The Many Faces of Kenneth Branagh
Houston Chronicle, August 25,
by Bruce Westbrook
30-year-old directs and stars
in ambitious movie, but that's nothing new
He arrived in Hollywood as a
Only a few years out of his teens,
he'd made as many waves as the Atlantic. He'd won major awards.
He'd won critical acclaim. He'd become a revered actor and director.
In short, a genius.
No, not Orson Welles in 1941.
Kenneth Branagh in 1991.
The Irish-born Branagh , 30,
made his name in the London theater. But with 1989's "Henry
V," he made a bigger impact in movies, winning big audiences,
prestigious British awards and Oscar nominations for best actor
So when Branagh went to Hollywood
to make "Dead Again," which opened this weekend in
Houston, to some he seemed like Welles, the boy genius who went
west to make the classic "Citizen Kane." But Branagh
(the "h" is silent) dismisses such notions as rubbish.
"Having done just one picture
before," he said, "I didn't think of myself as a genius
but as a very lucky boy indeed, who'd worked with a very good
script on my first film" - a facetious reference to Shakespeare
- "and was surrounded by very good people."
Branagh was calling from a brief
stop in Dallas. Soon he returns to London, where he lives with
Emma Thompson, his wife and his co-star in "Henry V"
and "Dead Again. " In "Dead Again," they
each play two roles: a contemporary LA private eye and an amnesiac
woman trying to learn her identity, and (in flashbacks) a doomed
'40s couple whose lives the woman recalls while under hypnosis
- hypnosis that suggests they may be reincarnations of the couple
whose marriage ended in murder.
This tale is a far cry from Shakespeare,
but Branagh feels his thriller is just as artistic in its own
"What a great yarn,"
he said of Scott Frank's screenplay, which careens through a
wild melee of events and characters, embellished by quirky humor
and filmic references ranging from Welles' "Kane" to
Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo."
In favor of living writers
Branagh doesn't consider his
"Henry" "artsy" either, but a populist entertainment,
just as it was in the Bard's days. His goal was to bring Shakespeare
to a larger audience "and make the distinction between high
and low culture a little less wide."
With "Dead Again,"
Branagh said he was "very pleased to be working with a living
writer. You shouldn't canonize dead writers at the expense of
living ones. I don't think Shakespeare would have approved of
He and Scott "share the
same sense of humor. We want to thrill people but make them laugh,
too. That's part of a thriller. That's what stops it from being
a horror movie."
He said he watched many Hitchcock
movies before starting the shoot. But he also credits the inspiration
of Brian De Palma's "Obsession," which follows in Hitchcock's
"De Palma at his best has
that sense of delight in the genre," Branagh said. "I
love it, too. Many of us have been brought up on those films.
They're a big part of our visual vocabulary."
Dead Again has a strong sense
of fun, but Branagh , who went "from a standing start with
no formal film education," says making movies is "stressful."
To direct himself, he uses video
monitors to screen scenes just after shots and relies on comments
from colleagues. But that didn't make "Dead Again"
"At the end the of day I
had no neck left," Branagh said. "My shoulders were
up around my ears. My brows were furrowed. It wasn't that I was
unhappy, but I had to be everywhere to keep things moving.
"In Hollywood, I was very
conscious of being in very serious company," he said. "On
the next sound stage was Mike Nichols, then Demi Moore, then
"Soapdish," then "Star Trek." I was surrounded
by people who'd been making movies a lot longer, and I didn't
think, `Let me show you.' I was quietly keeping to myself and
hoping I wasn't messing up."
Such humility may sound strange
coming from a man whose first film was an audacious remake of
Laurence Olivier's Oscar-winning 1945 "Henry V" - and
who wrote his autobiography at age 28.
"Well, I wrote that for
a large sum of money that I needed for my theater company, so
my head's not as big as all that," Branagh said.
"My feet are on the ground.
I've got enough people around me making "sure" they're
on the ground - including my wife. She's "nailed" them
to the ground."
Unlike some couples, they find
working together is not a strain.
"Emma prepares and works
hard and is very flexible," Branagh said. "She can
do things very differently from take to take. She's good with
other actors. And we don't take the work home, thank God."
Thompson is now making a film
on her own. "Working together is not something we'll do
exclusively," Branagh said.
But he was adamant about them
playing both "Dead Again" roles.
"It adds immeasurably to
the twists and the surprises," he said, "and you get
more of a sense that it's a love story about two souls, not four
Making time for theater, too
Also, Branagh thinks the fact
that he and Thompson aren't yet recognizable to many people helps
serve the material.
"That way the story is free
to be told," he said. "The plot really is the star
of the film."
Besides, Branagh said he "can't
conceive of myself as a movie star."
For now, he plans to rest and
decide if movies are even in his future. "I've been working
solidly now for 10 years and want to take some time out.
"I'd love to find a balance
between films and theater, because I love them both," he
said. "But I want time to consider how feasible that is,
because it "is" a juggling match and I don't want to
Regardless of his decision, "I
won't be moving to Hollywood," Branagh said firmly. "But
going there from Europe to make a picture really was fun. I pinched
myself every day at the excitement of that opportunity."
And with that, the wonder boy
who's more of a boy in wonder bid goodbye with a soft "cheerio."
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