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
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
"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
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
"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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