The Shakespeare Guy

Toronto Sun December 23, 1996
by Bruce Kirkland

Director Kenneth Branagh lives up to his reputation

Some stranger in a strange land beetled over to Kenneth Branagh at an airport recently to buttonhole the Irish-born, English-raised actor-director.

"Hey," he bellowed at the young superstar. "You're the Shakespeare guy! Right?" Right, indeed.

At 36, Branagh is already venerated for his performances in, and direction of, Shakespearean roles on stage, radio and film. His 1988 triumph, Henry V, is credited with launching the Shakespeare revival in cinema. Since then, he has brought Much Ado About Nothing to the screen and created A Midwinter's Tale, a whimsical contemporary movie about bad actors putting on a Christmas Hamlet.

On Christmas Day, Branagh puts on his own Hamlet. His monumental, four-hour, full-text version of Hamlet opens in Toronto with an all-star support cast including Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Charlton Heston, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Derek Jacobi and even Gerard Depardieu.

If it is confining to be known as "the Shakespeare guy," says Branagh, "there are worse things to be confined by!"

Like shoulder problems. During his Toronto visit to promote Hamlet - part of a whirlwind tour of North America to drum up business for one of the longest movies ever made - Branagh popped his shoulder out of alignment and went into painful muscle spasms. His public relations team, led by Toronto's Virginia Kelly, quickly found a chiropractor to work him back into good enough shape to survive a day of interviews.

Putting the pain aside for my interview - the last before treatment - Branagh soldiers on, joy dancing in his eyes about the work he and his colleagues have wrought.

"Love it or hate it," he muses, "it's an event. I think it's great entertainment, for want of a better word. It has all the elements you might wish for in a compelling story. It goes from murder to potential incest to suicide to madness to true love, with tragic consequences, and it's a funny movie.

"It's also the only time in the history of cinema, if you want to lard it with portentous phrases, that you'll see the full-length version of one of the great human achievements in art. I think Shakespeare's Hamlet is a masterpiece that operates on so many levels and yet remains a mysterious, elusive thing."

Branagh, who has performed as the troubled prince of Denmark somewhere between 200 and 300 times, considers his film the culmination of a process that started at the age of 15 when he saw, and was profoundly moved by, Derek Jacobi performing as Hamlet (Jacobi plays Claudius here).

"I feel like someone who is trying to lay it out in its full form to allow, as much as possible, the play's mysteries to work on people. I don't feel any obligation to understand it fully myself."

Without the full four hours, and his reinventions - such as the richly colorful 19th-century setting wiping away the gothic gloom of many past productions - the true power of Hamlet would be lost, says Branagh.

"The story is not just about one man. There is an ensemble there. It is at least about two families who are extinct by the end of the play. And we wanted to make this important point, that there are these recognizable human problems and frailties of individuals in positions of power, which ultimately and surprisingly and ironically and awfully affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of other people. So, by the end of the play, the political map is redrawn and there is a new ruler on the throne. And all of this is attributable, some people would say, to a communication problem between a mother and son."

For Branagh, Hamlet is as contemporary as Oprah. "I think Shakespeare was perennially interested in people who are only flesh and blood. We're interested in the backstage lives of the rich, famous and powerful. We just want to know everything about them and we're thrilled when we know that they're just as frail and have all the same insecurities and anxieties."

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