Hamlet:  Branagh's Bildungsroman

by Mark J. Cassello

Preceded by a fortuitous series of events that brought together an extraordinary cast for an highly unusual project, the realization of Kenneth Branagh’s lifelong dream to bring a full-text edition of Hamlet to the screen was accompanied by the normal obstacles inherent with financing any project of this magnitude.  Branagh admits that “the perpetual reluctance of film companies to finance Shakespeare had frustrated each attempt” (Branagh xiv).  Couple the studio’s reluctance about the commercial viability of Shakespeare to a late twentieth century audience with Branagh’s desire for a full-length adaptation of the work, and the diametrical opposition of these two forces becomes strikingly clear. 

Without disclosing the precise factors led to Castle Rock Entertainment’s 1995 agreement to finance this bold project, Branagh gently hints that the studio hoped to also release an “abridged version at a more traditional length” (Branagh xiv).  Compare Hamlet’s modest production budget of $18,000,000 with other contemporary films like Braveheart, which although shot on location, cost $72,000,000 to produce and Branagh’s feat becomes even more astounding (“Braveheart”).  In 1996, his ambition became a reality with the  theatrical release of the full three hour and 58 minute version of Hamlet.  The spectacle of the final product is inarguably lush and lavish—the sets, costuming, and score almost overwhelm the senses.  However, rather than simply dissecting a particular scene or exposing how this incarnation exploits the medium of film to convey any particular interpretation, by exploring the details of Branagh’s biography, I will instead trace his journey from the conception of this project to its realization, and by doing so, reveal how his personal journey influenced the development of his portrayal of Hamlet.  

Branagh admits that he had developed “an obsession” with Hamlet that began at the age of eleven: “I first encountered Hamlet when Richard Chamberlain, T.V.’s Doctor Kildare, played that title role on British television” (Branagh xi).  With his curiosity sufficiently piqued, Branagh discovered a copy of “an old L.P. record, lying (unused) in a corner of the English Department Stock Room” (Branagh xi).  Later he would hear this record, featuring Olivier’s ‘To Be Or Not To Be’ soliloquy, in his class, and although he admits that he knew nothing of “fardels” or “bodkins” he was still very interested in the play. 

At age fifteen, incited by a “television serialization of Robert Grave’s I, Claudius” that starred Derek Jacobi, Branagh, spotting an advertisement in a local paper, quickly ordered tickets for a performance featuring Jacobi in the lead role of Hamlet at the New Theatre, Oxford.  This performance was a pivotal moment in Branagh’s life; as people have for hundreds of years, he connected with the character Hamlet in a very personal way:  “It [the performance] made me reflect on my relationships with my parents, the prospects of my adolescent love affair.  It set my heart and my head racing” (Branagh xii).  “I was amazed by what a great thriller it was.  I didn’t understand it all, but I was amazed by the power of it because it seemed to be effecting my body—I got the shakes at times—I thought about it all the way home on the train” (“To Be”).  His love of Hamlet soon developed into a love for acting in general, and by age eighteen he had become a member of the Royal Academy of the Performing Arts (RADA); it was here that Branagh’s ambitious affability was transformed into what his stock broker and financial benefactor, Stephen Evans, describes as an uncanny ability to “schmooze people” (“Branagh V?”) —the very quality he would later need to make the full-text film production of Hamlet a reality.   In 1979, at the age of eighteen, Branagh wrote a letter requesting an interview with Derek Jacobi.  Commenting on this interview with the very young Branagh, Jacobi recalled: 

In ’79 I was playing it [Hamlet] again at the Old Vic, and I got a letter from a drama student at RADA saying could he come interview me and talk about Hamlet.  This boy arrived, and we talked about Hamlet.  He said he wanted to play it himself while he was at drama school and he did. (“To Be”) 

Following his interview with Jacobi, Branagh continued researching the role by studying the films of Olivier and Kozintsev before he made his first attempt at the role (Branagh xiii). 

