Alas, Poor Branagh, We Know Him Well

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 31, 1997
by Paula Nechak

'Hamlet' director/star reflects on hazards of filmmaking, public life.

Kenneth Branagh is a natural to play ``Hamlet. '' Who better to play the melancholy Dane than a melancholy Irishman? It's not that the 36-year-old actor and director is out-and-out tragic during a one-day trip to Seattle to promote his spectacular, star-studded, 70-millimeter, four-hour version of ``Hamlet. '' Instead, he's reflective and self-protective.

Branagh, after all, has taken a beating at the hands of the press in the past couple of years for his disastrously received ``Mary Shelley's Frankenstein'' as well as the very public breakup of his celebrated marriage to his frequent film and theater co-star, Emma Thompson. While still in his 20s, Branagh was hailed as the new Laurence Olivier in England because of his rousing film adaptation of ``Henry V.'' He went on to direct and star in the successful ``Dead Again'' and the film version of another Shakespeare play, ``Much Ado About Nothing. '' And he learned to take life in the public eye very cautiously. He looks tired but handsome and fit as he lights a cigarette and settles back onto the sofa in his hotel suite.

``I don't know what you can do to let people coming into this profession have some sense of how to maintain a clear vision. Given it's a profession of beggars, we're not really in a position of control,'' Branagh says.

``Certainly, I experienced both theatrically and in film terms, an incredible amount of attention and indeed, overpraise, at a very early age. ''

He smiles grimly and continues, ``And all while being fully aware, in my view, that it couldn't possibly be justified. 'Henry V' was a film I was proud of and was incredibly lucky with. But the degree of attention it was given was sort of disproportionate to how I considered myself as a filmmaker.

``I wasn't a filmmaker then, I just happened to make a film. You can lose your way and some sense of yourself. I come from a Belfast background that keeps me rooted, but I would say those were difficult years where I felt I was about to be found out in some way. '' After surviving the critical lashing for ``Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,'' Branagh went back to those roots and made a small comedy called ``A Midwinter's Tale. '' It did negligible business but garnered respectable reviews. If Branagh thought he wasn't a filmmaker before, how about after directing seven films?

He thinks for a second. ``I don't really know. I seem to be taken far more seriously than is probably necessary. '' He breaks into a laugh. ``I don't particularly worry about it. I'm sort of serious in my intent but I'm aware that I'm gathering more confidence in working in the medium itself. I'm making decisions that are directly connected to the process of filming decent material. I'm a little more literate now and more confident about insisting upon the things I want to do.

``But looking back, I was always pretty honest about what I didn't know, which was more or less everything on 'Henry V.''' He pauses. ``But there is a way of finding a position of strength when you're straightforward with people about the things you don't know. And on a film like 'Hamlet,' which was shot on a tight schedule with a tight budget, communication becomes absolutely vital. ''

``Hamlet'' is a rousing political and familial intrigue. Not only is there murder, madness, revenge, incest, war and love, there are incredible physical and emotional demands placed upon its actors. Branagh says he personally identifies more with Benedict from ``Much Ado About Nothing,'' than the Prince of Denmark, noting, ``Benedict is very male in a way and silly and romantic in spite of himself. There's a likeness of soul there, an optimistic spirit and a kind fellow. ''

But, he acknowledges, the timing was right for him to play Hamlet on film.

``I think it was very lucky for me because the combination of a certain amount of life experience and experience with the part itself meant that it was probably the last moment at which I could convincingly play him.

``You know, what struck me this time about it was this plea inside the play to remember the dead. Hamlet's outrage at the start is the lack of mourning for his father. Ophelia doesn't get a proper burial, Polonius doesn't get a proper burial. There seems to be a kind of plea in it that we must mourn and acknowledge these terrible losses we have. '' Branagh's losses include his separation in October of 1995 from Thompson, who won Oscars for best actress in ``Howard's End'' and for best screenplay for ``Sense and Sensibility. '' The couple has not divorced.

He goes physically rigid at the mention of his marriage. When asked whether a reconciliation might occur, he bristles, ``Not something I'm able to talk about. ''

Was the marriage a failure? ``Again,'' he remarks coolly, ``not something I'm able to talk about. ''

He then comments, ``There's sadness, a huge sadness. It's hard to talk about. ''

But the word ``failure'' ignites some need to elaborate.

``Professionally and personally, it's inappropriate to live your life trying to define it in terms of success or failure,'' he insists. ``If I had kids, I wouldn't want to raise them to think they had somehow failed. A different kind of vocabulary needs to apply to such things. Not to excuse mistakes, but to not bash yourself up for the rest of your life. '' Branagh is on a roll now. ``All the cliches apply, but it's necessary, otherwise you'll never get over them. You have to believe, without being crassly fatalistic, that certain things happen at a certain time because they can't happen at any other time. There is a mystery involved and you can try to define them in terms of success or failure, but the truth is, they just happened. ''

One thing Branagh is willing to discuss, though it's raised the eyebrows of highbrow filmgoers, is his willingness to cast American actors in his Shakespeare-based films. He unconventionally hired Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves for ``Much Ado About Nothing. '' And he has incorporated the talents of Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Jack Lemmon and Charlton Heston into ``Hamlet. ''

``They bring a different background and approach and usually a great familiarity with how movies, the camera and lights work, and how to act in front of them,'' Branagh says. ``They bring a different sound, which I enjoy.

``But you know I try to direct differently for each person. Different people need different things. In the early stages of 'Hamlet,' I made everyone fill in a Proustian questionnaire as their characters. Then we mixed them up and people read out different ones and we had to try and guess who the character was. It's the kind of thing that stops people from worrying about the fact that it's Shakespeare. '' Branagh reflects for a moment. ``I like to cast unconventionally because it says Shakespeare is available to everyone. Shaking up these plays illuminates them, keeps them alive. If there were only one way to do it, they would soon be dead, wouldn't they? Thank God for Baz Luhrmann's 'Romeo & Juliet. ' ''

He smiles, ``If nothing else, it puts a rocket up the bottoms of all the people who would like to be proprietary. ''

He lights another cigarette. It's obvious he's getting very tired, though he's trying hard to articulate his thoughts.

``You know, Derek Jacobi, for all his experience doing Shakespeare in the theater, can be just as intimidated about being in a big movie as Robin Williams might be intimidated by Derek's experience. ''

He pauses, then concludes, ``In the case of 'Hamlet,' I think it was a mutually star-struck, rather touching atmosphere, where everybody just wanted to do it rather well. ''

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