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National Film Theatre Programme Notes

The following are the programme notes which accompany the films shown at the National Film Theatre's month-long retrospective of Kenneth Branagh's film work.

(Thanks to Catherine E. Kerrigan)

Swan Song

"When the young Kenneth Branagh first auditioned for a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, one of those in attendance was its principal, Hugh Cruttwell. In a 1987 interview with the Times, Cruttwell recalled telling him, '... acting like that comes ten-a-penny', but secretly he was greatly impressed, believing that '... he was born to act ... he is an acting animal'. In 1989 he told Richard Corliss of Time Magazine '... he had all the talent and initiative you can see in full flood now'. Even before graduating, Branagh was offered a place with the Royal Shakespeare Company which he turned down, subsequently making his name in the West End production of Julian Mitchell's Another Country. Since then Branagh has come to be known as a protean actor/director/manager/producer equally adept on the stage, TV and in front of and behind the film camera. He has restlessly kept up a feverish work pace and much of this can be seen to stem from his years at RADA. In an interview with Arena magazine he put it thus: " 'When I first came to London I was terrified, and RADA was very reassuring because it was all-absorbing. The principal there was a man called Hugh Cruttwell, a terrific bloke, and his view was that your work should be on show to the public in the Vanburgh Theatre from the second term on, so you were constantly preparing, rehearsing and acting. There was no great party line there, you'd be working with a whole variety of directors, from Stanislavkian or whatever to those who'd just say, "Oh, you come in over there, love and then you sit down". I thought that was a very healthy atmosphere.'

"Kenneth Branagh's film of Anton Chekhov's one-act play Swan Song, which was presented at the Venice Film Festival in 1993 and which was also nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Short Film category, was adapted by Hugh Cruttwell, who has served as technical consultant on practically all of Branagh's films as director. Chekhov's play was completed in 1887 and was one of the first in a series of short dramatic works with which he sought to pave the way for his development from a writer of short stories into a writer of full-length plays. He based a number of these one-act plays on previous stories, and this was also the case with Swan Song, which was taken from a story entitled Kalchas.

"Branagh, then 32 years old, tells the story of Svetlovidov (played by John Gielgud with all the down to earth charm and stamina of a seasoned professional), an aged and melancholic actor who, as he wanders on an empty stage after a benefit in his honour, ruminates on the life he has led in the theatre. He is then startled by the appearance of Nikita, the prompter, who willingly helps the actor re-live episodes from his past. Richard Briers plays Nikita with a terrier-like enjoyment that seems to be based on Branagh's own brand of vigours enthusiasm. Cruttwell's colloquial adaptation further blurs the lines by increasing Svetlovidov's age from 68 in the play to 88, Gielgud's own age at the time.

"Branagh's handling of his actors is exemplary, as is his avoidance of sentimentality. Never falling into the trap of overstatement, the direction resourcefully avoids the temptation of setting the camera down in the stalls and simply recording the performance of two master actors, but instead keeps a firm grip on the proceedings, and never lets the presentation become static, despite the fact that there are only two characters and one set. This most theatrical of Branagh's films was appropriately enough shot in its entirety in a West End theatre, the Criterion, which at the time was undergoing some renovations. When the theatre eventually re-opened, the film received its world premiere there, on 25th October 1992.

"Branagh seems to hardly ever pause for breath; before this millenium is out, British viewers will have seen him star with Helena Bonham Carter in The Theory of Flight, in Woody Allen's new film "Celebrity," Danny Boyle's segment of "Alien Love Triangle,", and play the villain in Barry Sonnefeld's big budget summer movie "Wild Wild West.". He has just finished directing and starring in a film of Shakespeare's Love's Labours Lost, has plans to adapt and star in a modern version of Macbeth and will be heard next year in Dreamworks' animated feature Road to El Dorado." (Sergio Angelini, National Film and Television Cataloguer)

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Henry V

" 'My greatest desire was to take the curse of medievalism off it, so that the Batman audiences could conceivably be persuaded to see it'.

"Kenneth Branagh's remarkable debut as a film director owes less to a desire to challenge or exorcise the ghost of Olivier (a comparison which excited and exercised the critics but which Branagh felt to be an irrelevance) and more to the fact that he had played Henry in his first season with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the role continued to intrigue him. His much publicised audience with Prince Charles, who he felt could offer insider information into monarchial loneliness, in light of recent events now seems shrewd and far-sighted.

