ﬂow to get a head in
Love him or hate him, you can’t ignore Kenneth Branagh. The actor- turncd-director tells Anwar Brett about his obsession with bringing
Hamlet to the big screen.
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Head to head: the all-new blonde, toned Branagh puts ﬂesh on the traditional Hamlet
ay what you like about Kenneth Branagh — and his critics are not slow in doing that — but the Belfast-born actor-turned-director has never shied away from a challenge. When Mary Shelley is Frankenstein was dubbed a failure by sections of the press. you could have forgiven Branagh for running to ground. particularly when the tabloids were also having a field day over the break-up of- his marriage to Emma Thompson and rumours of a new romance with Helena Bonham Carter.
The private life is still a taboo subject, but Branagh is far from hiding from his detractors with his new four-hour version of Hamlet. At the age of 36, he has made a lavish epic that oozes with acting talent from Europe and America — Kate Winslet. Billy Crystal. Jack Lemmon. Robin Williams, Gerard Depardieu - and all fora paltry $l 8 million.
His passion for the material. that very earnestness that makes him a target for cynics and professional naysayers. is undeniably infectious. Branagh’s belief in the Bard has kick-started a very successful Shakespeare films. and when Hamlet opened in America on Christmas Day. the director was surprised at just how much enthusiasm greeted it.
‘We‘ve had sell-out business.’ he nods. ‘even in the mornings for the 9.30am show in New York. they were queuing right across 5th and 6th Avenues. I walked down that queue. and it was an amazing cross-section of people. old and young, everyone under the sun.’
While Hollywood admires Branagh for making Shakespeare commercial once more, the Americans are also a bit in awe of an actor with his background and training. On British turf. however. he seems to fall foul of the purists
who think authenticity is a production of Hamlet — the story of an llth century Danish prince — performed in 16th century Elizabethan costumes.
Branagh sets his film in 19th century Northern Europe. giving the plot a freshness and immediacy. In the published screenplay. his notes contain contemporary references for how the actors should present their characters — an addition to the text that drew gasps of horror from the conservative literati.
‘People got very funny about that.‘ he sighs. ‘I got sent this outraged collection of cuttings just because I’d mentioned General Schwartzkopf and Judge lto. Of course. I don’t want Derek Jacobi to play Claudius as Norman Schwartzkopf. but when you’re trying to use a shorthand about the atmosphere of the speech. it seems to me that all it’s doing is reflecting the contemporary feel you want. At least we’re keeping these people in work. writing to the Times Literary .S‘upplement. defending their view of the play.’
It’s hard to imagine anyone not wilting under the slings and arrows of such outrageous misfortune. but Branagh is either made of stronger stuff or. in real life. is a better actor than his fans suspect. Even though he’s just
‘I’m in a very privileged position and I get to do things I care about. It you don’t like all the poo that goes with it, you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.’
completed one American movie — a murder thriller called. appropriately. Shakespeare ’5 Sister — and is about to head across the Atlantic to join Robert Altman for John Grisham’s The Gingerbread Man. he’s determined not to run off to Hollywood for a life of showbiz royalty. earning big bucks away from the snide comments of his home country.
‘I suppose I‘ve considered it.‘ he muses. ‘but I like it here. As for all that bollocks that goes with it. well. I’m in a very privileged position and I get to do things I care about. People have subjective reactions to that. but if you don’t like all the poo that goes with it, you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.‘
Perhaps this mental toughness. a kind of self- eonfrdence. comes from knowing that he has made a definitive version ofa much filmed play. There's also an element of relief in having completed a film that has been on his mind since Henry V brought him to cinematic prominence. And now that he’s done it. Kenneth Branagh can move on.
‘Oh yes,’ the serious face cracks into a smile.
‘The tights are hung up. the fluffy white shirt is in the wardrobe never to be brought out again. That’s it - cheerio Hamlet.’ Hamlet opens at The Dominion, Edinburgh, on Fri I4 Feb and the Glasgow Film Theatre on'Fri 7 Mar: The ﬁlm ’5 screenplay, with introduction and ﬁlm diary, is published by C hatto & Windus at £12.99.
The List 7-20 Feb I997 11