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Once More, Into the Breach

Why is Kenneth Branagh starring in and directing a 3 1/2-hour version of 'Hamlet'? Mostly because he wanted to round up some of his favorite actors and put on a show.

June 02, 1996|David Gritten | David Gritten, based in England, is a regular contributor to Calendar

SHEPPERTON STUDIOS, England — Kenneth Branagh bears down on you with a jaunty stride, grinning mischievously. "So," he says, arms outstretched to encompass his surroundings, "do you like my house?" You look around and you tell him you do; his "house," as he jocularly calls it, is impressive indeed.

Let's start with the living area: a huge state hall with balconies around its periphery, a gantry spanning its entire width, two imposing thrones on a dais and a vast expanse of checkerboard floor. The long walls of this cavernous room are lined with mirrored doors; it feels simultaneously spacious and indefinably threatening. That's with good reason, for behind these mirrored doors are smaller chambers--studies, bedrooms, salons--where endless plotting and intrigue can go on in secret.

This is the world Branagh, 35, has ordered to be created for the film of Shakespeare's tragedy "Hamlet," in which he directs and plays the title role--a world of whispers, conspiracies and secret plots, all within earshot of the court of Denmark itself. If he has a spring in his step this rainy spring day, it may be that he feels the liberty of a man being allowed to make precisely the film of "Hamlet" he wants.

In Branagh's case, this involves going for broke. He is by no means the first actor to play the prince on the big screen (Laurence Olivier, Nicol Williamson and more recently Mel Gibson all had a stab at the role), but his is the first "Hamlet" film to include every line Shakespeare wrote for it, with no cutting of subplots, brief scenes or minor characters. He cheerfully predicts it will last 3 1/2 hours.

(Since filming, Branagh has apparently had second thoughts about that 210-minute running time. A source close to him said: "He won't commit himself to a running time. He's aware that shorter is preferable, but he also wants to do justice to the full text.")

This represents towering ambition, and though 10 films of Shakespeare's plays will have been completed in an 18-month period by the end of this year on various locations worldwide, the word, in British theatrical and film circles at least, is that Branagh's "Hamlet" may be the one to beat. (Two Bard films have opened so far--the warmly praised "Richard III," with Ian McKellen, and "Othello," with Laurence Fishburne in the title role and Branagh as Iago, which had a lukewarm reception.)

It might seem that Branagh is trying to have it all ways merely by making a full-length "Hamlet" with sumptuous production values on a modest budget of $18 million--the amount he agreed to with the American company Castle Rock Entertainment. But he has added yet another ingredient into this rich mix by commandeering an astonishing, stellar cast, composed of sterling British theater actors in the main parts and international celebrity names in what often amount to cameo roles.

With Branagh as Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Julie Christie plays his mother, Gertrude; Derek Jacobi is Claudius, whom she marries with undue haste after the death of Hamlet's father. Oscar nominee Kate Winslet (from "Sense and Sensibility") is Hamlet's mistress Ophelia, while longtime Branagh cohort Richard Briers plays her father, the scheming Polonius.

Then come the Hollywood names--Charlton Heston as the Player King, Robin Williams as the courtier Osric, Jack Lemmon as the officer Marcellus and Billy Crystal as the First Gravedigger. Gerard Depardieu also appears as a servant, Reynaldo, and legendary 92-year-old acting knight John Gielgud is Priam in "Hamlet's" play within a play.

"I just wanted to work with the best actors I could, and with people I liked," Branagh said. "I've been wanting to work with Depardieu for some time, Jack Lemmon's someone I always admired, and I enjoyed working with Robin on 'Dead Again' very much.

"I also wanted these parts played in an original way, with people who weren't bringing the baggage of having played the role before or seen this play a thousand times.

"There's lots of my heroes from a period when I first became hooked on films and TV. For example, Heston, whose film of 'Antony and Cleopatra' I saw when I was quite young."

There's also veteran actor John Mills, star of a slew of British war films in the 1950s, who also influenced him as a young man; he plays the ailing old King of Norway.

If Branagh constantly refers to the past in discussing "Hamlet," it's because the play has been an obsession with him for two decades. He remembers as a teenager sitting on the sofa at his home in Belfast, Northern Ireland, as his mother showed him dozens of family photographs: "And out of the corner of my eye, I was watching TV as Richard Chamberlain--Dr. Kildare!--played Hamlet. It really stuck in my mind. And a few years later I saw Derek [Jacobi] play Hamlet. So this has been going on 20 years. It's a dream come true to be able to do it on film myself.'

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