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Kenneth Branagh gets carried away.
And not just at the end of his sprawling film of Hamlet, when, after “flights of angels” and all that, a cadre of spit-and-polish soldiers bears his body, arms splayed melodramatically in the posture of crucifixion, out of the lavish gold-and-scarlet State Hall to his funeral bier.
No, despite the rigors of a packed schedule and a presumably endless series of interviews, the Irish-born actor/director, at 36 modern cinema’s most effective purveyor of populist Shakespeare, gets positively animated talking about the littlest details of characterization. And maybe that’s as it should be. After all, he only cast himself in one of literature’s most psychologically complex roles.
When he walks into the room, it’s hard not to notice that he’s paler, less physically toned now than he was for his Hamlet love scenes with Kate Winslet. He’s a little fleshy about the face (the look is more reminiscent of his Henry V than his Benedick or Dr. Frankenstein), and there’s a vague weariness about him. But between drags on a cigarette he spins ideas in long skeins of words, barely pausing for breath. Ideasideas about Hamlet, especiallyget him going.
Take, for instance, his reaction to the predictable critical notion that his version of this greatest of tragic heroesa brash, bleach-blond youngster, full of Macbeth’s “sound and fury”isn’t introspective enough. (Critics are never satisfied. When Ralph Fiennes played the part in New York recently, the same gang said he was too introspective.)
“You can only follow what your instinct tells you and what you believe you read from the play itself,” Branagh argues. “And in my view, there is little to suggest that Hamlet is introspective.
“Questioning, yes, very. And ironic. And very, very self-aware, and a highly developed intelligence.” But we don’t meet the prince until after his father’s death, Branagh points out, by which time he’s “a grief-struck Hamlet.”
“We never see the normal Hamlet. We only see him in the midst of this personal trauma, which is then heightened beyond all imagination when he suddenly discovers his father has been murdered.” Branagh, intense as only a real Shakespeare geek can be, really leans into this word: “Murr-duhd,” he says, eyes wide at the thought.
Of course, this extraordinarily self-aware intellectual learns at about the same time that his mother, “aside from the horror of marrying within the month, is married to the very murdererand he, Hamlet, must kill him. The heir to the throne must kill the king! That’s a huge thing for a prince to take on….We don’t see Hamlet before any of this.”
So that whole “melancholy Dane” thing is a bad rap? Branagh thinks so. “Everything that’s said about the [earlier] Hamlet is not this: He’s not a manic-depressive, he’s not prone to melancholy.” This is the man that even Claudius has to admit is “lov’d of the distracted multitude,” after all.
“Fortinbras says, ‘Had he been put on, he would have proved most royal.’ I get the idea of a passionate, intelligent guy…somebody who’s ever so good at this job of being a prince, ever so good as a stripling king. And good company, as well,” Branagh continues.
Branagh’s Hamlet, apparently, is not a man in the mold of Shakespeare’s bookish Henry VI.
“No,” the actor says with a wry smile. “That’s a genuinely introspective creature. And not self-involved in the way Richard II is….Nevertheless, when he’s played introspectively, it’s also terribly effective and compelling, because the poetry remains the same, and you get certain sides of the play thrown into great relief. But of course I would argue that there are momentsthe ‘fall of a sparrow’ speech to Horatio, the ‘To be or not to be’that are very considered and meditative, and that for me provide those elements of Hamlet…that suggest that this is a man able to be many, many things.”
One of Branagh’s favorite speeches is Hamlet’s magnificent, lyrical discourse, when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern first arrive, on his altered mood: “I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercise; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden firewhy, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.” It’s one of the best, most powerful moments in the film; Branagh delivers those lines with an easy, unfettered grace that suggests much thought about the mood behind them.
“That’s a kind of desolation that we can all identify with….For whatever reason, you’ve just lost it,” the actor says. “Some family trauma or some crisis in your career, or just….You’ve hit the point in your life where you think, ‘What the fuck am I doing? I’m in a dead-end job, or I’m not in a job, or that relationship is over. And I can see nothing.’ It’s so naked and real and familiar.”
All this we get from “introspective.” Perhaps it would be better not to bring up that whole Oedipus-complex thing. It’s fairly clear, watching the film, that Branagh is content to leave that to Mel Gibson and Glenn Close; in this Hamlet, Julie Christie plays Gertrude, not Jocasta, thanks very much.