Branagh’s consistently improving skill of persuasion was now focused on RADA’s principal Hugh Crutwell whom he lobbied for permission to stage a performance of Hamlet at the dramatic school (“Branagh V?”).  Hoping to win the lead role, Branagh would have to read for the part in front of the president of RADA, Sir John Gielgud, who, since 1930, had played the role more than 500 times (“John”).  In a very self-effacing description of the audition, Branagh explains that he did the “rogue and peasant slave” soliloquy so badly that Gielgud came over to the “quaking student” and told him that he was going “far too quickly, far too quickly” (“To Be”).  Despite his shaky audition, Branagh secured the role and with it, his first taste of its physical demands which he referred to as, “massive physical exertion culminating in a complicated fight that an exhausted actor at the end of the play would happily do without” (Branagh xiii).  He played the role, but he had not yet developed any true understanding or vision of Hamlet’s character.

Branagh left RADA and by 1984 had become a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company; this time playing the role of Laertes, he was able to experience Hamlet from a different perspective.  Observing the performance of Roger Rees, Branagh was able to learn a great deal about the character:  “I was able to observe much more clearly what is said about him by others, and worry less about the Prince’s own words” (Branagh xiii).  However, the invaluable experience gained during his tenure with the Royal Shakespeare Company could not offset his increasing unhappiness “with the RSC’s bureaucratic organization and stuffiness, and in 1987, quit to form the Renaissance Theatre Company with his friend David Parfitt” (“Biography”).  Understanding the pressure that would likely accompany such a dramatic move, Branagh worked quickly to give his fledgling company credibility.  Once again relying on his persuasive skill, Branagh lured both Derek Jacobi and Judi Dench into directing an entire season at the Renaissance Theatre Company.

In 1988, Branagh’s reunion with Jacobi brought them together for the first time in a performance of Hamlet.  With Jacobi directing and Branagh in the title role, this incarnation of the Prince of Denmark would mark another lackluster portrayal for Branagh: “I was unready.  I produced a hectic Hamlet, high on energy but low on subtlety and crucially lacking depth.  I was aware that something Jacobi himself had brought effortlessly to the role was life experience” (Branagh xiii).   Resigned to wait until he had gained the experience necessary to bring sufficient depth to his portrayal, Branagh would not return to the role until four years later. 

The 1992 production for BBC radio assembled a veritable “greatest hits” of the performers of Hamlet that included, among others, Branagh, Jacobi, and Gielgud (Donovan).  In addition, the cast also included Richard Briers as Polonius, a role he would reprise in the 1996 film.  This performance, Branagh’s first encounter with the “full text” of the play, allowed the actors to focus on the understanding and delivery of the language of the play (Branagh xiii).  In addition, this new medium allowed Branagh to gain a firmer understanding of the character of Hamlet and provided him his first opportunity to direct the play.  This radio performance anticipated the Winter 1992 full text production of Hamlet by the Royal Shakespeare company—the one that would finally crystallize Branagh’s interpretation of the character and lead to the 1996 film. 

According to Samuel Crowl, “The production was significant because it represented Branagh’s fourth essay of the title role (all by the age of thirty-two) and reunited him with the team of Noble and Crowley” (Crowl).  This was important because the earlier effort of Branagh and this team led to the successful stage, and later film, production of Henry V.  This time, his portrayal was markedly different from his earlier “hectic” Hamlet as well as those of his contemporaries: “Branagh’s Hamlet was remarkably polite, sincere, and mature in contrast with a series of manic, neurotic or passively crippled Hamlets that dominated British productions of the play in the 1980s” (Crowl).  Finally approaching a sense of satisfaction with his Hamlet, Branagh’s vision of a film production of the full text edition of the play was becoming more vivid:  “I longed to allow audiences to join Fortinbras on the plain in Norway, to be transported, as Hamlet is in his mind’s eye, back to Troy […] I felt that all my experience with the play and with Shakespeare was leading in one direction” (Branagh xiv). 

