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Perchance to dream

LOS ANGELES--Kenneth Branagh's "Hamlet" is one of those grand gestures that restores your faith in the flexibility and imagination of the movies. When so many films seem to march lockstep through versions of the same proven formulas, here's one that takes on perhaps the most enigmatic character in literature, and surrounds him with every single word of "Hamlet"--a play so often cut that many people have never seen it as Shakespeare wrote it. Branagh is of course the most energetic of the current interpreters of Shakespeare, and he has brought the bard back into box office popularity. After Branagh's "Henry V" (1989) was a hit, Franco Zeffirelli found a big audience for his "Hamlet" with Mel Gibson in 1991, Branagh had a hit with "Much Ado About Nothing" in 1993, and Laurence Fishburne and Branagh starred as Othello and Iago in 1995. In 1996 came a cascade: n 1993, In 1996 came a cascade: Ian McKellan's neo-Nazi "Richard III," the Generation X version of "Romeo and Juliet," Al Pacino's acting documentary "Looking for Richard," and at year's end the uncut Branagh "Hamlet," which after short runs for Oscar consideration is just now going into national release. At 238 minutes it is just 60 seconds shorter than the Burton and Taylor "Cleopatra" (1962), the longest major studio movie of all time. And it is the first movie since the Tom Cruise "Far and Away" in 1992 to be shot in 70mm, which dramatically increases picture depth and clarity. Will moviegoers sit still for four hours (plus intermission) for Shakespeare? Surprisingly enough, theater exhibitors think they will. Although Branagh was required by his contract to produce a two and a half hour cut, after exhibitors saw a preview of the full version, they preferred it; lines around the block in New York and Los Angeles suggest that this "Hamlet" could become an event. A few weeks before Christmas, I talked with Branagh about his film. There is always a wonderful flow to his language; he speaks in complete sentences and paragraphs, the words bending to his will, and so I will mostly let him speak for himself.

* * * (italics) How did you make "Hamlet" fresh for yourself when you approached this film having played the role 300 times--and seen it, read it, thought about it, directed it, so many times before? I remembered the very first time I saw it onstage, which was with Sir Derek Jacobi, who plays Claudius in this film, playing Hamlet at the New Theatre Oxford in 1976 or 1977. I was absolutely overwhelmed by the energy of the play. It had a sort of throb to the whole evening. I didn't understand everything that was going on but I felt as though I understood what all the characters meant; the passionate drives of each of them was very strong. And all very simple things that you could identify with. We meet a guy at the beginning of the play who's lost his dad. He's bereaved. This does strange things to people. His girlfriend abandons him because her father says they can't see each other anymore. These are things you can understand. I came away thinking that this play is like a life force. It gets right under your skin. And along with an exciting yarn, along with revenge, murder, incest and ghosts, there's a debate on what it takes to be a human being. As he says in the play, "What a piece of work is man." I tried to remember that first experience when I came to this film. I didn't want to be clever for people who'd seen the play a thousand times. I wanted to scrub it all clean. Make it exciting and alive and try to allow as much of the play's mystery to come through as possible. It's like a great piece of music. People listen to it and they hear different things. And it was all absolutely linked to I felt when I left that theatre. I was 15 years old, it was 11 at night on a Friday, I was taking the train back to Redding, and I could have walked home.

(italics) You were really an untutored playgoer at that point in your life? You were not born to the theatre or raised in the environment. You found it for yourself. Absolutely. I mean no disrespect to my parents, but there were no books in the house. I had no idea about Shakespeare at all. I went to the theater because I'd seen Derek Jacobi on the telly. I'd seen him in "I, Claudius," and I thought it was great and I read an ad saying "TV's 'I, Claudius' appearing as Hamlet!" So I went.

(italics) For an actor, this is "the" role, isn't it? It is. Some people describe it as the greatest straight part ever written. Certainly it's the longest part in Shakespeare. And it has an X-ray view of human nature; everything you are as a person has to come through. It's exciting to play but it's also naked. I've had the joy of playing it on the stage hundreds of times over the years including, once in Denmark, at the castle where the story is set. I wanted to take advantage of that experience. I wanted to make it after I made "Henry V" in 1989, but I missed the boat because Mel Gibson and Franco Zeffirelli did it then. But I'd always wanted to do a full-length version; all the film versions were cut. The full-length version is actually easier to watch. It gave the audience more pauses and breaths--chances to take in one big intense moment and wait for a second before moving on. Uncut, at four hours, it's better orchestrated as a piece of dramatic structure. I wanted to create the kind of event that I loved seeing as a kid when I was first taken to see "Lawrence of Arabia," "Dr. Zhivago," "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," "Sound of Music." Big wide screen experiences. That's why I decided to shoot in 70mm.

(italics) For months it was said there would be the long version in big cities and then a shorter version, for the rest of the country. What's the true story about the running time? There was a lot of interest and intrigue about the whole issue. The industry was leery of a four-hour movie, and I think there was some pressure on Castle Rock to come up with a shorter film. When they agreed to make the film they said, "Listen, you must guarantee to give us a shorter version in case down the line there are places that simply won't take this length." I said, "If you let me make the film, yes!" Right now there are no plans to release a shorter version of the film theatrically anywhere in the world.

