Sunday Times, 15 March 2015
There’s one giant screen filling the entire end wall and then many glowing small ones, more than in the average sports bar.
Over each is crouched a shadowy figure. Every so often, the cinema-sized room is filled with loud crashing sounds as the picture on the big screen moves and then stops. The whole scene is dominated by the slim silhouette of a man who seems to be in charge: Sir Kenneth Branagh.
We are at Pinewood Studios, and this is how you fix the soundtrack on a big-budget film — in this case, 'Cinderella'. “Cream of the British movie industry,” whispers Branagh, gesturing at the sound engineers at the screens. He is, I realise, as much on stage here as anywhere else, charming the technicians and even seeming to let me make a difference to the scene where they are searching for the wearer of the glass slipper.
“Sorry, next,” says the courtier to each hopeful contender. Branagh appears to agonise over whether it should be both words or just one, but then which one?
“What do you think, Bryan?”
“Just ‘next’ — funnier.”
He agrees and, with a click, the change is made. It was a no-brainer; he had, nonetheless, brought me on stage too for a moment. It’s not cynical, it’s just what he does, and not being cynical is important to him. Later, he says: “I am not a cynic by nature, but I live in a very cynical world and I work in a very cynical business.”
'Cinderella' is his third big Hollywood movie, the previous two being 'Thor' (2011) and 'Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit' (2014). The genre-jumping — superhero, spy thriller and now post-'Frozen' teen-girl epic with frocks — is impressive, but, again, it’s what he does. From the longer chronological perspective, even more striking is the fact that this is all being done by the man who, almost from the first time he stepped onto a big stage — in, say, 1982, in 'Another Country' — was acclaimed as “the new Olivier”. So what is he, now aged 54, doing slumming it with global multiplex fodder?
In his Pinewood office, he responds to this very familiar question by pointing at some beautiful black-and-white photos of Ingmar Bergman taken a few weeks before his death. Bergman was a genius who lived in the art house, far from the compromises of Hollywood.
“This is how people used to think of me,” Branagh says. “They used to think they couldn’t send me certain stuff, and that may still be true, but I think they now consider me to have adventurous tastes. The turning point was 'Thor'.”
He has been savagely criticised for all this, some seeing it as a betrayal of his talents. To meet him is to understand. He is just this amiable bloke — hugely talented, obviously — who likes to try stuff. In his presence, you shrug with him and say, “Why not?” In any case, the question is only being asked by people of a certain age with memory still intact. The rest of the audience suffers from the poignant and alarming affliction Clive James called “cultural amnesia”.
“The phenomenon — the attachment to the man who is the actor — is ancient history now, 25 years on. We, as actors, had careers that grew up in reference to Olivier and to that generation. When I came to play him in the film 'My Week with Marilyn', it was clear that cultural memory was so short, he was already being consigned to the mists of time. Now when I bump into people when I’m promoting these films, I find that for a younger generation I am already the bloke who directs superhero movies.”
In fairness, his critics should take note of how he does these films. For one thing, he talks proper. He once used the word “insouciant” in a Hollywood meeting, and everybody went to their phones to look it up.com. More important, 'Thor' was witty and clever. Branagh even used a device that cameramen call the Dutch tilt, in which the camera is simply tipped to one side so everything on the screen is on a slope. This injection of old-school German expressionism alarmed the producers, who even considered having the slope digitally removed, but cost prevented them, and there it is. 'Jack Ryan' is a good thriller made very good by more jagged expressionism and by the simple device of keeping it short, so the plot isn’t lost in a miasma of shoot-’em-up excess. And Cinderella…
Well, the point here is that he is clearly now a blockbuster go-to guy. Disney had been planning a new live- action 'Cinderella' since 2010, when Tim Burton’s 'Alice in Wonderland' proved there was a big movie market consisting of teen and preteen girls, a discovery reinforced by the huge success of 'Frozen'. “It seemed as though there was room for a bit of balance in a movie landscape that looks as though it’s been dominated by what young males will go and see.”
'Cinderella'’s first director, Mark Romanek, was dropped because his version was going to be too dark. Many adjectives can be applied to Branagh’s film, but “dark” is definitely not one of them — for the first few minutes, the colours were so brilliant, so supersaturated, I didn’t think I would make it through. But there is, of course, darkness in the story, a fact he was at pains to draw to the producers’ attention.