"Branagh's Henry is a young man (Branagh at 28 is the same age as Henry was at Agincourt), a democrat ('we are but soldiers for the working day') and a self-doubting ruler whose pacifist tendencies sit uneasily with a certain thuggishness. He is a man who feeling himself betrayed by his friends finds his only real comfort in religion.

"The battles are muddy, bloody and confused - nothing of medieval chivalry here. Branagh reminds us that this is a time when the thousands of French soldiers who died, died largely because they fell over in the mud and were trampled on by other soldiers and horses. After the English victory at Agincourt, Harry's anguished howl in the quagmire; and his carrying of the murdered boy (Christian Bale) across the carnage to the hymn 'Non Nobis' (in a superb and seemingly endless tracking shot) has been described by one critic as 'Tarkovskian in its post-apocalyptic sweep'.

"Branagh has brought together a glittering, uniformly excellent cast who bring a fine sense of ensemble playing to the piece. If the battle scenes seem rather thinly populated, or the orchestration too obtrusive (the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle), then this is a small price to pay for an intelligent, spiritual, sober and entertaining film." (Olwen Terris, National Film and Television Archive)

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In the Bleak Midwinter (A Midwinter's Tale)

"Let's put the show on the road here! went the cry in a dozen Hollywood musicals. A band of carefree amateurs, played by ruthlessly drilled professionals (Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and Deanna Durbin and Co) took over schools, barns or gyms to kick their legs and strum their larynxes. Usually, too, there was a good cause. They wanted to save the school, barn or gym from passing bailiffs or axemen.

"Who says the cinema does not go round in circles? The show in Kenneth Branagh's amiable, energetic "In The Bleak Midwinter" is Hamlet and the cast of amateurs assembled by our hero, tousled actor-director Michael Maloney, hope that profits will - yes - save the development-threatened rural church where they are putting it on.

"We start as if the film is taking a course of cynicism injections to protect against luvviedom: black-and-white photography; wintry skies; and Noel Coward singing 'Why Must the Show Go On?' over the titles. But what price innoculations if you have the disease already? No enterprise could be wholly un-luvvie-ish that has Branagh behind the camera and most or all of his mates in front.

"Meanwhile Branagh himself all but ventriloquises the main role. Maloney's hero is the stage director as overgrown schoolboy, prancing, forehead-clutching and brainstorming his way through ingenuities of interpretation when not listening to those of others. 'Hamlet is Bosnia, sex, biology ...' burbles one actor to the bemused company. On the night, though, this Hamlet ends up a well-intended chaos: lost more in swathes of stage mist than obscurities of interpretation.

"The film is a chaos too, but an endearing one. The wit level is early Carry On - 'I hope I can keep it up', 'I beg your pardon?' - and Branagh has hardly strained after subtlety in the symbolism. The village is called Hope. But this jejeune transparency is rather refreshing after the over-reachings of Frankenstein, and bathos can be a likeable comedy style. When Maloney misses out on his promised chance of a Hollywood contract - Jennifer Saunders dumps him and takes his second lead instead - we sense Branagh playfully mocking his own bruises as a showbiz wonderboy fallen from high places." (Nigel Andrews, Financial Times, 30 November 1995)

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Hamlet

"Hamlet was the result of a project which had consumed Branagh for over twenty years. Richard Chamberlain playing the role on British television in 1970 provided the inspiration for the 11-year-old Branagh, and by the time he came to make the film, he had already played the part over 300 times - on stage for the Renaissance Theatre Company directed by Derek Jacobi, a full-length text for the Royal Shakespeare Company directed by Adrian Noble and a version for BBC Radio. The experience was physically and emotionally exhausting. 'In the theatre,' Branagh is quoted as saying, 'I tried to play Hamlet. Hamlet played me'.

"Branagh felt he needed to be older and wiser before he directed the film, and the version he eventually brings to the screen is monumental, Baroque and flamboyant. Filmed with a 65mm camera and shown on 70mm, the epic scale of the play is perfectly captured. There are moments, however, when Branagh has problems populating and composing the vast cinematic space. Filming soliloquies is always a challenge and here Branagh, eschewing John Huston's belief that you should never move a camera if you want people to listen, does surround the intimate direct addresses to camera with restless camera movement doubting perhaps that the long speeches, filmed statically, will hold an audience's attention firmly enough on the wider screen. The soliloquies too inevitably end on a crescendo, suggesting a mood and rhythm not always dictated by the text.

