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
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
"I cast him in that
part because I wanted someone who could convey an honest, Joe
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."
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
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.