Branagh and the Bard : A Companion to the Shakespearean Films of Kenneth Branagh

The Daily Telegiraffe
What's Up: BOOKS

Book Title: "Branagh and the Bard : A Companion to the Shakespearean Films of Kenneth Branagh"
Author: Sarah Hatchuel
ISBN 0-921368-89-5
US$ 22.00 / CDN$ 29.95
198 pp./(pb)/5 1/4 x 8 1/4 in
Publisher: Blizzard Publishing (Bain & Cox, Publishers)

This book is no longer available for purchase from the publisher. However, if you are interested in buying a copy, please contact the editor at for further information.

A Companion to the Shakespearean Films of Kenneth Branagh by Sarah Hatchuel

A Personal and Passionate Vision

We met Sarah, appropriately enough, in Stratford-Upon-Avon, where she steered us to the reading room at the RSC. Here you can look up any production, and read the notes and reviews. But if it's Branagh you're looking for, Sarah can flip to the pages almost instantly.

"Isn't this wonderful!?" Her enthusiasm is palpable, and her expertise, considerable. It's almost like she's studied Branagh.

Which she has. Sarah currently lives and works in Paris. She left the working world of economics, management and finance behind, and attended the Sorbonne to do a post-graduate dissertation on Branagh. Her book, "Branagh and the Bard : A Companion to the Shakespearean Films of Kenneth Branagh" grew out of that study. Following a teaching position at the University of Rouen, she now teaches English translation at the University of Nanterre. But her own studies continue, at the Sorbonne, as she pursues a PhD. Yes, on Branagh.

Here is our interview with the author.

DT: What made you decide to write this book? Why was it important?

SH: I think it was not really a decision. It came so naturally. I would call it more an urge than a decision. I needed to express my admiration and, above all, my gratitude to the man that had opened a whole new world to me. At age 18, I saw Branagh's "Henry V" in a movie theatre in Paris, and I still haven't really recovered from that first viewing experience. It was such an emotion. The language of Shakespeare. The story. The camera work. The music. It was as if the images, sound and text were merging to produce my best cinematic experience ever. I think this book is a kind of a big "thank you" for that memorable day and how it transformed my life. It's also a way to answer some of Branagh's harsh commentators. Everyone has the right to like or dislike Branagh, but some critics have gone very far in their criticism and judgment.

DT: Does your book specifically explore Branagh's detractors and his champions? Or do you focus on the films themselves, and not what people have said about them?

SH: The book doesn't explore Branagh's detractors "in detail." It rather concentrates on the films, their artistic influences (from Branagh's former theatrical productions), their textual and cinematic choices. But it also includes some quotes from critics who give their reception of the movies.

Whether a critic likes a particular adaptation or not, Branagh's films represent a substantial body of Shakespearean works. The adaptations are, at the least, interesting, and the choices they make as far as interpretation is concerned are worth studying.

DT: Do you mean interesting in terms of the scholarly study of Shakespeare, or in terms of getting Shakespeare to come alive on film?

SH: In my opinion, any Shakespearean film can be studied in a scholarly way or in a filmic way. Through a scholarly study, you will analyze the decisions in terms of interpretations. You will try and answer the question: how do Branagh's decisions situate against other scholarly criticism or against the Shakespearean stage tradition. Through a filmic study, you will analyze the choices in terms of lighting, editing, camera angles and moves, and how all those cinematic choices influence our feelings. It also means trying to situate Branagh against the other Shakespearean film directors.

DT: Do you find his choices to be "studied" or more "intiutive"?

SH: I believe Branagh's cinematic visions are both instinctive and studied. I don't really know if Branagh prepares his films with scholarly analysis in hand, but personally, I don't think so. The thing I'm rather sure of though, is that Branagh has an extended culture of the theatre tradition. He certainly knows how Henry V or Hamlet have been staged since the Shakespearean era. And it's obvious that, when he creates his films, he situates himself against other famous actors/producers of Shakespeare, and tries to bring something new.

Some of his ideas have been often driven by the theatrical productions he appeared in. For example, in his film Henry V, the idea of filming the soldiers marching in the mud and under the rain clearly stems from Adrian Noble's stage production in 1984, in which Branagh played the title role, and which featured the exciting moment of real rain falling on the soldiers on stage. This is not to say that Branagh has "stolen" the idea. He has rather been inspired by it and translated it into the movie medium. These key images (like the rain in Henry V) always inspire Branagh in a dramatic way. For example, he has said that his whole vision of "Hamlet" stemmed from one image he saw in his mind one day : that of the Ghost as a statue, suddenly pulling out his sword.

DT: What is the importance of Shakespeare on film, and why does Branagh's work seem to speak to so many people?

SH: Shakespeare on film has always been important. In fact, only four years after the movie medium was created, a Shakespearean film (King John in 1899) was created. There has always been an urge to merge Shakespeare and movies. It seems that this trend of importing Shakespeare's stories and words into a realistic environment has developed since the Restoration in 1642. The actors-producers, from Garrick to Irving, have felt this desire to stage Shakespeare in impressive and spectacular sets, using lighting devices to increase a certain impression of reality. Branagh clearly situates himself in that realistic trend, and pursues it further through the cinema medium.

His films appeal to so many people, I think, for two main reasons. First of all, he uses all the possibilities of cinema. Branagh displays some situations visually: he adds some flashbacks of Falstaff in Henry V, shows the balcony scene in Much Ado, creates love scenes for Ophelia and Hamlet. He does not hesitate to illustrate a character's words by some inserts.

DT: The way Branagh presents those scenes, it's almost as if the text had always been calling out for just that sort of visual presentation--that makes the audience "connect" more immediately with a character, or with what's going on.