"Branagh shows great fidelity to Shakespeare's text (taken from the First Folio with additions from the Second Quarto) to give a running time of just over four hours. This could be a great strength but one should resist the temptation to measure a definitive performance or production by its length. Here with Branagh's resolutely illustrative style of shooting presenting the audience with a full text does occasionally pose problems. Branagh doesn't always trust either the words or the audience's ability to sit and listen to carry the narrative excitement of the drama. Does the audience really need to see Fortinbras' army on the march, or watch flashbacks to Claudius murdering King Hamlet while listening simultaneously to a verse description of it? There is spiritual time and geography in the play which audiences, perhaps more than Branagh realises, can readily accept and absorb.

"In other areas the cinematic style and epic space integrate well. The long unbroken takes (a Branagh trademark) work very well, especially down the endless corridors; the cameras, it is said, travelled over six miles of track in the course of filming. The set itself serves as a visual enhancement to the concept of the play particularly in the metaphoric use of mirrors, some two-way, suggesting duplicity, illusion, the other self. Branagh chooses a 19th century setting and costume to suggest a Northern European look. He wanted the period setting to release the play, not to define or contain, placing it in a world of 'colour, opulence, sexiness and power'. His cameraman Alex Thomson, however, gives a different view of the decision to set the film in that period and suggests that the authentic period of Medievalism was rejected on the grounds that it would look too grainy and sombre to keep the audience visually stimulated throughout the long journey.

"Continuing his commitment to international casting Branagh goes for broke. One critic, commenting on what he believed to be a worrying fashion to cast big stars in minor roles, felt that in Hamlet Branagh went too far and was 'hoisted with his own Depard'. Much of the enjoyment of the film, however, is anticipating how well established actors and comedians will acquit themselves in unfamiliar roles. How will Ken Dodd play Yorick, or Robin Williams Osric, and what will John Gielgud do with a non-speaking role? The line-up is starry and the acting is generally excellent but there are times when it feels that you are watching a parade of individual cameo performances rather than enjoying an ensemble piece. There is little feel that these people have ever lived together as characters or rehearsed together for a prolonged period as actors. The performances generally have a theatrical quality and unsurprisingly the seasoned stage actors tend to acquit themselves the best - Branagh gives a strong, energetic and confident performance, Jacobi is intelligent and compelling as Claudius, one of the most complex and difficult roles in the Shakespeare canon and Briers (giving a superbly shabby, cunning and surprisingly touching Polonius) take the acting honours while Jack Lemmon's Marcellus is an embarrassment quite best forgotten.

"Technically poised, if not strikingly innovative (one reviewer noted 'Branagh has the courage of his conventions') Hamlet is not a great film. Branagh's Hamlet is perhaps not a great Hamlet, but the film's conception is a brave and great endeavour and convinces that filmmakers should continue to accept the challenge, fraught with pitfalls, of adapting Shakespeare for the screen." (Olwen Terris, National Film and Television Archive)

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Ghosts

" 'Golden Boy' may seem an odd epithet in these downbeat times, but nothing suits Kenneth Branagh better. The sandy haired, 26-year-old actor in heroic mould has risen without a perceptible hitch in several spheres of his profession.

"Weeks after leaving RADA, naturally with gold medal in hand, he landed the leading role of Judd in Another Country, which promptly made him a West End star. Then, at the Royal Shakespeare Company, he sprang to similar status as a classical actor - playing Henry V, significantly one of the Shakespeare monarchs with whom Olivier's name is most associated.

"TV viewers remember Branagh as the fiery Billy in Graham Reid's acclaimed trilogy of Belfast life, to which a coda, Lorna, was added earlier this month on BBC2; and as the young toff roughing it down under in The Boy from the Bush.

"Augmenting the chorus of acclaim he has already won, director Elijah Moshinsky volunteers: 'Branagh has a razor-sharp quality unlike any other actor in the English theatre. His characters seem possessed with a terrific driving force.

"This made Branagh ideal casting, according to Moshinsky, for his new TV production of Ghosts. The doomed Oswald is often seen as weak, or at best romantic. But Moshinsky found in Branagh something altogether more vigorous. 'Ghosts is very modern, a precursor of a stream of plays delving into the psyche. It can seem Victorian and soft, though. Branagh's intensity helped me keep it unsentimental.'

"Moshinsky himself cites Olivier as he catalogues the young actor's virtues. 'Everything about him reminds me of what you read about Olivier at the same age. He's probably the most dedicated, serious performer of his generation.'

"After completing Ghosts, Branagh spent nine months filming Fortunes of War, a forthcoming BBC blockbuster based on Olivia Manning's Balkan Trilogy, in which he plays the great charmer Guy Pringle. And he has already made his Hollywood debut 'as a suburban James Bond', opposite Jacqueline Bisset in High Season.

