The Film's the Thing

Daily Telegraph, December 1996
by David Gritten

David Gritten meets Kenneth Branagh on the set of 'Hamlet' and asks: a flop or not a flop?

KENNETH Branagh bears down on me with a jaunty stride, grinning mischievously. "So," he says, arms outstretched to encompass his surroundings, "do you like my house?" I look around and admit I do; his "house," as he jocularly calls it, is impressive.

There's a huge state hall with balconies around its edge, a gantry spanning its entire width, two imposing thrones on a dais and a vast expanse of chessboard floor. The long walls of this cavernous room are lined with mirrored doors. It feels spacious yet indefinably threatening, for behind these doors are smaller chambers - studies, bedrooms and salons for clandestine intrigues and conspiracies.

Branagh has ordered the creation of this world at Shepperton Studios for his film of Hamlet; he directs and plays the Prince. And, if he has a spring in his step, maybe he is relishing a freedom to make exactly the Hamlet he wants.

This means going for broke. Other actors (Olivier, Nicol Williamson, more recently Mel Gibson) have had a stab at Hamlet on film. But only Branagh's includes every line written by Shakespeare, without excision of sub-plots or minor characters. It lasts a daunting four hours, which may represent towering ambition or overreaching folly. Or both.

Film fans have recently had a bucketful of the Bard; Richard III with Ian McKellen flourished, but British versions of Othello, Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night's Dream underwhelmed audiences and critics alike. A modern Romeo and Juliet set in Miami perplexed US reviewers, but has lured American teenagers like iron filings to a magnet.

Branagh, then, has his work cut out to assure average filmgoers that his Hamlet stands apart from this glut of big-screen Shakespeare. He has partly met his objective by making a sumptuous-looking film for only $18 million, financed by the Hollywood studio Castle Rock.

And last month he caused a stir with the publication of the film's screenplay, which included his notes on the text, aimed at clarifying the play to Castle Rock executives. At one point, he describes the King of Denmark as "going into Norman Schwarzkopf mode". After a gravedigger's speech, Branagh adds the phrase: "Says Judge Ito" - a reference to the judge in the OJ Simpson trial. And when, in the script, the King and his courtiers are seen marching down a corridor, Branagh observes: "It feels like a team of spin-doctors, media advisers and security experts briefing the President on the way to a White House press conference."

Sections of the British press fell on this eagerly, one reporter criticising Branagh's "crass approach". Yet anyone who has ever tried to explain a complex dramatic idea to Hollywood executives will be more sympathetic.

Branagh has also guaranteed attention by commandeering a stellar cast of sterling British stage actors in key roles and international celebrities in cameos. Thus Julie Christie as Gertrude plays Branagh's mother. Derek Jacobi is Claudius and young star Kate Winslet Ophelia, while Branagh's frequent cohort Richard Briers tackles scheming Polonius. Two veteran knights round out the UK contingent: John Gielgud, 92, is Priam in the play-within-a-play, and John Mills, 88, the ailing Norway.

Then come Hollywood's finest: Charlton Heston (the Player King), Jack Lemmon (Marcellus), Robin Williams (Osric) and Billy Crystal (First Gravedigger). Gérard Depardieu also appears as a servant. "I just went for the best actors, people I liked," Branagh says. "I wanted to work with Depardieu for some time. I always admired Jack Lemmon. I enjoyed working with Robin on Dead Again. I also wanted the parts played in an original way with people who weren't bringing the baggage of having played a role before or seen this play a thousand times."

Branagh often evokes the past in discussing Hamlet; the play has long obsessed him. He dredges up a teenage memory: sitting on a sofa at home in Belfast as his mother showed him family photos: "Out of the corner of my eye I was watching TV. Richard Chamberlain - Dr Kildare! - was doing Hamlet. It stuck in my mind. So it's been 20 years with me."

True. Branagh has played Hamlet three times on stage and once on Radio 3. Last year he wrote and directed In the Bleak Midwinter, a film about a hapless troupe of actors who mount a production of Hamlet in a rural church hall.

"When people ask, 'Why do Hamlet?', I say all the answers are contained in Bleak Midwinter," Branagh muses. "Those answers include: I don't know. I have to. It's funny. It's marvellous. It's ridiculous. It's meaningful. It's meaningless."

On the day we meet, Branagh is directing rather than acting, but dressed so he is ready for either: he wears a Victorian waistcoat and blouson, with jeans and trainers.

Julie Christie walks slowly through the state hall mulling over her lines, in a glamorous cream creation with a tight waist and a bustle; outside, a group of extras waits to burst in with Maloney as vengeful Laertes. Why a mid-19th century setting? "The period is close enough to make you think it's about a real family," Branagh says, "yet distant enough for the language to be acceptable." His view of the play is that warring factions in a powerful family affect millions of lives: "From this domestic tragedy spring events that change Europe's borders."

Thus production designer Tim Harvey created a romantic Danish court with a tangible sense of corruption, an excess of sex, food and alcohol, and a militaristic culture. For two weeks of outdoor scenes he "dressed" Blenheim Palace, at one point covering its grounds with fake snow. To stress the court's grandeur Harvey joined two adjacent soundstages. The full effect can be seen in an eight-minute tracking shot starting in Gertrude's bedroom and advancing down a long corridor to the resplendent state hall.

Branagh, then, wants a flamboyantly cinematic Hamlet, not talking heads in close-up or figures on a stage. This is clear as he sits before a monitor to watch Christie and Jacobi run for cover as Laertes's mob breaks into the hall. On the monitor, the camera ricochets like a pinball. On the scene's completion Branagh says: "We're aiming here for something natural, real, and quick."

Indeed. Hamlet is his third film (after Othello and In the Bleak Midwinter) in swift order. Yet he spent the previous two years on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which flopped. 1995 was a bad year for him; he split from his wife Emma Thompson, and has since thrown himself into filming.

"I think he's working quickly as a reaction to any problems he had on Frankenstein," says Michael Maloney, a pal of Branagh for 14 years. Yet Maloney also says Branagh likes to contemplate Shakespeare texts before committing them to film: "This Hamlet tallies with his approach to Henry V, which he played on stage at Stratford, thought about for five years, then made the movie. He allows things to filter."

But Branagh's major achievement may not reside in the qualities of one film. He has built a repertory company of not just acting stalwarts but crew members, too. I see construction workers in Henry V T-shirts - testament to a long relationship with Branagh. "We've been together seven or eight years," he says, "and all the experience we've developed is going into this. Whatever the reception for this film, because of the completeness of the text and its healthy creative ambition, I think we're working on a good deed in a naughty world."

Well, at a price. But Branagh says $18 million is the minimum at which, with help (such as actors receiving nominal pay), a decent Hamlet can be made. "Castle Rock were brave," he says, "and they may get their money back. They haven't interfered."

Can Hamlet be a commercial success? It is too early to say. It has opened in only three cinemas in large North American cities - New York, Los Angeles and Toronto. To date, it has played to near-capacity houses, grossing an encouraging $342,000 after 12 days. But it remains to be seen if it will be as successful in suburbs and small towns.

The film is a gamble which may pay off for Branagh in the future. There is a huge educational video market in America, and the complete filmed play should sell for years.

"We won't make $100 million," he says. "Luckily that's not a pressure. It's just wonderful to feel you're doing what you ought to be doing. The first obligation is to make this a great movie - and we're on the way to doing that within the terms we've set."

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