Out On a Limb

The Virginian-Pilot, November 5 1994
by Mal Vincent

''IT'S ALIVE! It's alive!''

Kenneth Branagh winced as he was reminded of that cliched but still key moment that is a part of most ''Frankenstein'' movies. It's the scene when the Creature takes life, when man plays God.

''Yes,'' said the famed Shakespearean actor, shaking his head. ''That scene is in my film, too, but there's a difference. This time, it's not a mad, crazy, scientist. It's a human, vulnerable, person who has let his own ambition and vanity get out of hand. This is a work of monumental, classic, tragedy.''

Indeed, Frankie with the bloodshot eyes has been given a bona fide upgrade with the tony ''Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,'' which opened Friday. It's directed by and stars the cocky, energetic Branagh, who usually specializes in turning Shakespeare (''Henry V,'' ''Much Ado About Nothing'') into hit films.

This time, Branagh is out to make an even bolder crossover. His blond hair hanging rakishly to his shoulders, he sat at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York to, explain, somewhat nervously, why we need another ''Frankenstein.''

''It's never been told in a way that was faithful to the novel,'' Branagh said. ''When I read the original novel, I was reminded why this story continues to have such a strong hold on people. The idea of a man playing God and cheating death is a primal myth. It brings up questions like 'Who is more evil, Frankenstein or his abandoned Creature?' 'What would you do if someone you loved died and you had the power to bring them back to life?' ''

Branagh, 34, has spent more than a year working on his version, which stars Robert De Niro as the Creature. He said getting De Niro was a must in getting the picture made.

''Francis Ford Coppola came to me with the offer to direct it,'' he said. ''I was playing in 'Hamlet' in London. I hesitated at first. Coppola didn't want to direct it himself, after 'Dracula,' but he wanted it made and he wanted De Niro for the part.

''De Niro checked me out carefully before signing on. He took some nine months preparing and pondering. At first, he thought I'd make him try to sound British. I promised I wouldn't. Then, he even went and studied with a stroke victim to try and recapture the difficulty of the Creature learning to speak.''

One thing is sure: ''Mary Shelley's Frankenstein'' would not exist if it hadn't been for ''Bram Stoker's Dracula.'' Coppola's 1992 film got terrible reviews, but went on to become a box-office hit anyway.

''Frankenstein'' does not have the budget of ''Dracula,'' but Branagh said it does have the romance and drama he intended.

''Victor Frankenstein, whom I play, is a good man who lets his obsession and vanity get in the way,'' he said. ''He creates the Creature and then abandons it. The Creature is like a rejected child. It is a great soul. Victor achieves greatness of soul, but it is too late. It's a classic tragedy.''

The movie, he added, is very 1990s. ''Scientists have almost caught up with the story now. We have test-tube babies, multiple organ transplants, geriatric and surrogate pregnancies, designer babies and the development of artificial intelligence. We are trying to control life. Isn't this what led to the tragedy in 'Frankenstein' ''?

There's one other sure thing: You won't get Branagh, or any of his cast, to call it a ''horror'' movie.

Frank Darabont, who directed ''The Shawshank Redemption,'' co-wrote the new ''Frankenstein.''

''The studio is trying to sell it as a love story because that worked with 'Dracula,' '' he said. ''They're really a bunch of wimps. Of course, it's a horror story. The horror is what pushes it forward - it's the horror of trying to defy death, to control life. The love story is also there, but it's essentially a horror film.''

I first met Kenneth Branagh more than a decade ago on the first night of his first visit to America. He and then-girlfriend Emma Thompson had just gotten off a plane from London, and were in Los Angeles to promote the ''Masterpiece Theater'' miniseries ''Fortunes of War.'' His publicist pushed him as ''the next Laurence Olivier,'' a tag every new British actor was getting at the time.

Branagh has, indeed, inherited the British mainstream pop icon crown of Olivier. The similarities are evident. He directs his own company - the Renaissance Theater Company - goes from theater to film and has even married his most famous leading lady. Thompson. They are the darlings of the art-movie crowd.

The British press, though, yelled ''sellout'' when it was announced that he was going to make a Hollywood horror film.

In fact, Branagh and Thompson have become frequent targets of Fleet Street. He's blasted as being ''egotistical'' and ''cocky.'' Although Americans are charmed by her down-to-earth humor, which contrasts with her serious movie roles, she's regarded as sometimes gauche.

''Yes, the British press have been on our case, off and on,'' Branagh said, again shaking his blond locks. ''I think it happens when you have some success. You'd think anyone who encourages filming in England would be welcomed. I haven't run off to Hollywood. I make my films there, but they regarded us as something of a phenomenon because we had some success.

''Now, things are settling down and we're entrenched a little, accepted. We'll be heroes when we have a few failures.''

With Thompson away in Hollywood to accept Oscars (''Howards End'') and star with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the upcoming comedy ''Junior,'' the usual rumors of marital trouble have surfaced. ''Em and I are fine,'' he said. ''Actually, we're together a great deal. We live across the street from her mother.''

Branagh is actually an Irish lad - born in Belfast and raised in England. After studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he won an award for the most promising newcomer in his first play, in 1982. Since then, it's been upward. He went to Hollywood to direct the hit thriller, ''Dead Again,'' then returned to England. His play ''Public Enemy,'' about a young man who idolizes James Cagney, is playing off-Broadway.

He admitted that it's difficult directing himself. ''I was almost going crazy at one point with 'Frankenstein,' '' Branagh said. ''I have a guy who watches me every moment - watches my acting. I have, you see, to set up the scene and then go into it and play it. Then I study it on play-back TV. It's very difficult. On weekends, I'd go down to the set for the creation thing and sit there and write notes on where the camera should move.''

The new bride of Frankenstein is Helena Bonham Carter, the alabaster queen of costume films. Surprisingly, Carter came on like gangbusters after the New York premiere. She never liked the book, she doesn't like horror movies and, initially, she didn't want to be in ''Frankenstein.'' Her spunky retorts are the very opposite of the usually demure British rose she plays.

''Did we go to great lengths to be like the novel?'' Carter said, repeating the question. ''I hope not. I hope we aren't that turgid or boring. The novel is badly written. Of course, Mary Shelley was only 19 when she wrote it. I suppose she did well for 19.''

Carter debuted in the hit ''Lady Jane'' and went on to star in the Merchant-Ivory epics ''Room with a View'' and ''Howards End.''

''They, the Hollywood backers, were not thrilled with having a Merchant-Ivory girl in the lead,'' she said. ''I'm sure they would have preferred a Hollywood name. I'm sure they would have preferred Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Creature. But Ken wanted me to play Elizabeth.

''I didn't want to be in it if it was going to be a horror movie or if I was just going to be decoration. I think this is the main way in which we changed the novel. Elizabeth, Frankenstein's love, is now pretty feisty. I mean, she does what she should do. She tells him that if he doesn't get out of the laboratory some time, she's going to walk.''

Carter, 28, was not intimidated about co-starring with De Niro, but said she was wary. ''He's regarded as one of the great screen actors, yet I was really dubious about how it would go.

''He repeats his lines over and over while they leave the camera running. That is his method. He'll say the same line over - three to 10 times. Then, they'll edit it to pick the best one. Then, when he stops, I say my line. I'm not sure I would want to work with him again, but I wanted this experience - once.''

Carter, though, has the highest praise for Branagh.

''I had never really properly met him, just social chats,'' she said. ''From the press, I expected him to be more haughty, but he is very humble, very relaxed. He can jump in and out of character instantly to go behind the camera. He has amazing energy and an amazing ability to communicate. Ken sets off a very infectious energy.''

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