SH: I don't know if the text has been calling out all this time for a visual presentation. One must not forget that Shakespeare wrote it for a very particular medium, the Elizabethan stage, on which there was just NOTHING. Just actors talking. Therefore, all the poetry of the words, all the beautiful descriptions worked as "establishing shots" in Shakespeare's theatre. They were there to help the imagination of the viewer. Now, it's interesting to see that Branagh's strong visual style doesn't compete with such a rich language, which was already meant to create "filmic visions" in the mind of the spectators. Some people have criticized Branagh for covering the beauty of the text by putting too many literal images and too much romantic music over it. But instead of criticizing and saying, "This is how it should be done," I prefer an approach that says, "Look, here it is, we have this film in front of us. Let's see how it works and analyze its choices." Moreover, if we listen to people who came to Shakespeare thanks to Branagh, it's amazing to see that the images and the music actually helped them to "connect", as you very well say, to the words. Our time is now much more literal than Shakespeare's time. We now need a visual support to the words. To give you a proof of this: during Shakespeare's time, everyone said, "Let's go and HEAR a play." We wouldn't say that now! We definitely say, "Let's go and SEE a play." Over the centuries, there has been this huge transfer from ears to eyes. And Branagh adapts Shakespeare's plays to that situation.

The second reason his films reach people is that Branagh knows how to "recycle" some cinema codes that filmgoers have seen, understood, and identified with in the past. For example, Henry V uses the codes of war (Vietnam) movies with muddy fights, male friendships, as well as shared and overcome pains. Much Ado About Nothing is shot in the mode of the movie musical : lively prologue, group kineticism and joyful songs. And Hamlet is transformed into a true epic thriller, almost a horror movie.

DT: Interesting! In what ways is it a horror movie? Brian Blessed's ghost, the running through the woods scene, with falling trees and quaking earth? And in what ways a thriller?

SH: The way in which all the Ghost sequences are treated, especially the two happening in the wood, are very reminiscent of horror movies. The wood, from Fairy tales to horror films, have always been the place where people get lost, and experience fear. Branagh adds also a certain "anatomisation" of the body: we see certain parts of the body in extreme close-up (the mouth, the eyes...), thus making a monster out of the man. He exactly used the same technique in another film, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. And one shouldn't forget the way he films the killing of Old Hamlet, with the ear exploding in blood, the killing of Polonius with that enormous blood pool, and the subliminal killing of Claudius by Hamlet in the confessional, when the bodkin goes directly into Claudius's head. O horrible, most horrible!

Hamlet contains a thriller quality as well. In Branagh's interpretation, it's as if the Danish Prince were leading a police inquiry in Elsinore. Just feel all that tension in the Mousetrap sequence! The editing goes from one face to another, everyone is observing everyone. It becomes a "spying" sequence! You also have the chase sequence in the palace after Hamlet hid Polonius' body. Hamlet rushes into his room...and a gun barrel is suddenly pressed against his head. I could go on and on, citing the terrible yell of Ophelia when she discovers her father has been killed, the final attack of the palace, the mysterious coming out of the mist of Captain Fortinbras... Several moments in the movie have that "thriller" touch.

DT: How would you sum up Kenneth Branagh's accomplishments so far?

SH: Kenneth Branagh's screen adaptations have really contributed to the renewal of the Shakespearean films on the big screen and have made Shakespeare available to a new public. It's a wonderful achievement.

DT: I think I've read somewhere that he doesn't really accept credit for renewing Shakespeare. Is that just his way of being modest?

SH: I guess he was referring to other directors like Orson Wells or Laurence Olivier who helped to communicate Shakespeare in their own times. It's true to say that Shakespeare has never been dead. His plays have been successful since they were written. But what Branagh did was to awaken new audiences-- including and perhaps especially young people of the nineties--to Shakespeare. And he set the trend to all the Shakespearean film successes now. He has led the way to such movies like Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet, or Shakespeare in Love.

Even if some critics do not like the artistic vision and style of Branagh, this is something that cannot be denied. Many youngsters learn some Shakespearean soliloquies by heart after appreciating one of the movies.

DT: (laughter) Well, yes, I can attest to that personally! It does show how much the excitement shines through, doesn't it? That it can strike so deeply, so young.

SH: Yes, definitely. And when the passion for the words is there, it can become so strong and so emotional! The images guide them to the words. They help them discover a magnificient language, the wonderful poetry of the plays. This is extremely important. If the films can do that, then one of their purposes is fulfilled, in my opinion. A new generation of actors and directors will be inspired by Branagh's works, and maybe lead the way to another way of staging. Who knows?

DT: What would you like to see him take on as a project?

SH: Of course, I would like him to go on tackling the works of William Shakespeare.

DT: It seems he will, with the formation of his Shakespeare Film Company.

SH: Yes. This company has just produced Love's Labour's Lost with Branagh acting and directing. The film is in the editing process. The company should also be producing As You Like It and Macbeth in the next few years, but it's still not clear whether Branagh will direct Macbeth or no. Above all, I'd like him to go on choosing his projects with his heart. That's the best way to succeed, and convey a personal and passionate vision.


More analysis of Branagh:

Leading the Gaze: From Showing to Telling in Kenneth Branagh's Henry V and Hamlet Early Modern Literary Studies--An essay by Sarah H. which observes that Branagh's film versions of Henry V (1989) and Hamlet (1996) use narrative devices specific to cinema to modify the nature of the original plays.

The Good Bits




What's Up: STAGE

What's Up: BOOKS

What's Up: MUSIC

What's Up: FILM

Fictional Characters

What's Up:

Today's Special

Sure We
Thank You