“I reminded them that three parents lose their lives in this film. I know Disney often take that responsibility of potentially introducing their very young audience to profound loss. There’s a big responsibility there and, because of the way I would inevitably approach this, I imagine I would be very interested in playing that part of it authentically.
“I didn’t want to traumatise children, but I am excited by that responsibility. And I didn’t want to patronise kids — I don’t have kids, so I’m not sure I would know how to patronise them. We basically need to find a fairy-tale world in which that psychological or emotional reality can live next door to legitimate fun.”
Was not having his own children a problem? “I feel there are plenty of children in my life. I love children, I like working with them when I am directing: you can learn a lot from them. Anyway, I’ve not had children yet.”
Authenticity, the opposite of cynicism, is the big point, and he keeps making it. He talks of a refusal to be “slackerishly cynical against the fabric of the story” and “to find a human reality inside a fantastical tale”. The word “cynical” just keeps coming up. Both fun and dark is, of course, the wicked stepmother. She is played here by Cate Blanchett, who comes perilously close to walking off with the entire film. He says she was one of the reasons he wanted the job. Branagh rides the camera rig when shooting — he doesn’t like watching on a screen — and with her first close-up, he knew he’d made the right decision.
One more thing needs to be said about his office: the Bergman pictures aren’t the only Scandinavian touch. There’s also the pale-wood furniture and some reindeer furs, bought by his wife while trawling Swedish antique shops. This Scandi theme is not so much a choice as an accidental by-product of the three seasons of 'Wallander' he has made for the BBC — his next job is shooting the fourth. This English-language version is much better than the two Swedish ones entirely because of Branagh’s superb performance. One way or another, Sweden is pretty cluttered with competing Wallanders. “Actually, we bumped into the Swedish Wallander at Ystad railway station — they were filming on one platform while we were filming on another.”
The point about his performance is that it never lapses into boring, shambling depression — he always preserves the sense that something unpredictable is happening inside. In fact, he doesn’t think Wallander is depressed at all.“He has chosen to give away a casual sense of humour in return for an intensified sensitivity to other ways of observing human nature. It means he is more melancholy, but not sad or depressed. He wants life to be better.”
Branagh embodies Scandi-ness in the same way that Sofie Grabol did in 'The Killing', not least in his awareness of the setting. “The landscape was able to give the characters this deep brood, this possibility in big sky and big, flat landscape, that your own perfectly ordinary set of circumstances can somehow feed out and occupy a space and be provoked by a space. Wallander is unable not to take violent crime personally, and this makes for a very heady mixture.
“I found the first two series very disconcerting to play — to be there, usually on my own, and one just felt the atmosphere around one change. Also, you took on a certain Scandinavian experience — one was ready to talk about deep things very quickly with strangers and one’s humour became a sort of deadpan thing. You looked at people for longer and made eye contact sooner. And you rearranged your, er, furniture.” (This, in fact, could be a commentary on Bergman as well as Wallander.)
He thinks the English took to the show — and all the other Scandi stuff — because it provided a release from our implicit social conventions: emotional embarrassment, don’t be pretentious, don’t talk about important things to strangers. “Self-indulgence — cardinal British sin, talking about yourself. How dare you? Do you think you’re more important than me?”
Well, there he is, Sir Kenneth Branagh. But, on the other hand, there he isn’t. He remains an elusive figure. Why, for example, isn’t he running the National Theatre, the RSC or the Old Vic? Why can’t he be pinned down in some great and good role? Part of the reason is his evident need for mobility — he may now even be moving on from blockbuster movies. He is getting plenty of offers, but he’s not sure he’ll take any. He talks about some theatre possibilities after 'Wallander'. But also he seems to be allergic to meetings and committees; probably he’s not cynical enough.
“You go to those meetings, and they speak a language I don’t understand. They’re always speaking to ‘the chair’. I can’t talk to furniture.”
Instead, he lives with his wife, Lindsay Brunnock, and dogs in a house not far from Pinewood. He walks the dogs — “I’m very much amused by dogs” — reads, meditates twice a day and does nothing. “I do enjoy doing nothing: I’m happy to be sort of dead, walking around dead or just sitting and staring into space. I’m happy to do that. We also live quite a bohemian existence, going to shows and things.”
His friend John Sessions told him he hasn’t found his golf yet. But it’s a rotten game and, anyway, who needs it when you can be happily, uncynically dead with dogs?