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HAMLET: BRANAGH'S OBSESSION

The elements of Hamlet have intrigued and obsessed Kenneth Branagh ever since he first saw the play at the age of fifteen. The actor, producer, writer and director has yearned to film Hamlet ever since he made Henry V, his first filmed version of a Shakespeare classic. Louise Keller explores the story behind the making of the film.

"I was completely struck by the power of the play," recalls Branagh. "It even seemed to affect me physically; I had the shakes. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was astonished by what a terrific thriller it was. It had everything - murder, violence, intrigue, passion, a ghost - and I experienced a part of what made Hamlet so profoundly exciting and powerful. It was utterly compelling."

"I was completely struck by the power of the play," Kenneth Branagh

For his cast, Branagh hand-picked a team of stars from both sides of Atlantic. He combines the great Shakespearean actors of the stage - Derek Jacobi, Richard Briers, Michael Maloney, John Gielgud, Judi Dench, Rosemary Harris, Charlton Heston - with those who have never performed the Bard, such as Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, Jack Lemmon and Robin Williams.

"It even seemed to affect me physically" Kenneth Branagh

"The big names in the cast did not take their roles for the money," insists producer David Barron. "We did not have a big enough budget to pay Hollywood-style fees but the cast were all very keen to be in what they perhaps perceived as the definitive screen Hamlet. Ken was very astute in his choices. He went for the actors he thought would be right for the roles and who would do the film justice."

"The big names in the cast did not take their roles for the money," producer David Barron

It was in September 1994, a year after he starred in the sell-out Royal Shakespeare Company staging of the play that Kenneth Branagh, his producing partner David Barron and regular production designer Tim Harvey, first began to conceptualise a feature film based on Hamlet. Branagh wanted to make a full-text version as well as a conventional length film because, he argues, "By filming the entire play, you have Shakespeare’s complete entertainment. I do not want the audience to be filled with dread by the fact that we are using all of the text. In practice, it’s a bonus. There are so many additional exciting elements to take advantage of. For instance, Hamlet is one of the wittiest plays ever written, with some of the bleakest and the broadest humour. This comic element is a necessary complement to the play’s emotional demands. But whatever length the play is, it’s difficult to resist the power of the drama itself. Hamlet has all the dramatic devices needed to keep an audience enthralled."

"Hamlet is one of the wittiest plays ever written," Kenneth Branagh

According to Branagh, "This production is cast colour-blind, nationality-blind, accent-blind. I wanted to work with people I had admired for a number of years and who I thought would be very good for the parts. The financing from Castle Rock was in no way conditional on casting, so I had a free hand. I wanted to encourage the kind of diversity where you would have a number of classically trained actors as well as exciting new elements. I thought it would provide a healthy clash of approaches that would keep this version as refreshing and original as possible."

"This production is cast colour-blind, nationality-blind, accent-blind. I wanted to work with people I had admired for a number of years and who I thought would be very good for the parts." Kenneth Branagh

Branagh’s next decision was to transform the play from a medieval setting into one from the 19th century. He also chose to shoot the film in 70mm under the direction of cinematographer Alex Thomson. If one thinks Hamlet by necessity means gloomy clastles, dour costumes and pudding-bowl hairstyles, think again.

"Like all good directors, he has the security to allow other people to bring what they’ve got to offer." Actor Jack Lemmon

With the sumptuous sets built from Tim Harvey’s designs at Shepperton Studios and the Breathtaking Blenheim Palace doubling as Elsinore, Hamlet brims with an opulent luxury, ripe colours and a sensuous glamour. It exploits the crisp elegance of the military court setting through the 19th century sets and costumes, while underlining the power structure that lies at the heart of this royal court.

"Ken is an extraordinary young man," actor Richard Attenborough

According to Jack Lemmon, Bragh is "…in total command. He knows what he wants but doesn’t impose that on his actors. He allows them to bring their feelings and their interpretation to the part and then will make suggestions - a little more here, a little less there. Like all good directors, he has the security to allow other people to bring what they’ve got to offer."

"Ken is an extraordinary young man," concurs Richard Attenborough. "When he’s directing, he knows exactly which buttons to press for an actor. He knows exactly what he wants."

After a two-week rehearsal with the main cast, Branagh conducted a read-through of the entire play. This proved useful in charting the emotional graph of each of the actors’ characters. The choice of actors helped many of the cast members carve out their own roles.

"When Ken said Gerard Depardieu was to play Reynaldo, I was stunned." Actor Richard Briers

Richard Briers says, "I was very worried about the scene between Polonius and Reynaldo, which is a vital scene for Polonius. When Ken said Gerard Depardieu was to play Reynaldo, I was stunned. It made the scene ten times easier, having this huge personality to play against."

The shooting schedule was rigorous. "In effect we made two period films in ten weeks of filming on a budget that would barely cover half an average American romantic comedy," says producer David Barron. "It’s really due to Ken and the way he works. He demands a high level of skill and commitment but really encourages a very open-door policy, so that anyone can offer ideas and suggestions."

"He’s very confident and self-assured but in a completely charming way without a hint of arrogance." Actress Julie Christie

Julie Christie echoes all those involved when she says: "Ken managed to make the set such a happy and entertaining place. He’s very confident and self-assured but in a completely charming way without a hint of arrogance."

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Julie Christie as Gertrude: "He's very confident and self-assured but in a completely charming way without a hint of arrogance."


Gerard Depardieu:"When Ken said Gerard Depardieu was to play Reynaldo, I was stunned."Actor Richard Briers


Kate Winslet plays Orphelia

See Reviews Also see Paul Fischer's exclusive Interviews with Kenneth Branagh and Charlton Heston







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