Bard News From Branagh

The Irish Times, January 1997
by Charles Hunter

This is a guy who could have been king . . . Charles Hunter sits through four hours of Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet, and then meets the player-manager himself

It takes long enough to get to the prince in Hamlet, longer still in the uncut version. That first scene at the guard-post takes its time, what with introductions, political scene-setting and, of course, the ghost's double and frustratingly silent apparitions.

Jack Lemmon has already done his thing as a bleary, frightened guard and, you reckon distractedly, must be on the plane back to Hollywood. At last - and again it feels longer when you know you are only at the beginning of a four-hour session, the longest feature since Anthony and Cleopatra - you reach the court and there they all are: Derek Jacobi as Claudius, Julie Christie as Gertrude, Richard Briers as Polonius. Ken's famous friends all gathered in a glorious hall in Elsinore to put on another classic for him, with him, by him.

And then you notice he's missing. No Ken in sight.

You scan the serried rows of courtiers and the glut of the royal household beside the throne as Jacobi sets out Uncle Claudius's policies for Denmark. Where's that Hamlet got to? The "Kate Winslet" box can be ticked - there she stands as a winsome Ophelia, indeed, looking rather luscious when you remember the tabloids have already alerted us to future nude scenes. But not a Branagh to be seen in all the splendour of his 70 mm wide-shots.

Of course any production of Hamlet plays on the audience's expectations of the prince both before his arrival and throughout the play. And perhaps we have all had our fill of Kenneth Branagh over the last 10 years. But we need at least to have him, the player-manager, on the pitch so we know the game has started and we can get on with the business of spotting the imported foreign stars we were promised: Charlton Heston, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Gerald Depardieu . . .

The buzz on Branagh's Hamlet has been strangely neutral in as much as journalists seem unsure what the Branagh thing is in 1997. But he is certainly "still here", despite the collapse of "Ken and Em" (his starry marriage to Emma Thompson) and Frankenstein (his last outing as actor/director, fallen upon with glee by critics). His reported affair with Helena Bonham-Carter had promising casting, but the plot never developed.

The days have passed when a profile would start "Like most people I know, I have always hated Kenneth Branagh", rather like the Modern Review which carried just such a piece. No, neither the scandal-journals nor chattering classes (if those really are disparate groups - somehow you suspect the author of "Helena and Ken, the Kiss that Clinches It" in the Daily Mail last June was slumming it between Merchant- Ivory videos) have very much on Branagh at the moment.

The publication of his Hamlet screenplay caused a brief flurry over notes which suggested Claudius enter "Norman Schwarzkopf mode" and comments after one Shakespearian reproof: "Ooh. A bit narked are we?" But the commentators are only a bit narked with Ken nowadays. The "bloke who dared", the "young man in a hurry", the "luvvie of luvvies" have all been at least semi-retired from the chapbook of celebrity profiles.

The first full-length Hamlet on film is, after all, a worthy venture.

While pointing up the more negative American reviews of the film (it opened in New York and Los Angeles on Christmas Day and attracted comments such as "To die, to sleep through half the movie", and "Would you like to spend four and a half hours with this man?") the British press has concentrated more on American stupidity than on gloating over Branagh. Raves from the New York Times and Variety - "full-bodied, clear-headed, resplendently staged" - received their fair share of the coverage.

As Claudius's carefully worded greeting to his new subjects finally concludes, the camera tracks through a bank of seating to a long dark passage between the back of that tier and the wall. At the end of the passage you see a single figure in black. Elegant and apart, with his eyes either cast down or closed and his hands together in front of him, though not quite in prayer, Hamlet listens and seethes. His angry aside, those first scathing words about kith and kin, come in close-up and Kenneth Branagh is on board at last. The brilliance of such camera direction does, in my opinion, wane during the rest of the movie but the performance maintains and even builds on this taut, alert introduction. Branagh flashes through the film without ever falling into flashiness, a leaner, meaner performer than we might have expected but no less enthusiastic.