And she’s tremendously sympathetic, too, as is Derek Jacobi’s Claudius. (“I think Jacobi is a revelation in the role,” Branagh says. “Because he keeps a whole strand of the play alive. Because of his naturalism with the language. It’s a facility that is breathtaking; he makes convoluted text seem so effortless.”)
It’s easy to identify with people as smartly dressed and well coiffed as Jacobi’s Claudius and Christie’s Gertrudethat’s one of the reasons Branagh decided on a vaguely Hapsburgish 19th-century setting instead of the more traditional gloomy, Gothic milieu he likes to call “the sackcloth-and-woad version.” But these two vibrant actors risk stealing the audience’s affection, at least briefly, from Branagh’s broody Hamlet.
“We decided to try to approach each character as though we would believe their particular truth: For instance, this business of whether Claudius and Gertrude had an adulterous affair before the death of Old Hamlet is only hinted at by one use of the word ‘adulterous,’ which is given to us by the Ghost. No one else,” Branagh explains. Then, wryly: “And the Ghost has reason to be extremely biased.”
“So as far as Julie was concerned, they did not. Their union was as a result of the trauma that grief produces. And she was perhaps even protecting her job. It’s a nicer job to be Queen than Queen Mum.
“We took the view that these were, if not good people, these were people just as understandable in human terms as Hamlet isand that to treat them as such would be to increase the complexity and appeal of all the characters, Hamlet included.”
Assuming, that is, that Hamlet has appeal. (Branagh’s does; he’s sexy and seductively nimble-minded.) But what about the dissenter’s view of Hamlet, inspired by his treatment of Ophelia and his decision not to kill Claudius in the confessional with his sins newly forgiven, but to wait until “he is drunk, asleep or in his rage, or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed…that his soul may be as damn’d and black as hell, whereto it goes”? Dr. Johnson and T.S. Eliot famously use these things to argue that Hamlet is less tragic hero than a force for ruin, a pawn of the Ghost, a deeply immoral character not at all to be pitied.
“I suppose it depends how you view that scene” in the confessional, Branagh says. “One way to look at it is to believe…he simply cannot [kill Claudius] in anything other than a rageor at one remove, as he does with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
“When he kills Polonius, when he kills Laertes, it’s in a fit of passion. It’s rash and mad. But the idea of a man he could kill while at prayer….I like to think he’s rationalizing his inability to kill in cold blood.”
It’s frustration over that very inability, Branagh goes on, that fuels Hamlet’s rage in the very next scene, the bedroom confrontation with his mother where he mistakes the eavesdropping Polonius for Claudius and kills him. “He’s left the last scene as a failure. That anger is what drives him into what he hopes is this blind killing of the king.”
Branagh knows very well that Hamlet can be a brutal manhe shows it “in his relationship to Ophelia, in his cruelty to her, in the extraordinary harshness of the closet scene [with Gertrude], in his treatment of his mother and the excessively displayed revulsion at the idea that she should be having a physical relationship with Claudius.
“But I certainly didn’t worry too much about, ‘Is Hamlet unattractive at these points?’ I think he’s unattractive, although funny, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the players scene,” where he confronts his two school friends, now working for Claudius, about their bumbling attempts to manipulate him.
“These men have no chance,” Branagh says, grinning. “They’re pawns in a game. It’s ruthless.” He lets go a skyward exhalation of smoke, relishing the memory of that confrontation.
He’s not exactly relishing the prospect of the inevitable critical complaints about “stunt casting” (Robin Williams as the boot-licking Osric, Billy Crystal as the Gravedigger, Jack Lemmon as Marcellus) and the film’s opulent production values.
“Thing is,” he says wearily, “with a play like this, some people just find it impossible to accept some of the baggage that they believe comes with certain people.”
He grins. “But then I also accept that some people will find it utterly untenable that I’m playing Hamlet.” He shrugs, and just like that, the question is dismissed.
Suddenly, it’s obvious that all the clichés about not doing it for the critics really do hold true in this case. Branagh made this Hamlet because it was time for him to do it. He wants us to see it, yes, because ultimately all art is collaborative. But you can’t escape the feeling that this one, lavish sets and all, was pretty much for him.