However, before he would realize his vision of a film adaptation of Hamlet, Branagh would have to recover from a devastating professional blunder that plagued his career and overshadowed his breakthrough success of Henry V.  The major obstacle facing the creation of any film is procuring adequate financing, but following the success of Henry V, a project completed with a piecemeal $4,000,000 budget, and Much Ado About Nothing, Branagh’s enthusiastic ambition was matched by the studio’s equally enthusiastic financing for his first major Hollywood production Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  In 1994, handed a $45,000,000 production budget, relatively new to directing a project of this magnitude, Branagh was painfully initiated by the “huge industry machine” (Bandyopadhyay).  Traditionally accustomed to a vast amount of creative control, Branagh was stunned to learn that the marketing department was churning out publicity for a film that he had barely begun filming: “one week into the filming, he received a tape of the theatrical trailer for the film.  ‘I thought, what the fuck is this?’(Bandyopadhyay).  Although he admits that interference from the studio may have distracted his full attention from acting and directing, he accepts full responsibility for the film’s poor reception by the public and dismal financial performance—costing over $40,000,000 but earning only $22,000,000.  By 1995, the failure of Frankenstein was not the only setback haunting Branagh.  Like the character Hamlet, a series of unforeseen events had muddled his “swift” path to success.  The once exuberant press had turned against him and his personal life was in disarray:  “His marriage is over, […] His career has gone off the boil.  Mercilessly attacked for duds like Dead Again, Peter’s Friends, and In the Bleak Midwinter, he was all but finished off by the criticism of Frankenstein” (“Magnificent”).  While In the Bleak Midwinter may have been a commercial failure, it served to reignite Branagh’s obsession with Hamlet.  

Bitter from his experience with the major studios and the unforgiving press, Branagh, refusing many generous offers, used over a $1,500,000 of his own money to finance the very personal project In the Bleak Midwinter.  The film is “about a ragtag theatrical troupe attempting to put on a production of Hamlet in a provincial English town” (Stein).  Written and directed by Branagh, this cathartic film seems to probe the terrain underlying his own obsession with Hamlet: “Why do we want to put on a 400 year old play about a depressed aristocrat?  That’s the question that the film looks to answer, about how all these terminally luvvy types with modern problems can all find meaning both in the play itself and the putting together of it” (Bandyopadhyay).  The cast included Nicholas Farrell and Richard Briers who would both play Horatio and Polonius respectively in Branagh’s Hamlet.  This film also revealed the obstacles, both creative and financial, that he would soon encounter in his own production.   

So continued a cycle of life imitating art and vice versa, deciding how to best fund and stage his own production like the characters in In the Bleak Midwinter, a emphatic and resolute Branagh returned to Hollywood to locate funding for his full-text film version of Hamlet.  Branagh explains, “There were plenty of takers who said if you do it at half the length and half the budget then we will give you the money” (“Kenneth”).  Schooled by his shortcomings on Frankenstein, but wise from the successes of Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing, Branagh approached Castle Rock Entertainment with the following pitch for his ambitious Hamlet:  “it begins like Jaws (with horrible suspense), and ends like stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf going in for the kill.  Even the advertising promises ‘more artificial snow than in Dr. Zhivago’” (“Magnificent”).  The necessity of Hollywood power brokers to explain complex works of literature in terms of a “catch phrase” certainly poses a problem for purists like Branagh:  “The studios want to reduce the subject absolutely, so the can sum it up in one sentence” (Katelan).  His pitch worked, and yielding to his enthusiasm, Castle Rock Entertainment relented by providing an $18,000,000 budget for the four hour film. 

Returning to his greatest asset, his personal charm, Branagh assembled a stellar cast that became a reunion of a disparate collection of actors, many of whom had helped shape his portrayal of Hamlet.  The limited budget of the project meant that “all the actors worked for much less than their usual fee” (Katelan).  His cast included Briers and Farrell from In the Bleak Midwinter, as well as American actors like Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Charlton Heston, and Jack Lemmon—most of whom had been personal acquaintances of Branagh.  He also cast Sir John Gielgud and Derek Jacobi once again uniting almost a century of Hamlets.  Commenting on his inclusion in the cast, Jacobi explained:  “It’s like the whirligig of time it seems the right thing that we’re back to this particular play together” (“To Be”).  Aside from the actors, Branagh also employed his former principal from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, Hugh Crutwell, as an objective critic of the performance of each take.  With the financing guaranteed, his screenplay written, and cast assembled, after a twenty year quest, Branagh was ready to begin filming.

