Hamlet? Branagh Knows Him Well

Variety, January 1, 1997
by Matt Wolf

With the release of "Hamlet" on his 36th birthday last month, Kenneth Branagh has directed seven movies and starred in six of them. At 4 hours and 1 minute, it's also his longest.

Branagh has played Hamlet three times onstage and once on radio; was Laertes to Roger Rees' Hamlet in his first Royal Shakespeare Company season; and auditioned for London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art with the "O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I" soliloquy from Act Two.

Small wonder that Branagh is often mentioned in the same breath as Orson Welles and, especially, Laurence Olivier.

He explains the length of the film as part of the movie-making experience. "At various stages I would have been allowed to make it for a smaller sum in a cut version," he said, "but there are excellent cut versions of the play already on film; one needed a stronger reason than that. I felt the cumulative weight of the evening made for an incredibly emotional finale. At its best, it was a life-enhancing thing."

With Shakespeare replacing Jane Austen as the literary-movie leader of the moment, Branagh said he hopes some of the comparisons to Olivier will disappear.

"Any time you're in the classics pool, you're haunted by ghosts of former performers. I tend not to worry about it in the end; it's one of the prices you pay," he said. "It's a very, very good thing that [Baz Luhrmann's recent] `Romeo & Juliet' has done the business it's done. It means people can view Shakespeare movies as films, not these once-a-decade special events."

Branagh is conscious of being in "a small club" of actor / directors. "Every time an actor wants to direct, I get a phone call saying, `How do you do this?' I was talking to Mel Gibson last year just before he did `Braveheart,' and he said, `How am I going to direct a battle scene?' I told him how I felt the morning we began filming the Battle of Agincourt in `Henry,' " he said.

And where did Branagh get advice on playing Henry V? He simply approached Britain's very own incipient monarch, Prince Charles, who then became a Branagh patron - and fan.

"He's a very good captain; he's always in control," said Charlton Heston, the Player King in Hamlet. Heston, who worked with Olivier, saidthat Branagh "may be a better captain as a director than Olivier was. In fact, it may be that Ken's a better director than an actor."

Billy Crystal, whose droll First Gravedigger is one of the unexpected delights of "Hamlet," says, "I couldn't believe how one could play Hamlet in the full text and direct it at the same time and walk away standing." But, Crystal recalls, "Ken never let me feel like I was a newcomer. Most of my dialogue was with him or [noted classical actor] Simon Russell Beale, and they just folded me in. I didn't feel like the American exchange student."

Branagh admits to Elizabethan tendencies. "I like the Elizabethan era," he said. "It was a period of great possibility when everyone was interested in everything, when Renaissance people were possible. Our own world is explosively expansive technologically, but there's less possibility of our interests being wide-ranging, because there's just too much to know."

That said, look for Branagh's career to take a more modern turn - as an actor. He's playing an English priest in 1935 New England in "Shakespeare's Sister," alongside William Hurt and Madeleine Stowe. At the end of January he heads to Savannah, Ga., to play a southern lawyer in "The Gingerbread Man," directed by Robert Altman from a script by John Grisham.

"Hamlet contains much of what I felt I had to say," he said. "At the moment, I'm enjoying being just an actor with no specific plans to act or direct, or both, in any premeditated way. I'm going where the good people are, and trying to make no rules about it."

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