The Brilliance and Madness of Kenneth Branagh
by Waitsel Smith
Kenneth Branagh had one great life's ambition when he began his film career in 1981: to do a full-length (4 hour) version of Shakespeare's Hamlet. He started as an actor and then directed his first film, Henry V, in 1989, to rave reviews. It is still considered by most critics and audiences to be the best film version of a Shakespeare play ever produced. He was instantly established as a genius.
In 1993, he directed his second successful Shakespeare adaptation, Much Ado About Nothing, again to both critical and popular acclaim. Along the way, he was doing some very interesting roles, including Guy Pringle in Fortunes Of War and both Roman Strauss and Mike Church in Dead Again.
Then disaster hit. He decided to make an adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and he decided to make it very macabre. His marriage to actress Emma Thompson was already strained, even though they had done a number of projects together. But with Frankenstein, they were apart a good bit of the time, and that seemed to be all that was needed to push them over the top and Branagh over the edge. They say there is a thin line between genius and madness, and I think Branagh crossed over that line during the production of Frankenstein. If you look at a list of his work, it is very dichotic, with noble, uplifting pieces like Henry V and Much Ado on one side, and darker, sinister ones like Dead Again and Frankenstein on the other. It is almost as if there were two Kenneth Branaghs.
Frankenstein was a disaster critically, financially, and personally for Branagh. The following year, 1995, he and Emma divorced. That same year he produced Othello to decent reviews. The pendulum was trying to swing back. But Branagh was drunk with the lure of success. He was beginning to fancy himself as a sex symbol, a movie star and the successor to Lawrence Olivier. If he could fulfill his life's ambition and produce Hamlet, perhaps that would be the vehicle to boost his career and catapult his image to stardom.
Branagh decided to make his 1996 production of Hamlet an anachronism. Rather than setting it in the Middle Ages, as Shakespeare intended, he chose the Napoleonic era, which corresponds with the Empire style in France and the Biedermeier style in Germany. Both influences are evident in the look of the film, which is overtly opulent. This goes at cross-purposes with the austerity of the play and its archaic themes. It also confuses the politics involved, such as England paying tribute to Denmark.
Branagh echos the look and feel of the design with his performance. Instead of coming across as the melancholic Danish prince, he seems to be a pampered and bored aristocrat intent on playing games with the people in his life. There has never been an adequate explanation of why Hamlet chose to play the madman in his uncle's court, since he was not in any danger. But Branagh seems to use Hamlet's madness as an excuse to give his usual over-the-top performance. His "madness" seems to be merely a lack of discipline.
Hamlet is extremely interesting because it shows, on the one hand, the beauty of Kenneth Branagh's genius, and, on the other, the excesses of his madness. There are some exceptional performances by the cast, though the casting is uneven. In order to hedge against possible audience rejection, he filled the cast with stars. Many of them are strange choices, like Jack Lemmon, Robin Williams and Billy Crystal. Others are genius, like Derek Jacobi as Claudius, Julie Cristie as Gertrude, Kate Winslet as Ophelia, Nicholas Farrell as Horatio and Charlton Heston as the Player King. Besides Jacobi, others from Branagh's regular company of performers include Brian Blessed as Hamlet's Ghost, Richard Briars as Polonius and Michael Maloney as Laertes.
Like Frankenstein, Hamlet was a disaster, and I think the failure changed Branagh as a person. He lost a good bit of his cache in Hollywood as a result, although recently he has done productions of As You Like It, The Magic Flute, Sleuth and Thor, which is excellent. It looks like he's gone back to what he does best: light, fun, inspirational, funny, noble pieces. I hope he never returns to the macabre (Frankenstein) and the overblown (Hamlet). In his acting, he has had some forgettable roles, like those in Wild, Wild West and Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets; but he's also had some good roles, like Shackleton, and even some great ones, like FDR in Warm Springs. I think he's pulled himself out of the hole he was in and is probably a much humbler and better man because of it.
I got to meet and talk with Ken on the set of Warm Springs. He seems like a very genuine and likable person. My impression is that his obsession with himself and his career ended with Hamlet, and now he is free just to be himself and enjoy his work. But Hamlet remains as a monument to what can happen to a man when he becomes obsessed.
To date, Lawrence Olivier's 1948 Hamlet is still the best performance of that classic role. Franco Zeffirelli's 1991 version starring Mel Gibson is still the best production. I would probably rate Branagh's work as third.
For more reviews of the classics, go to my Classic Novels and Plays website. For more on Geniuses & Madmen, and the thin line between, click here. For more movie reviews, go to my Movies by Decade website.
Waitsel Smith, September 3, 2007
Text © 2007 Waitsel Smith. Images © Warner Home Video. All Rights Reserved