A Different Dane

The Morning Call, March 28 1997
by Amy Longsdorf

The winter of Kenneth Branagh's discontent has finally passed.

His latest movie, a spectacularly lavish, four-hour version of "Hamlet" which netted him a handful of Oscar nominations, helped blot out the memory of his 1994 big-budget directorial fiasco, the critically blasted "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein."

He even seems to have laid his personal demons to rest. With the turmoil of his split from longtime wife and collaborator Emma Thompson behind him, Branagh has taken up with his "Frankenstein" co-star Helena Bonham-Carter, with whom he now resides in London. He and Thompson aren't exactly friends, but he says he'd "love" to work with her again.

"I learned a lot of things about myself in the past couple of years," he says over lunch at the Four Seasons Hotel. "All traumatic experiences are revealing. You probably learn more from things that in the first instance knock you sideways."

He was still reeling from his October 1995 split from Thompson when he began production on "Hamlet," scheduled to arrive next week at the County Theater in Doylestown and May 11 at the 19th Street Theatre in Allentown. As it turns out, Branagh's personal upheavals dovetailed nicely with those of the movie's title character -- a chap trying to figure out whether or not to avenge his father's murder.

"It's hard not to get caught up in a play," says Branagh, 35. "It's easy to get absorbed in the character because he's a very self-absorbed guy. In fact, I think his level of self-absorption makes him very recognizable to us today, especially as we plough though our shelf full of self-discovery manuals. We are all sort of looking into the mirror, tying to figure out how to lessen our anxieties. It's hard to work on this play and not think about how this character's journey rubs off on your own."

That said, Branagh's $ 18 million "Hamlet" is no gloom-and-doom affair. Shot at the now-abandoned Blenheim Castle in 70 mm -- though it will be presented at the County Theater and the 19th Street Theatre in 35 mm -- "Hamlet" bursts with color and commotion.

"There's nothing to suggest that the court is a gothic place," says Branagh. "It's vibrant, curious and alive. And I wanted the look of the film to suggest that these are people who are engaged in the world as well as being engaged in their own problems."

Branagh's Hamlet is also a departure from the melancholy Danes served up by John Barrymore, Laurence Olivier, Daniel Day-Lewis and Ralph Fiennes. Branagh's Hamlet is always in motion, strutting before two-way mirrors, vigorously descending staircases, even making mad, passionate love with Ophelia (Kate Winslet).

"I see nothing in the play that suggests a melancholy or introspective man," reasons Branagh. "When Claudius gets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet, it's because he (Hamlet) is responding out of character. When Hamlet tells Rosencrantz what's wrong with him, he lists five symptoms of clinical depression, which are a result of the loss of his father and the visitation of the ghost. Hamlet isn't normally a depressed kind of guy."

Perhaps the boldest aspect of Branagh's strategy was his decision to mount a full-text version of "Hamlet." While most filmed editions of the play run two hours, Branagh decided to include every single word Shakespeare wrote, extending the running time to three hours and 58 minutes, not including the 10-minute intermission. (A shorter version might air on TV and be available on video).

What's usually cut from "Hamlet" is material dealing with the advance of Fortinbras, Hamlet's Norwegian contemporary. In Branagh's version, Fortinbras ("Cold Comfort Farm's" Rufus Sewell) is regularly seen approaching the castle, threatening to attack at the first sign of weakness.

"It's very important for Hamlet to see Fortinbras out there on the plains so that he realizes that his own self-absorption and problems are not as important as all that. It's like the great slap in the face you get when you're watching TV news and you see some awful catastrophe and you realize all your belly-aching during the day is not so important."

Other characters who seem richer and more faceted in Branagh's four-hour edition: Polonius, Gertrude and Ophelia. "I wanted to give every syllable possible to Gertrude and Ophelia so their presences could be more strongly felt. I always missed that in the theater. And poor Polonius is usually reduced either to a Machiavellian politician or a doddering buffoon. The cumulative effect (of all the restorations) is to make the play more emotional. All of the characters are much more complex in the full-text version."

Branagh extended his unconventional approach to the movie's casting. Rather than relying on Royal Shakespeare Company All-Stars, he enlisted the likes of Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Gerard Depardieu, Charlton Heston and Jack Lemmon. Of the central players, only Derek Jacobi (as Claudius) could be considered type-casting.

"I like to cast people who are from different backgrounds. Usually, during the rehearsals, they're quite nervous and eager to do well. That makes for a good atmosphere. I wanted to cast people like Robin and Billy because, in my mind, Shakespeare belongs to everybody. He's not the sole province of the English.

"I also like to shake off the English classical thing to some degree. And there's still a ways to go. Actually, the recent 'Romeo and Juliet' went pretty far. That was pretty bold in its casting. I thought that was dazzling and inventive, and all of a piece. I thought it was pretty brilliant, actually."

One of Branagh's most impressive casting coups was landing Julie Christie to play Hamlet's mother, Gertrude. The actress, who had virtually retired from film acting, was Branagh's first choice for the tricky role of a woman who re-marries only a month after the death of Hamlet's father.

"I thought she was tremendous in 'Far From the Madding Crowd' playing a Thomas Hardy heroine," says Branagh. "I knew she would be the kind of screen presence who makes this character, who's underwritten in the play, very important to the proceedings. And I just wanted to try something different with Gertrude."

Being different has always been important to Branagh. When he mounted his visceral version of "Henry V," he dared to strip the battle sequences of their customary majesty. When he brought "Much Ado About Nothing" to the screen, he cast it with the likes of Keanu Reeves, Robert Sean Leonard and Michael Keaton.

For "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," he decided to break with the time-honored account of Dr. Frankenstein as a mad scientist. Instead, Branagh reimagined the doctor as a Faustian figure who believes his medical experiments will ultimately benefit mankind.

Despite the critical brickbats he received for "Frankenstein," Branagh looks back on the flick fondly. "A lot of people didn't like it, but it made $ 100 million. So what's the big deal? It was a bit bruising, but the history of this business is that people like some things, don't like others. You're lucky if you come out 50-50."

Don't let his good-natured attitude fool you. The Belfast-born Branagh is so ambitious, he makes Madonna seem like a slacker. After joining the Royal Shakespeare Company, he promptly became the youngest member ever to play Henry V. In between starring in such movies as "High Season," "A Month in the Country," "Fortunes of War," "Dead Again" and "Peter's Friends," Branagh established himself as the preeminent Shakespearean actor of his generation.

By the time the then-27-year-old Branagh made his directorial debut with the Oscar-nominated "Henry V," he had already written an autobiography ("Beginnings"), penned two plays and withstood countless Laurence Olivier comparisons. Since then, Branagh has come to terms with being regularly misunderstood. "I don't worry about it anymore," shrugs the actor, who'll next be seen as a Catholic priest in "Shakespeare's Sister" and as a ruthless attorney in Robert Altman's version of the John Grisham-scripted "Gingerbread Man."

"I think people have some misconceptions about me because of my relation to Shakespeare. They think I'm trying to sell myself as some all-seeing, all-knowing guru about this man's work. In fact, I'm just an enthusiast and an interpreter of his stuff. People think I strut around in black tights with a big, thick book under my arm. They approach me like I'm a walking library or something. Believe me, I'm a little funnier than that. I like to think I'm a jolly young man -- or rather a jolly youngish man."

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