Nothing but Great Shakespeare: Branagh is Bard's Cinematic Booster

May 20, 1993
by Michael Phillips

BEVERLY HILLS -- The Peninsula Hotel is a swanky little slate o' beds near the intersection of Little Santa Monica and Wilshire. It employs a door-person who wears a deco-era bellcap hat, and who must endure a regular dose of wisecracks from guests, along the lines of: "Hey! Call for Phillip Morris! Great hat!"

The Peninsula offers both rooms and "villas," so it makes sense that director/actor Kenneth Branagh has landed at this particular hotel for interviews. Branagh's film version of William Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing," opening tomorrow at La Jolla's Cove Theater, was shot at the Villa Vignamaggio last summer in Italy's Tuscany region.

In the room -- sadly, not a villa -- the Belfast-born 32-year-old actor, director and writer offers a smile and a handshake.

A minute later, after he's settled into a chair with some mineral water, a man comes to the door with three boxes of books: They're copies of his own "making of" account of "Much Ado," complete with Branagh's screenplay adaptation. He's to autograph each one and return them to the bookstore from whence they came.

"Blimey," he says, thinking about the penmanship exercise to come.

Shakespeare's comedy, which stars Branagh and his wife, Emma Thompson (an Oscar winner this year for "Howards End"), features alongside its British actors a slew of Americans, including Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, Robert Sean Leonard (due at the Old Globe for this summer's "King Lear") and Keanu Reeves. It is Branagh's second Shakespeare on film, following the 1989 "Henry V." He's also directed and acted in "Dead Again" and "Peter's Friends"; next, he will co-star in and direct "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," playing the doctor opposite Robert De Niro's used-parts monster.

With "Henry V" and "Much Ado" behind him, Branagh automatically qualifies as our leading cinematic Shakespearean exponent. Financing for the second Shakespeare came more easily than for the first, though Hollywood's general reluctance regarding the classics and the box-office failure of, among others, the recent Mel Gibson "Hamlet" didn't make things a breeze. "With 'Henry,' people said: What do we want to make a film of that for? There's a perfectly good film of 'Henry V' already," Branagh says, referring to Laurence Olivier's 1944 film version. "This time, people would say: No one's ever made a film (in English) of 'Much Ado' -- there must be something wrong with it."

Most of the financing came from the Samuel Goldwyn Co., with additional money from American Playhouse and from the film adjunct of Branagh's own Renaissance Theatre Company. It was for Renaissance in 1988 that Branagh initiated a four-play British Isles tour; there he played "Much Ado's" self-deluding professional bachelor, Benedick, for the first time. "He's not like anybody else, Kenny," says actor Richard Easton, Old Globe Theatre associate artist, who was also on that tour. Easton met Branagh when they were at the Royal Shakespeare Company, getting increasingly restless and dissatisfied. Easton appeared later in Branagh's "Henry V" and "Dead Again."

"All the other young lions of the theater are rather loose, rather exotic creatures, like Ian McKellan," Easton says. "They tend to be much more theatrical, temperamental figures. Ken is just a Joe in many ways -- but with remarkable talent and energy.

"And he's the most terrible giggler on stage."

On that tour Branagh started thinking about "Much Ado" as a film. Images of soldiers on horseback, warm Italian skies, picnics on a hillside nagged at him.

On location near Siena, "Much Ado" was shot on a "very tight" eight-week schedule. Away from home, Branagh says, "it's difficult to sleep yourself into some perspective. I was just like one of the characters in the play; everything became heightened ... time, time, time is always the thing. If I'd had more time, I'd have asked for a month of rehearsal instead of a week."

Figuring out the proper cinematic parameters for Shakespearean comedy proved to Branagh more difficult than the comparatively plotty historical canvas of "Henry V." Still, he says, among both his old Renaissance Theatre Company cronies and the Americans, "there was a general eagerness to embrace the experience.

"The Americans were all very conscious of trying to be technically precise and of taking no words for granted." By contrast, "the British actors were much more concerned with finding their characters, so in a way it was a strange inversion. They were more method-oriented, and the Americans were more worried about this or that particular word.

"I expected more caution from the Americans. But they jumped in, I think because we'd built up an atmosphere of trust early on."

Says Easton: "He's always had enormous tenacity, but without aggression. His temper's extremely even. It's a huge plus, that."

The media hypemeisters may wear at that temper before long. In England, Branagh and Thompson have been alternately lionized and derided as the Official Acting Couple. Yet both have worked hard in every medium, at various, comfortably escalating levels of fame. They appear to have kept their heads. Villa Vignamaggio, meanwhile, turned out to be just what Branagh was looking for -- surprising only because Branagh had never been to that part of the world prior to pre-production. It is reputedly the home of da Vinci's Mona Lisa. With that scenery, it's no wonder she's smiling. "Surprisingly," Branagh says, "we came close to finding the Tuscany of my dreams."

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