered Ophelia. Jacobi had, in fact, directed Branagh's first professional stage Hamlet in 1988.

Branagh, curled up in a capacious armchair in jeans and a sweatshirt, says: "I wanted to continue what we started with Much Ado - to have a truly international cast without reference to colour, accent or nationality. The idea was to create a bit of an event with the casting - so Jack Lemmon's Average Joe movie persona was ideal for Marcellus. He should be a confused guy up there on the battlements, saying: 'I don't understand this.' All the Americans were excited about the prospect of working with English actors like Derek and Julie who were huge lures, and they made it that much easier to bag the rest."

Branagh sensed he had reached the point where he was steeped enough in the role to have "a sense of freedom as an actor" which enabled him to shoulder the directorial burden as well. "The two things seemed intertwined although you forget just how physically exhausting it is, how taxing on the voice it is, and how many alarmingly famous bits there are a and so close together."

He had first attempted to make a film of Hamlet while his stock was soaring in the wake of Henry V.

Then Mel Gibson jumped in first which imposed an obvious delay. In the interim Branagh, sneaking the odd cigarette with the hangdog air of a naughty schoolboy, says he became convinced that the only version left to be realised was the full-length one. It gave him time to become leaner and fitter rather than what he described as "the short-assed, fat-faced Irishman" of his Peter's Friends era.

"There were plenty of takers who said if you do it at half the length and half the budget then we will give you the money. We got on with the designs and the location photographs and by the time Castle Rock were talked into it, we were most of the way there," he says. His pitch likened one of the court scenes to a White House press conference and he suggested the Danish king went into "Norman Schwarzkopf mode (the allied commander in the Gulf war)." "As part of securing the final $ 2m we agreed to make a two-hour version, possibly for screening later on cable or television."

Branagh believes it to be the first feature completely shot on 70mm since David Lean's Ryan's Daughter which he recalls seeing on a big screen during his Belfast boyhood.

He hopes his Hamlet will be regarded as an event-experience to be sampled and savoured on the biggest screens possible. His preferred projection so far was on an Imax screen in Washington's Air and Space Museum.

Whether his gamble has succeeded remains to be proved although the portents look promising.

He has been lurking on the other side of West 58th Street watching the crowds line up at the Paris cinema as if he could scarcely believe his orbs.

In its two weeks of release in North America in three cinemas in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto it has scored a take of $ 66,000 per cinema (which compares with averages of $ 46,000 for Evita and $ 9,700 for Tom Cruise's Jerry Maguire in the same week). The platform approach, allowing for a build up from word of mouth, feeds anticipation and has worked for such films as Dances with Wolves and Schindler's List.

Branagh, more used to being baited and bashed by the British media, has been basking in rave US reviews such as "this gloriously intelligent, intensely perceptive new reading of the Bard's best-known tragedy" (LA Daily News), "Branagh displays an energy and forcefulness that is contagious to the huge and varied cast" (Variety) and "Branagh as star and ringmaster goes to the heart of Hamlet and goes to admirable lengths to take his audience there too" (New York Times). And he is a hot tip for an Oscar nomination.

He needed a boost after the drubbing handed out to his $ 44m bomb of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the persistent interest in his split with Emma Thompson and his relationship with Helena Bonham Carter which happened mid-way through the filming of Hamlet.

He is still keeping his head down, concentrating on sorting out his new home, near to his parents, which his film designer Tim Harvey has helped him to kit out.

Work as a jobbing actor has been rolling in. He has completed Shakespeare's Sister, which has nothing to do with the Bard, with William Hurt and Madeleine Stowe, in which he plays a priest involved in a complicated murder, and he is about to head off to Georgia to work with Robert Altman on an original John Grisham screenplay, The Gingerbread Man, with Sean Young and Tom Berenger. Thereafter he would like to slot in a return to the boards - but it would have to be a role "someone is burning for me to do otherwise I'd just be indulging myself".

He has managed to work Hamlet out of his system. "There was one court scene with 350 extras, four cameras and 100 crew and at the end of a series of meetings it all seemed to boil down to when the extras could go to the loo. I thought: 'But this is Hamlet, and we're talking about lavatory habits.

Crazy.' This may not be the definitive Hamlet, but the tights are hung up and the fluffy white shirt is in the wardrobe never to be brought out again. It's a good feeling. And this is the last fucking time I will act and direct at the same time."

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