Branagh's Risky Business

USA Today, December 24, 1996
by David Stearns

How long is Kenneth Branagh's new film version of Shakespeare' s Hamlet?

Long enough that even studio execs are joking about it.

``Afterwards,'' quipped Castle Rock president Martin Shafer at the New York premiere, ``we're having an early-bird breakfast!''

Castle Rock is distributor of this celluloid opus -- all 3 hours and 58 minutes of it, not counting an intermission. The film is doing good business in three theaters and rolls out to more cities in coming weeks.

Many things point to this being a highly quixotic project: the length, the Elizabethan dialogue (which many of his actors are speaking for the first time) and the fact that Branagh is coming off a multimillion- dollar 1994 flop, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Yet Shafer approved the film, sumptuously shot in glistening 70 millimeter, with little fuss. ``It's a tough bet,'' he concedes. ``It's not for everybody. But the best films come from a labor of love.''

Besides, there appears to be a safety net: a 21/2-hour version waiting in the wings if the longer version founders. Right? Not quite.

``There was always a short version planned, but there are no plans to release it,'' says Branagh, his easygoing manner turning determined. ``This will be the only version that goes out. The short version is for airlines or maybe TV.''

In the past, Branagh, 36, has been famous for getting away with the impossible. The current wave of Shakespeare films can be traced directly to his success with Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing. But even among more mainstream films, a 4-hour length is difficult to sustain, not just at the box office but in terms of storytelling.

Shafer appears unworried. He points to the success of The Godfather, Part II; Dances With Wolves; and The Last Emperor rather than to flops such as Heaven's Gate and Cleopatra, adding that exhibitors want the 4-hour version. He says they believe audiences for this film simply want all of it, since Hamlet is one of the greatest plays ever written.

It also doesn't need to make a lot of money: The budget was a modest $18 million.


``I can't sit that long,'' says Barbara Gaines of Chicago's Shakespeare Repertory Theater, who suggests a little editing. ``He (Shakespeare) overwrote. Where two metaphors could suffice, he gives you 12.''

Robert Falls, who directed an uncut Hamlet in Chicago in 1985, disagrees.

``We're used to seeing this work pared down in the hands of Laurence Olivier or Mel Gibson,'' Falls says. ``There have been enough of those. Shakespeare poured a lot into Hamlet if you take time to explore it. It's a larger story of society. There's a political view that's larger than the family.''

Much of what's restored in the new film version is the subplot about Fortinbras, Hamlet's Norwegian contemporary and counterpart, who's poised to invade at the smallest sign of weakness from the Danish royal family. Branagh loves the idea that intimate personal problems can change the way borders are drawn in Europe.

``Even if moments weren't working at a fever pitch, the structure of the play makes these things cumulatively add up,'' Branagh says. ``Everything connects in this piece. Everything.''

One might think Branagh was hedging his bets with luxurious cameo appearances by the likes of box-office favorites Billy Crystal (the gravedigger) and Robin Williams (Osric). But the film was approved before any such casting was discussed or finalized. Branagh simply was trusted to come up with an intriguing lineup.

One of the most fascinating flourishes was landing Julie Christie -- virtually retired from film for the past decade -- to play Hamlet' s mother, Gertrude, who marries his uncle only a month after his father' s death.

Like some of the other non-Shakespeareans in the cast, she questioned Branagh's process, which included memorizing everything and having two weeks of rehearsals with complete run-throughs -- by candlelight.

``She (Christie) wondered what she'd gotten herself into,'' Branagh says. ``Gertrude is an underwritten role. She has less to say than the first gravedigger. Yet she's pivotal to the action onstage. I needed somebody to convey the inner life of the character. I knew she could fill the dots.''

Far from being a crass, glitzy purveyor of populist Shakespeare, Branagh is, in many ways, uncompromising. After Frankenstein, he was happy to be away from mega-budget marketing and the studio meddling that comes with a big-budget picture.

In many ways, this Hamlet is highly personal. So is his own performance, which is loud and confrontational, almost too big for the screen.

Branagh defends his approach. ``Put yourself in that (Hamlet's) position: Your father has died. Your mother is married in a month to your uncle. The ghost of the father comes and says to avenge him. You must kill the king. It's a huge canvas, and 4 hours of me ducking the role wouldn' t have been appropriate.''

Similarly, the film's palace rooms, filled with two-way mirrors and secret doors, aren't just flashy filmmaking. Branagh uses them to fuel and explain Hamlet's paranoia and madness.

``I said there had to be two hidden doors in every room . . . and a feeling of excess and unevenness,'' he says. ``There's this inability for Hamlet to be alone. That dogs him. We tend to be interested in people in power, and that they have perfectly normal problems but must deal with them under a microscope.''

Branagh himself has had a taste of life under the public microscope lately, thanks to his marital split from Emma Thompson, announced in October 1995.

He doesn't complain about the media, which predicted the end of the marriage long before it happened. He doesn't point fingers or analyze who did what. He's fatalistic: ``I think we're responsible for ourselves. I am what I am and she is what she is. And these things are a mystery. They're written the way they're written.

``I'd love to work with her (Thompson) in the future. Maybe not the immediate future. But she's one of the greatest actresses we have.' '

What does annoy him is the public image of him as a workaholic. ``I really don't buy it. You can be in the act of doing your work and still appreciating the cup of coffee and a nice time with your friends.

``I've seen people try to construct these times, cutting out six months to have quality time and being marvelous with people. (But) it happens when it happens. You can't control your life.''

That includes, too, his reputed relationship with Frankenstein co-star Helena Bonham Carter.

``We see each other,'' he says simply. ``But I'm on the road, I've been making Hamlet, and my work has been pretty much my life.''

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