In hindsight, the events of Branagh’s life appear almost providential—a prophetic soul like Hamlet himself—we wonder what events have been precipitated by Branagh’s actions and what events are merely coincidence.  Vacillating between his artistic goals, and the need for commercial success, Branagh references this dichotomy while agonizing over how to shoot the “To Be or Not to Be” Soliloquy: “Well, he’s in two minds in the speech, I can only assume that this is good…the kind of mental state of the character kind of mirroring the mental state of the egomaniac making the film” (“To Be”).  Perhaps this simple statement summarizes the draw of the character; Hamlet’s complexity represents an uncompromising metaphor of life, love, death, grief, and vengeance.  Although Branagh feels intimately connected to this character, Hamlet belongs to everyone.  He admits: “This may not be the definitive Hamlet, but the tights are hung up and the fluffy white shirt is in the wardrobe never to be brought out again.  It’s a good feeling.  And this is the last fucking time I will act and direct at the same time” (Katelan).  His film represents a pinnacle of artistic achievement, an event that occurs only once in a lifetime, an assembly of talent honed and united for a single purpose.  His caustic words mask  purposelessness that follows the end of a long journey; only time will reveal if Branagh has truly exorcised the demons of his obsession with Hamlet.      


Works Cited

Bandyopadhyay, Reba.  “Kenneth Branagh:  The Panico Workshop Benefit.Daily Telegiraffe. 8 December 2004 <http://members.tripod.com/DailyTelegiraffe/branaghpanicohamlet-benefit.html>.

“Biography: Kenneth Branagh.Barnes and Noble.  7 December 2004 <http://video.barnesandnoble.com/search/Biography.asp?ctr=579225>.

Branagh, Kenneth.  Introduction.  Hamlet by William Shakespeare:  Screenplay, Introduction and Film Diary.  By William Shakespeare.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996. xi-xv.

“Branagh V? (long).”  Anecdotage.  8 December 2004 <http://www.anecdotage.com/index.php?aid=6099>.

“Braveheart.”  Reel Insider.  7 December 2004 <http://www.reelinsider.com/braveheart.html>.

Crowl, Samuel.  “Hamlet ‘Most Royal’: An Interview with Kenneth Branagh.Shakespeare Bulletin Fall 1994.  8 December 2004 <http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Parthenon/6261/Articles/rscham.html>.

Donovan, Paul.  “Baby Grand Old Man.Sunday Times 19 April 1992. 7 December 2004  <http://www.branaghcompendium.com/artic-sunt92.htm>.

Hamlet. Dir. Kenneth Branagh.  Prod. David Barron. 1996. VHS. Castle Rock Entertainment, 2000.

“John Gielgud.Free Home Pages.  From Baseline’s Encyclopedia of Film.  7 December 2004  <http://theoscarsite.com/whoswho4/gielgud_j.htm>.

“Kenneth Branagh: Screen Prince.Scotland on Sunday.  26 January 1997.  9 December 2004 <http://www.branaghcompendium.com/artic-sos97.htm>.

Katelan, Jean-Yves.  “To Be or Not Mister B?”  Premiere: France.  May 1997.  9 December 2004 <http://www.branaghcompendium.com/artic-fp97.htm>.

“Magnificent Obsession.”  The Scotsman.  15 February 1997.  9 December 2004 <http://www.branaghcompendium.com/artic-scotsman97.htm>.

Stein, Ruthe.  Midwinter: A Reflection of Branagh  San Francisco Chronicle.  18 February 1996.  9 December 2004 <http://www.branaghcompendium.com/artic-mwtsf.htm>.