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Not since Larry Olivier broke new boundaries with his take on Shakespeare has a filmmaker achieved so much with the Bard as Kenneth Branagh. Now he has brought the oft-filmed Hamlet back to the screen in glorious 70mm with a four-hour risk-taking venture that has created a buzz. The actor/director talks to Paul Fischer.

No play has been talked about or brought to the cameras as often as Shakespeare's tragic study of royal indecision: Hamlet. "It's true that there have been more words written about it than any other play or piece of literature ever written, so at least I have to plenty to talk about, says Kenneth Branagh, quite aware of the baggage that Hamlet carries.

"It's been an ongoing passion to do this since I first saw it."

It wasn't that long ago since Hamlet was filmed with Mel Gibsonís cinematic vision to the play. "It's been an ongoing passion to do this since I first saw it, and this was the last point at which I can play it in terms of my age, and at which I have enough experience of making films to feel that I'd have the chance to give it the treatment that it deserves."

Branagh, talking from his London office, is referring to the film's "epic treatment," which for the first time, takes to the screen the full text of the play. "That way, I'd make it more of a proper, cinematic event." It was a risky venture to begin with, Branagh concedes laughingly. "It's a pretty tough call when you say to a film company that you'd like them to spend $18 million on a four hour version of a 400-year old play that was last made into a film, quite honourably, about 6 years ago."

"It's a pretty tough call when you say to a film company that you'd like them to spend $18m on a four hour version of a 400-year old play."

But then Branagh's career can be defined by its risks. Celebrated as a 'wunderkind' of the English stage and a leading figure in that country's film industry, Irish-born Branagh has often been referred to (not always complimentarily) as his generation's Laurence Olivier or Orson Welles. Born in Belfast, Branagh moved to England with his family at ten, by which time he was already a Shakespeare aficionado. After making a name for himself at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and later in a 1982 West End production of Another Country, Branagh became a familiar face in British TV beginning with the title role in the acclaimed BBC trilogy Too Late to Talk to Billy, A Matter of Choice for Billy and A Coming to Terms for Billy. At 23, he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and opened its 1984 season at Stratford as Henry V. Branagh also found time to make his feature acting debut with a supporting role in the light-comedy High Season (1987). That same year, Branagh played his first film lead in another British feature, A Month in the Country.

More recently, audiences will remember his big screen adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing (1993), an all-star romp through Tuscany with Thompson, Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves.

"I cast him in that part because I wanted someone who could convey an honest, Joe quality," on casting Jack Lemmon

Branagh's Hamlet completes, for the time being, his cinematic Shakespeare trilogy, and like Much Ado, was accused of ruining aspects of the play by hiring inexperienced Hollywood stars in cameos. In this case, Jack Lemmon, making his Shakespeare debut as Marcellus, was the biggest target for critical venom: an ordinary soldier who'd come to those battlements, terrified. He's representative of the Common Man, and one of the things that I wanted to do with the film was to say there are more things happening outside the centre of this court than within this very royal family. I think Lemmon did what I asked him to do, despite coming into it with a certain amount of fear, but with a kind of vulnerability and openness at having a go at it."

"Shakespeare continues to deal with things that obsess us: relationships Ö power and corruption."

In bringing Hamlet to cinematic life yet again, the challenge for Branagh was to adapt the play in a fresh manner. "Creating a marriage of words and images was the challenge, and never devaluing either of them." Despite the play being some four centuries old, Branagh sees it as more contemporary than one would think. "Shakespeare continues to deal with things that obsess us: relationships, families, sibling relationships, fathers/daughters, mothers/sons, as well as power and corruption. It also looks pretty clearly at the isolation and loneliness of people in positions of power and privilege, something that continues to fascinate us."

"Altman and I got along like a house on fire."

Since Hamlet, Branagh has taken a break from "running this military campaign" of being a film director, choosing to act for other people in two very different types of films, beginning with Robert Altman's take on John Grisham's The Gingerbread Man. "Altman and I got along like a house on fire. It was a lot of fun to do, and a very unusual experience in that Altman really likes improvisation. The combination of Altman and Grisham have made for a very original, dark, unsettling and quirky piece." He also starred with Madeleine Stowe and William Hurt in Shakespeare's Sister. "That's a drama set in 1935 Boston, and it's about surrogacy. I play a Catholic priest." On a different note, will he or won't he be playing the younger Obe Wan in the next trio of Star Wars films? "They are just rumours which began on a series of trading cards that came out some years ago. On one of them, an artist wrote that Kenneth Branagh would be ever so good as the young Obe Wan Kenobe and that was it. Suddenly the rumours started, and they have no basis in fact whatsoever. I think I'm already way too old to be playing a young Obe Wan in that kind of movie."

Branagh's real-life future is just as unclear. "I'm enjoying taking a bit of a rest." There may well be another Shakespeare on the horizon. Macbeth perhaps? "That one is definitely on the brew," Branagh confesses.

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See Reviews and Louise Keller on the making of the film in Features

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