Watching Branagh in interview mode in a Mayfair hotel this week I had to admire his professionalism all over again, even though I felt vaguely disappointed at the absence of the rather cocky, puppy-fatted acTOR I had been hoping to profile with such restrained sarcasm. In particular, I had garnered an episode from an on-the-set piece in a recent Independent on Sunday where Jacobi catches himself praising Branagh's "sense of theatre" and then conducts damage limitation: "That is, he is theatrical in the best sense of the word. Let it be said that Ken is never, ever, luvvie.

Talking to Branagh I realised that the luvvie accusations are indeed wide of the mark. Some of the other journalists had "done" Barbra Streisand a few weeks earlier and Branagh interrogated them with delighted disblief as they described the contract she made them sign before she talked, granting her universal copyright of their "perceptions". I later asked him what he would do if he owned copyright on media perceptions of him. "I'd be in litigation . . . "

He asks quite a few questions of his own. What did I think his public image was? With my own preconceptions already disarmed, I fluffed and let Branagh take up the point: "I don't know what my public persona is. People attack me for blandness. People attack me for arrogance; I've seen articles where they say `who has a reputation for being difficult'. From where?"

"I've become less and less concerned with what I think about that - acknowledging that it is a factor and sometimes being able to deal with certain criticism when I know that it is a bottom line preconception anyway." He wonders if Olivier had the same problem when his Henry V film was launched and then hastens to add that he does not compare himself to Lawrence Olivier. With hindsight, though, the fact that others made that comparison did Branagh no favours.

"There is this sort of cycle - in my experience anyway - when you're young and achieve some sort of success people are delighted to discover you. Then there just comes this point where you've been given too much too soon. When the very facts of it reveal themselves. Like if you've only done a few parts but people are calling you the greatest actor since whoever . . . it just doesn't hold up, it simply doesn't hold up. There's no way you can justify such a remark and having it said about you imbues you with the idea that you might believe that - I mean, that's what they think you think."

Without sounding too exercised about it, Branagh describes "the process" in terms of his own Henry V. "I now see and didn't at the time - that it was such an astonishing success as a first film and, although I was very aware that I could not remotely call myself a film-maker, the over-praise, the disproportionate amount of attention given to me and my so-called talent meant I would be carrying various difficulties. One would be the internal pressure of succumbing to the expectations, that you had to be a genius or something when you knew yourself to be inexperienced and ignorant about so many things.

"Inevitably people just got fed up with saying lots of lovely things about me and decided it might be appropriate or good or newsworthy to take a very opposite point of view. And so you go all the way to Frankenstein, where that kind of disappointment, resentment, disinterest, absolutely concentrated itself in one ferocious reaction to what might be deemed my most ambitious piece of work."

Still very matter-of-factly he considers other explanations for Branagh-bashing. His autobiography, published on the back of Henry V and before he had reached 30, was, he concedes, something he would have handled differently in another life. "Maybe if I looked incredibly handsome - maybe if I wasn't Irish working-class - I don't know whether there's a class thing to it . . . "

Branagh returns to his north Belfast origins several times in the interview, and it operates as another defence against the luvvie weapon. Asked at a press conference earlier in the afternoon what theatre roles he ought to play, Branagh deals with the suggestions of Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde - "The bog-Irish in me feels I'm not really right for that. Essentially, I haven't got the class for it."

Branagh's Hamlet and Branagh's Hamlet go some way to bearing out his sense of class. As a director he chooses to play up the pampered corruption of the Danish court, imploding as Fortinbras moves in with his troops to conquer the lot. As an actor he makes Hamlet a paradoxical man of action - "He's angry. I could see nothing in the play which suggested that Hamlet, outside the extraordinary circumstances of this story, is manic-depressive or disposed to melancholy. This is a guy who could have been king . . ."

Does this draw a line under the part for him - 300-odd stage performances preceded the film? "A line under it? There is a f-ing line drawn so thick I can't tell you. I've played it just late enough to get away with it and use everything I've learnt from previous experiences. The tights and the fluffy white shirt are hung up in the wardrobe never to be taken out again. That's it. Cheerio Hamlet. It's a nice feeling."

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