Couple Under Seige: Kenneth Branagh and Helena Bonham Carter

Toronto Sun, December 20 1998
by Bruce Kirkland

Helena Bonham Carter and Kenneth Branagh face up to challenges on-screen and off

On-screen in the loopy The Theory Of Flight, a powerful sexual charge crackles between Helena Bonham Carter and Kenneth Branagh.

It's like the creation scene out of Branagh's ill-fated horror movie, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

In The Theory Of Flight, opening in Toronto Christmas Day, Bonham Carter and Branagh play a couple, albeit an unusual one because she is dying of Lou Gehrig's Disease and he is insanely and suicidally reckless.

Bonham Carter and Branagh are also a couple in real life, albeit a famous one suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous gossip back in Britain. Any notion that they were cast together because they are a couple, and any suggestion that actors need to be lovers to portray a couple is dismissed as, "Bollocks!" by Branagh.

"It depends on how you come to it," Branagh says of acting couples playing couples in movies. "If you do it because you want to do a job with someone you're involved with, then that is the wrong way to do it.

"If you do it as we did it -- on a much more ruthless artistic level (because) she wanted to play that part and I loved the script and wanted to play a part -- then being involved was an added bonus.

"If you have any doubts, then don't do it. You have to be professional about it. Nothing could be more embarrassing than somehow doing anything other than your job. For this to be an excuse to somehow play out your relationship, well you can't do that. This is not another area to be blurring the distinction: 'Are we actors? Are we real?' That's all bollocks!"

Meanwhile, as far as portraying a supercharged couple in a movie, Branagh, an experienced writer-director and a classically trained actor, thinks it doesn't really help for the guy to know the girl, carnally or casually.

"I don't think there are necessarily any specific advantages. Great things can be achieved if you have a rapport with someone. But you can have a rapport that is entirely intuitive with someone that you met that morning.

"It has to do with their availablity to the character, their openness to how that mysterious process of acting and giving and responding goes.

"I would be foolish to think that I've got a better chance to make this relationship work with 'Helly'. My faith in this piece started absolutely with the script. I think there are no rules to it."

British director Paul Greenglass, who brought unknown writer Richard Hawkins' semi-autobiographical script to the screen, agrees with Branagh on the central issue. "There are no rules. That's what I think."

He had reservations, especially because he cast Bonham Carter first -- it was the most challenging role given the physical and vocal challenges of playing a woman with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Bonham Carter suggested to Greenglass that Branagh was intrigued by the script.

Which meant, if the two were not on their best behaviour, they could gang up on him during the shoot, Greenglass admits. He thought about it. He shrugged off his fears.

"I'll be absolutely honest," he Greenglass now. "It was never a factor for me during the making of the film. You would never know." Neither Bonham Carter nor Branagh did anything but act professionally and deliver the goods.

Branagh, in fact, was so humble to begin with that, before being cast, he offered to come in and audition. The director said yes, do it, and Branagh did a reading.

The director denies it was absurd to audition an actor of Branagh's stature and talent. "When you are directing a film like this," Greenglass says, "nothing concerns you so much as making the right choice."

For Bonham Carter, she worried more about the attention the casting of them together would get back home.

"The biggest reservation was that people were going to talk about it, that the press -- the British press, you guys are okay -- was going to make such a big deal."

She chuckles now. The British press did dog them. They did their best to ignore the paparazzi and gossip journalists. There was a bit of an escape hatch built in because The Theory Of Flight was largely shot on location in Wales.

"It ended up being -- well -- I can only say bland nice things about it," says Bonham Carter. "It was fairly harmonious, completely harmonious, and I think it (being a couple) helped in their case. We chose this not because we wanted to work together. We wanted the two separate parts. Because we did it for the right reasons, I think it helped."

Then there is the magic of chemistry, that sexual frisson that a couple as exuberantly together as Bonham Carter and Branagh display together.

"I certainly think that, if you have chemistry in life, on the whole it will translate to the screen," says Bonham Carter, who has been with Branagh for several years and co-starred in his Frankenstein. The exact timing of their relationship is fuzzy because they worked together while Branagh was still married to Emma Thompson.

Since then, both Bonham Carter and Branagh have been very careful about guarding their private world while publicly acknowledging the obvious, that they are lovers.

In The Theory Of Flight, they are a couple under siege. Branagh's character meets Bonham Carter's in a community-service program he is obliged to enter as part of a court sentence for some public nuisance behaviour. The relationship, which starts with barbs and bitchiness, evolves to love only under the most extreme pressure.

"They're both like children," Bonham Carter says of the characters, her sexually hungry virgin in a wheelchair, his emotionally crippled artist. "She wants to grow up before she dies. He refuses to grow up because he's avoiding responsibility. They both help each other grow up and achieve a certain maturity."

Along the way, Bonham Carter -- inspiring awe in Branagh for her thorough research and dedication to acting what she learned -- portrays a woman with ALS without turning her into a sappy victim. Bonham Carter's character is caustic, profane and sexually frank.

"I was trying to stay away from making it just about the illness," she says. "As far as the pain and the angst go, what I loved about the script was that it wasn't too obvious. It wasn't too sentimental or too indulgent or too manipulative. I loved the humour in it."

THE Theory of flight File

THE COUNTRY: A British film plucked out of the slush pile of unsolicited scripts sent to the BBC.

THE CAST: Real-life couple Helena Bonham Carter and Kenneth Branagh co-star as the eccentric couple in the movie.

THE STORY: Revolves around the sexual desires of a woman with ALS, a fatal neuromuscular disease which leads to progressive paralysis of the muscles.

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