Branagh Fires Up 'Hamlet'

The Lowell Sun, January 1997
by Jesse Nancye Tuttle

Mr. Branagh's opus arrives Friday at a theater near you.

Mr. Branagh is actor-director Kenneth Branagh. His opus is Hamlet. And the stir this epic film is making -- all 3 hours and 58 minutes of it, not including an intermission -- is the stuff of which movie legends are made.

Glistening and bright, instead of dark and foreboding, Branagh's Hamlet is filmed in a spectacular, wide-screen 70 mm format, the first British film in more than 25 years to use this process.

His internationally acclaimed cast features notable actors from the Shakespearean stage-- Derek Jacobi, Richard Briers, Michael Maloney, John Gielgud, John Mills, Judi Dench, Rosemary Harris and Charlton Heston--with those who've never done the Bard before--Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, Gerard Depardieu, Jack Lemmon and Robin Williams.

Branagh himself stars as Hamlet, a blonde, sexy, passionate Renaissance man in his version of what most consider Shakespeare's greatest work.

"Hamlet is a Renaissance man, a soldier, a scholar, with princely duties. His father is dead, his mother has remarried his uncle less than a month after the death. Denmark is on the edge of war with Norway," said Branagh.

"But I don't think Hamlet is mad. What propels him is his curiosity. He's passionate, excitable. His humor is cruel at times, and he can be vicious and nasty, yet he never loses control," he added.

The director-star, charming, smart and boyish-looking at 36, sported a beard and his natural, reddish brown hair, as he held court with the press at the Back Bay Hilton in Boston a couple of months ago. He'd taken time off from filming Shakespeare's Sister, being shot locally with William Hurt and Madeleine Stowe, to discuss Hamlet. "You must be exhausted. I've been here a day and a half already," he joked, alluding to the epic length of the film.

Branagh sought to make a different Hamlet than the other five versions that have been filmed since 1948.

"I wanted to present a glamorous, opulent, sexy world. It's 19th century Europe, with elements from Russia and imperial Austria. It was a time of royal scandal and not unlike our own obsession with the royals. We all want to know what is going on behind closed doors. And that's what I tried to convey," he said.

To make the film more audience-friendly, Branagh heightened sexual tension between Hamlet and Ophelia in flashback scenes.

"Did Hamlet and Ophelia sleep together? I think so--and that fact helps give more tenderness to their scenes and support her madness, since her father is killed by the same man she's slept with," said Branagh.

He also downplayed the incest between Hamlet and his mother which other versions imply.

"I don't think Hamlet's a mommy's's boy. He's just being wonderfully, irrationally human and harbors great resentment that she is having sex with his uncle," he said.

Branagh saw his first Hamlet in 1976 when he was 15, with Derek Jacobi--his Claudius in this film--playing the title role.

"I was struck by how exciting, sexy, dangerous and violent it was. Seeing Derek in Hamlet was the turning point for me. From that moment, I knew I wanted to play the role," he said.

And he has, some 200 to 300 times now, in his estimation.

"I find that my performance has changed, not only because I'm more familiar with the part but because I hope I've matured a little myself," he said. "When Derek directed me in 1988, I was a pretty hectic Hamlet. Now I think my performance has deepened as I've gotten a little older and hopefully a little wiser."

Age-wise, Branagh got in "just under the wire" playing the title role.

'Hamlet is a young man's play -- the center of all Shakespeare's work. IF I hadn't made the film by age 35, I wouldn't have done it. In your roaring 20s, everything seems limitless. But when you reach your 30s, time ticks away. And after 35, you have to get on with things, and it grips you," he said.

Filming an uncut version was important for Branagh. He completed the epic in ten weeks, bringing it in on budget a relatively modest $18 million, with nothing but accolades from his cast.

"our aim wasn't to make a long film, but an entertaining one, the way it should be made. By filming the entire play, you have Shakespeare's complete entertainment," he said.

Branagh realized he could attract larger audiences by using modern English. But he didn't want to.

"Hamlet should be done this way. My drive was to offer it to people who want to understand it, and my challenge is to make the story and poetry work. The sound of the word is a pleasure in and of itself. It's a rewarding experience," he said.

And edited version is planned for a March release. But the full version is worth seeing to savor the textured performances from the star-studded cast and enjoy the brilliant cinematography.

In his casting, Branagh seeks actors he admires.

"I like to cast actors I admire who are talented, even if they've been seen before a hundred times on film or a trillion times on stage. This production is cast color-blind, nationality-blind, accent-blind," he said.

But there were challenges.

"Derek came in terrified of doing the movie, Julie had never done Shakespeare. The entire cast was festooned with one kind of paranoia or another," he said.

On the other hand, "there was a great camaraderie. Gielgud and Mills were complete gossip machines. Robin was bold, funny and foppish. Billy came in real and not doing a comic act. All the Brits and Americans we cast who hadn't done Shakespeare bring a refreshing energy to the film."

And refreshingly energetic is how Mr. Branagh's opus Hamlet plays out, despite its epic length.

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