" 'I thought of it as Carry On up the Greek Islands,' says Branagh, with a characteristically easy smile. 'Though I'm told it's really a spy film.'

"This summer will see his most audacious step yet, the launch of an actor-run ensemble for whom he will write and direct, as well as perform. Not shy about ambition, though he prefers the word 'enthusiasm', Branagh has dubbed his challenge to the theatrical establishment 'Renaissance.'

"Already he has signed up lustrous [actors] like Derek Jacobi, Richard Briers, John Sessions, and - his mother in Ghosts - Judi Dench. What's more he has persuaded the Prince of Wales to become the group's patron.

"Branagh contrasts the all-hands-on-deck approach of Renaissance with the less stretching business of film. 'All that hanging around drives me barmy. And movies remind you that, as an artist, you're a beggar. If they could make films without actors, they would.'

"In performance, Branagh cuts a lean, aristocratic figure. Sipping diet cola in his dressing room, this son of a joiner appears more beefy, with broad arms that he waves to emphasise a point.

"Branagh hails from Belfast, where his childhood was spent in a council house. 'I remember a busy street life. We knew all the neighbours, and ours was a huge extended family. We always seemed to be visiting each other.'

"When Kenneth was nine, the family moved to Reading, where in time he attended comprehensive school. 'So these days I have the Anglo-Irish sense of belonging nowhere. The older I get, the more my Irishness haunts me. When I go back, though, people are reserved, because of the way I talk. At the same time I don't feel at ease in the world of English yuppiedom I inhabit.'

"As for playing Oswald, Branagh saw the part as a 'run-up' to Hamlet, which he'd like one day to tackle with the RSC. 'There's the same self-analysis, the same extremes of emotion.'

"A further incentive was the dazzling quality of the cast. Apart from Judi Dench as the long-suffering, recently widowed Mrs Alving, Michael Gambon plays Pastor Manders, Freddie Jones is Engstrand, and Natasha Richardson - a star rising at a similar pace to Branagh - appears as Regina. 'Being in such company made me chisel into the text more. There was such a lot to live up to.'

"The fact that Oswald is dying of syphilis, and that the disease was incurable when Ghosts was written, gives the play sombre echoes of AIDS. Branagh explains that Oswald suffers from the barrage of conflicting information that descended around AIDS. Sympathising with his character's confusion helped Branagh to like him.

"But, as a nascent impresario, he is quick to counter the 'doom and gloom' aura sometimes surrounding Ibsen. 'There's much more humour in the play than people imagine.'

"Grinning, the golden boy adds, 'What with the orphanage burning down, and Oswald falling for the maid who turns out to be his half-sister - the whole thing's the most tremendous soap opera.' " (Jim Hiley, Radio Times, 13 June 1987)

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The Gingerbread Man

"John Grisham is a true publishing phenomenon and Hollywood has been eager to turn his stories into movies, especially after the massive success of Sidney Pollack's version of The Firm in 1993. Since then there have been: The Pelican Brief (Alan J. Pakula, 1993), The Client (Joel Schumacher, 1996), The Chamber (James Foley, 1996), John Grisham's The Rainmaker (Francis Ford Coppola, 1997) as well as a TV series based (on) The Client. Although a version of The Runaway Jury (to be directed by auteur manque Philip Kaufman) is promised, the last so far is The Gingerbread Man. In it, Kenneth Branagh plays Rick Magruder, a successful lawyer who gets involved in the problems of a young woman who is being stalked by her father, a religious fanatic. Things escalate when the father escapes from the asylum where Magruder had had him committed and then threatens the lawyer and his children. If one throws in the inevitable chases, rescues, murders, courtroom manoeuvering and such, this will not seem very different from the other films mentioned above. All in fact are reasonably faithful adaptations, with Coppola's clearly being the most effective and Schumacher's the shoddiest, but The Gingerbread Man stands out in many ways, not least because it is not strictly canon.

"Robert Altman's 1997 film is in fact not taken from a novel but is based on an original screenplay that Grisham had written many years previously. Although its protagonist is a lawyer, as with all his books, this story is actually closer in feeling to film noir with its dark atmosphere (literally and metaphorically-speaking) and with a femme fatale ablely manipulating the hero, and it relies less on courtroom procedure for its plot twists and turns. It is however also hard to know how much of this is Grisham's doing as, by the time the film was released, his screenplay credit had been reduced to merely one for 'original story'. When speaking with Entertainment Weekly Robert Altman stated that he had never even talked to Grisham '... or met him. I wouldn't know him if he fell in my soup'. Indeed, the production itself was beset with problems and set-backs almost as tortuous as the film's plot.