(italics) There are countless theories about what motivates Hamlet. Is it necessary for the actor playing Hamlet to have a theory, or should he rather play Hamlet without a theory? Some people like to nail their Hamlets. They need to say he's a lyrical Hamlet, he's an angry Hamlet, he's a decisive Hamlet, he's a depressed Hamlet. Hamlet is many things. He's a funny guy at times, cruelly witty. He's cowardly at times, he's vicious, he's ferocious, he's quietly heroic. He is incredibly lyrical at times. He is very dark. I do not think he is disposed to be depressed or melancholy. I wanted to play all these things to their extremes and not try and explain him. I think this is a man of enormous potential who we meet at a time when he is overwrought. His father's died, his mother's married his uncle inside of one month. This is a tough gig. But it doesn't qualify him as a depressive. You see him with the players, and in the brief romantic moments with Ophelia, as a man of tremendous potential. This was a guy with a great future. The JFK of his time. I wanted to play that. A man who was good company, not somebody who was disposed melancholy or self-indulgent.

(italics) Did you as the director of the film think of Hamlet in a different way than you did as an actor?. How do you direct yourself? When you play Hamlet do you know as much about Hamlet as you know about him as a director? I've had the interesting experience of being in the play as both Hamlet and Laertes. I spent about 18 months playing Laertes in repertory with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I got to watch the rest of the play in a different way and I've always felt that it's not about one man. It's about two families who are both destroyed by the end of the play. The play is an epic that starts with a troubled family, and their behavior impacts on the entire nation. The map of Europe is redrawn by the end of this play. As both director and actor, my view of Hamlet here is that he's part of this world of opulent, corrupt power, a world of excess where people eat and drink too much, have too much sex. And all these human dimensions are reflected in a family. If Hamlet and his mother had found a chance to talk at the beginning of the play maybe the play wouldn't have started. Instead, they wait until he's killed the Prime Minister and (italics) then they have a good chat.

(italics) What do you feel about the familiar theory that English actors are just plain better at Shakespeare's language? That American actors can get to be very good at it but they will never quite be there? I disagree with it. Of course there's an element of practice with Shakespeare that can make people feel more comfortable, although not necessarily better. But I think Shakespeare's for everyone. There's nothing to suggest that the Elizabethan vernacular spoken at his time was anything like English Shakespearean acting might be now. There was no mellifluous voice; it was a sound that was like the guttural Ulster accent or even closer to a modern American accent. It had hard "r's" and it was much more muscular. It wasn't a soft and milky sound. So we have no proprietorial rights. At our worst we are smug about it. It doesn't mean it's easy, necessarily. Doing any piece of acting really well is not easy and there are certain technical demands in Shakespeare. I want to be able to hear everything that is said; you have to get your tongue and your teeth around it, and yet not make it sound like you're being over-articulate. It has to be lightly done, and that needs practice and confidence, but essentially I want people who are being as truthful as possible. If Americans are culturally a step removed, I don't think that denies them a chance to bring to Shakespeare all the vigor and fire that's at the fingertips of American actors.

(italics) I think some people are going to be surprised by how good Charlton Heston is, as the Player King. He's done a lot of Shakespeare, but people only think of his movie epic roles. He did a great job. That casting choice illuminates that part of the play. The Players scenes are often under-cast or cut. But they completely change the course of the play; the power with which the Players perform their story of revenge is what gives Hamlet the idea for the chance to prove Claudius' guilt. If you don't see that happen effectively, then Hamlet looks stupid. And I can't tell you how many times I've seen productions where Hamlet is supposed to be enraptured by the Player King and you've just seen somebody be very bad. Here, Mr. Mt. Rushmore comes on, and you think he's just a big star, and then he speaks very, very well.

(italics) Kate Winslet's Ophelia seems more like a young girl in love--a flesh and blood girl, not one of these ethereal spirits that you often see cast as Ophelia. (italics) When I see those Ophelias, I always think, oh, well, she's going to go mad. Of course she's going to go mad; she's sort of there already, you know. But we wanted her and Hamlet to be in the middle of a physical relationship, you know. So that the man to whom she's given herself for the first time in her life turns out to be the man who eventually kills her father--I mean, I'd go mad after that. But at the first I wanted to see somebody who was sane, alive, full of potential. I wanted the whole court to be full of potential for life, not some gothic place of shadows and sorrow where people were gloomy all the time but a vibrant, alive place.

(italics) Claudius (Derek Jacobi) and Gertrude (Julie Christie) seem more balanced, less guilty, less one-dimensional, than I've often seen them. (italics) I wanted, with Claudius, to get away from the usual sort of chicken-leg chewing roisterer. And as for Gertrude, she does a wonderful job in a part that is underwritten. Gertrude has fewer lines than the first gravedigger and yet she's a hugely important character. Julie Christie was utterly convinced that prior to the death of her husband Gertrude and Claudius had not had an affair and Gertrude did not know Claudius killed the king. The characters are allowed to have their own point of view in these things, no matter what the audience may think. And then if your husband dies and you're a queen in any period in history, well, grief does strange things. You can sometimes be thrown into the arms of someone you love, especially if you keep your job that way. Quite frankly, being queen is probably nicer than being queen mum, which would have been the case if Hamlet had taken over. Actually, Claudius and Gertrude might have made a very good couple. He has quite good advice for Hamlet at the beginning of the play. He says, "Your father lost a father. That father lost his." It's like, "Everybody dies, pal." It's simple in its way but it's also such good advice. He's not a stupid man.

(italics) No, but of course he did kill the king. Yes, but at that stage Shakespeare doesn't allow us to know that. It would be thrilling to come to this play for the first time, and discover in Act Three that, good God!--Claudius is the murderer! And Claudius thinks Hamlet is carrying on because of Ophelia, or because of his father's death, and then suddenly realizes--he suspects! He knows!

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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