Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Friday, August 10, 2012

Kenneth Branagh ... What Are You DOING? (Part II)

In 1996 ... Kenneth Branagh's full-length Hamlet finally arrived.  In his screenplay, he had combined the various extant versions and variations of the play, constructing a four-hour treatment that the patrons of the original Globe would never have, uh, stood for.  (Two hours is about it for plays and bladders.)

He assembled another all-star cast--a mix of Hollywood and the English stage: from Billy Crystal (a gravedigger) to Charlton Heston (the Player King) to Julie Christie and Judi Dench and Derek Jakobi and Kate Winslet (Ophelia) and Robin Williams (Osric) and so many others, including Brian Blessed and Richard Briers from Much Ado.

Joyce and I saw it in one of the old downtown Cleveland theaters, the first film in many years that had an intermission (right after the monologue that ends with O, from this time forth, / My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!)  This was an event.  I desperately wanted to love the film.  I wanted a big comeback for Branagh--something to make up for Frankenstein.  I really wanted to love it.

I liked it.  There were moments that dazzled (delivering To be into a mirror)--the swordplay with Laertes (Michael Maloney, who'd starred in A Midwinter's Tale for Branagh), a contest that ranges all over Elsinore--the performances of Julie Christie and Kate Winslet and Derek Jakobi--and so much more.

But I had trouble with Branagh as Hamlet.  Oh, he can speak!  Elizabethan verse flows from him like water from a generous spring.  And athletically he was fine.  But I didn't like his look (petty, I know): the blond hair, the moustache and little below-the-nether-lip growth that surely has a name--one website calls it a "soul patch," not a name the Bard would have used!  (Mouche, says the OED--but even that term goes back only to 1959.  Anyone know an older term?)

And then there's his age.  I thought he looked too old.  Sure, Shakespeare is a little, uh, random and inconsistent about the Prince's age in the play--is he 30? a teen?--but we still have to accept, at base, that he's a university student ...  I just didn't buy it.  Branagh looked more like a trustee than a sophomore.

Still .. I did like the film--a lot.  Saw it more than once.  Took students to see it.  But even during the decade I was teaching Hamlet at WRA, I never showed the entire film.  I would sometimes use clips of it.  But I just couldn't show all four hours--a week of classes!

The critics were not crazy about Branagh's Hamlet but generally admired it--e.g., Roger Ebert (Ebert's review).  And he won an Oscar nomination for his screenplay and some best actor awards here and there (not the Oscar--neither a nomination nor a win).  For the most part, it seems, critics were happy that he was back doing what he did best--directing and performing Shakespeare.

But to date, he has directed only two other Shakespeare films--a musical version of Love's Labour's Lost (2000), with swing-era setting and music and dancing.  The San Francisco Chronicle called it "a stink bomb of a movie" (Review).  Fans stayed away in droves.  Branagh's stock plummeted.  I sort of liked it--but realized why I shouldn't.  But I did hang this poster in my classroom for about ten years.

He returned to the Bard with an HBO film of As You Like It (2006), a film he directed but did not appear in.  I kind of liked it (especially the women, who were wonderful), though I wondered about Branagh's decision to have Kevin Kline (as Jaques) deliver the All the world's a stage speech as if he were reading a recipe out of the daily newspaper--no emotion at all throughout.  But the film produced barely a ripple in Lake Culture--and surely did not have much effect on fans of True Blood or other HBO series.  Still ... the poster hung in my classroom.

Along the way, Branagh did some other things I liked: the narration for Anne Frank Remembered in 1995; his playful (!!) portrayal of Iago in the 1995 Oliver Parker film of Othello; the Altman film The Gingerbread Man in 1998; Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002); his portrayal of Kurt Wallander in those great TV mysteries; his portrayal of Laurence Olivier in the recent film My Week with Marilyn--the very Olivier whose Henry V he'd once challenged with his own.

But, oh, the bad things were piling up.  The Wild Wild West (godawful), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (he lacked magic), Valkyrie, Pirate Radio ... and then director of Thor, a film I didn't go see but whose trailer, which I did see, promised the subtlety of his Frankenstein with the soul of, oh, nothing.

And now he's Sir Kenneth Branagh.  I have not watched any of the Olympics (shame on me), but a friend told me he appeared in the opening ceremony and recited a speech from The Tempest--a speech delivered by Caliban.  Appropriate for a series of athletic contests, I guess.  Caliban would've done well in, oh, weight-lifting, maybe--not so well in dressage or synchronized swimming?  Shot put?  Perhaps. 

I see on IMDB that Branagh's got a second Thor in the works and is directing a film based on a Tom Clancy novel.  Really?

What's next, Ken?  Wedding Crashers II?   Fifty Shades of Grey?

Despite all of this, I still have some faith in Sir Kenneth.  But I hope he doesn't arrive in the winter of his life only to realize, too late, that he could have given the world a Richard III or a Winter's Tale or a Tempest that would have reached into our hearts and wrung red tears from them.


And about that name--Branagh--and the "Hollywood connection" I mentioned yesterday ...   About the time I was reading his name in the news but not knowing how to pronounce it, there was at student at Harmon School, perhaps a sixth grader at the time (?), named Bronagh Hollywood.  I saw her name on the absence list one day.  Had an epiphany.  Waited till a day when she was back. Had someone point her out to me at lunch.  Approached her.  Asked her: Excuse me, but how do you pronounce your name?

And she told me: BRO-nuh.

It was but a wee step to BRAN-uh.  Rhymes with manna--the stuff from heaven--which is what I once thought Kenneth was bestowing on this poor, hungry world.

bronagh hollywood

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