Branagh Is Back from Wilderness

The Evening Standard, 20 March 2002
by Alison Roberts
** Thanks, Ngoc

Thirteen years ago, in October 1989, Kenneth Branagh released his film version of 'Henry V', and British cinema hailed a new Great White Hope. A week later, at 28, he published an autobiography to raise funds for his production company Renaissance, and the backlash began. Surely his talent wasn't large enough to justify such excessive confidence, carped the critics. Who was this guy who claimed Laurence Olivier's mantle, and then had the temerity to sell it to Hollywood?

Branagh's career since then has ploughed more troughs than it has hit peaks. Like many British actors, he has figured in a list of US-backed movies he'd prefer to forget - 'Wild Wild West', Danny Boyle's 'Alien Love Triangle', the period thriller 'The Proposition'. He remains, however, the most intelligent and flexible of actors and directors. No longer a whiz kid, he's beginning to enjoy the creative freedom that comes with a spell out of the limelight, and a happier private life.

Last night, Branagh mounted a stage in the leading role for the first time in 10 years, playing Richard III at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield. But he hasn't shunned the theatre entirely. Last year, he directed (and made a surprise guest appearance in) a rumbustious West End tribute to Morecambe and Wise, 'The Play What I Wrote'. "There is something about the current time," he said in the wake of 11 September, "that responds very well to two hours of comedy without irony."

Oddly, given his reputation as Super-Luvvie (a legacy of the dreadful film 'Peter's Friends'), Branagh is unclubbable. He has sat on the Arts Council Drama Panel and raised funds for Rada, but he is more likely to spend an evening in the pub playing pool and smoking Marlboro Lights than supping at The Ivy with public figures. To an extent, say his friends, Branagh has always been misjudged: the seemingly faux-Cockney vowels aren't all that faux at all. He's a long-term Spurs fan, has never lived anywhere but Britain - his mansion in Surrey is always open to friends - and his favourite comedians are old British heroes such as Morecambe and Wise.

His problem has been one of selection and judgment. After his 1996 movie version of Hamlet, four- and- a- half hours that divided critics and tested audiences, he took up a series of unchallenging Hollywood roles, and almost fell off the critical radar. Anyone remember 'The Theory of Flight', in which Branagh played the carer of a victim of motor neurone disease, played by his then girlfriend Helena Bonham Carter? Then came the musical version of 'Love's Labour's Lost', complete with a cast of American and British stars in 1930s costumes, received with acclaim but utterly lacking the sex appeal brought to Shakespeare by Baz Luhrmann, who had by then set the standard for popular, funky treatment of classics with 'Romeo and Juliet'. Branagh returned to seriousness with 'Conspiracy', a mesmerising TV drama set at the 1942 Wannsee Conference where the Holocaust was planned. He played SS General Reinhard Heydrich, a man of stunning impassivity and disturbing charm.

It was a virtuoso role, his first in years. "I have a fantastically privileged job," he said at the time, "and if it forms some larger purpose than entertainment - which it seems to me is a significant goal in itself - then in 'Conspiracy' it is the illumination of certain parts of the Holocaust experience." For Branagh, 'Conspiracy' and the second of his recent TV films, 'Shackleton', provided the kind of intellectual stimulation Hollywood rarely offers. Ultimately, he is rather a parochial actor and director - no bad thing - who has never been entirely comfortable making big-screen movies in America. Both Robert Altman's 'The Gingerbread Man' and Woody Allen's 'Celebrity', in which he played lead roles, failed to bring out the best in him.

'Conspiracy', meanwhile, has triumphed in America, earning him an Emmy for Best Actor and a Golden Globe nomination. There are signs that Branagh is overcoming his selection difficulties. This summer, he will appear as the misleadingly titled Chief Protector of Aborigines, Auber Octavius Neville - a man who attempted to erase Aboriginal culture by placing native children in white families - in a low-budget Australian movie called 'Rabbit-Proof Fence'. Picked up by Miramax at Cannes last year, the film has already drawn a buzz of favourable comment. Later this year, he introduces himself to a new generation as Gilderoy Lockhart in the second Harry Potter film, 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets'.

It's a combination that seems to sum up the new, middle-aged Ken Branagh - part mature character actor and part national treasure. Friends say he is also relishing a new-found privacy after intriguing relationships with two of Britain's most high-profile actresses. Astonishing success at a young age always produces great expectations. Perhaps it is only when an actor has nothing left to prove that he finally starts to fulfil them.

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