"When first announced, the film was envisioned as a straightforward rendering of Grisham's script, with Annette Benning co-starring and with Luis Mandoki (White Palace, Message in a Bottle) directing, with filming due to begin in the middle of October 1996 in Memphis, Tennessee. However, this was not to be, with Benning announcing her withdrawal on discovering that she was not pregnant. Subsequently, Mandoki also departed and Branagh himself moved on to make The Proposition (then known under the title Shakespeare's Sister). The script passed through several hands (including, briefly, that of neo-noir maestro John Dahl) before eventually being accepted by Robert Atlman. Altman may have seemed an odd choice to helm a John Grisham story, with Stephen Amidon of the Times considering it 'a bit like Salvador Dali designing the next Ford sedan'. It certainly didn't help that the one time that he had attempted to make a straightforward thriller from a best-selling novel, William Goldman's Heat, he had been fired almost immediately (amongst many others incidentally). But his presence quickly impressed Branagh and so filming eventually began at the end of January in 1997 in Savannah, Georgia, by which time Altman had overhauled the script (now credited to the mysterious 'Al Hayes'). The cast was as large and eclectic a mix as one would expect from Altman, including newcomer Embeth Davidtz as the woman in jeopardy, Robert Duvall as the father and Famke Janssen as Magruder's ex-wife, as well as Tom Berenger, Daryl Hannah and Robert Downey Jr., who was under a court order during the filming. Post-production was fraught with problems: when Altman's first cut (in which the film ends before the protagonist's eventual fate is determined by the courts) was tested and disliked by audiences, production company Polygram took the film away and re-edited, at which point Altman threatened to remove his name from the credits and replace it with the Director's Guild infamous pseudonym Alan Smithee. Subsequently co-producer Chris Black left Polygram over their handling of the editing, and when the new version fared no better with test audiences, Altman was allowed to complete his version, which was eventually released, though barely.

"Since the film wasn't based on any previously published material, it has the advantage of seeming much fresher than previous adaptations, which may well have been what attracted Altman in the first place. The Gingerbread Man is by comparison a thoroughly dour film that eschews the David and Goliath approach that is standard in Grisham's plotting, and is peopled with characters that are much more subtly shaded and realistic. Branagh's Magruder is a deeply flawed man, a choleric, combative and arrogant figure clearly going through some sort of mid-life crisis. In the film he is much more believable and compromised than any of the main characters in Grisham's other fiction, while his scenes with the excellent Davidtz and Janssen bristle with emotion.

"At the same time, the film has many examples of Altman's mordant wit and talent for telling detail such as the picture of the Gingerbread Man on the wall at Magruder's children's school, or the sly way in which Davidtz's character is introduced when we see her palming an ashtray early in the film. Al Clark in his seminal book Raymond Chandler In Hollywood described Altman's method and films as '... cool, dispassionate, observant, outwardly anarchic but vigorously disciplined within their chosen sphere'. This is certainly true of his handling of The Gingerbread Man and there are many distinctively Altmanesque moments, such as in the early party scene in which Magruder and Mallory Doss first meet, and in his handling of the large crowds in a later sequence set in a large market. In his Guardian interview held on 23 May this year, Branagh praised Altman's improvisatory technique and mastery in the handling of large crowd scenes filled with extras.

"While Altman's adaptation of Chandler's classic The Long Goodbye is an extraordinary explosion of the private eye myth, his take on Grisham is less revisionist and certainly less severe. Although his pessimism and misanthropy and cynical mistrust of authority remain, the plot is left largely in place and there are a number of very suspenseful sequences as well. Also notable is a well-realised Hurricane (named Geraldo) which recalls the storm at the climax of McCabe and Mrs. Miller and which was added by Altman to the script. It blows for the majority of the film, making the characters, in critic Philip French's words, all appear to be suffering from PMT - 'Pre Monsoon Tension'. This is brilliantly realised by Chinese cinematographer Changwei Gu who keeps the colour palette incredibly limited, only using explosions of red for certain sequences while managing to make Savannah seem both immediate and real as well as exotic and alien.

"Though obviously an uneasy alliance, the film provides enough of Grisham's plotting and Altman's trademark skill with actors and assured style to provide a film that is both entertaining on a purely narrative level and altogether more satisfying on an aesthetic and emotional one." (Sergio Angelini, National Film and Television Archive Cataloguer)

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