Kenneth Branagh: Hero or Luvvie?
James Cameron-Wilson assesses
ES, November 1994
In America, ambition makes dough. In Britain, it makes enemies
of the media. And nobody in recent years has suffered the slings
and arrows of the press more than Kenneth Branagh.
And he is ambitious. At 15, he
had his own column, Junior Bookshelf, in a local newspaper. At
23, he was the youngest actor to play Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare
Company. At 28, he had his autobiography (Beginning) out in the
shops. And a year after that he directed his first film, Henry
V, in which he also starred, and was Oscar-nominated on both
accounts. Since then he's directed three more films: Dead Again,
Peter's Friends, and Much Ado About Nothing, which were all box
office hits. And this month sees his fifth directorial outing,
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Opening in a blaze of expectation,
Branagh plays Frankenstein, with Robert De Niro costarring as
Kenneth Branagh has also written
his own play, Public Enemy, wrote the music and lyrics for Tell
Me Honestly, founded his own stage company, the Renaissance Theatre
Group, and film company, Renaissance Films. And we musn't forget
that he's married to Britain's most in-demand actress, Emma Thompson,
an Oscar recipient for Howards End and recent co-star of such
Hollywood icons as Arnold Schwarznegger and Robert Redford.
Yet, for all the success heaped
on this young man's shoulders (Branagh is still only 33), he
is, by all means, remarkably shy and self-deprecatory. So why
all the print-stained vitriol?
"I know on the whole the
press are not three-headed monsters," Branagh concedes.
"I know a lot of the people who have written ghastly things
about me. But I think in Britain you go through a cycle -- you
get discovered, then maybe you get a little too popular or too
lauded. Maybe it's the nature of this country, it's so small
and insular that you go through a kind of family relationship
and get told off a lot."
But, with a family like the British
press, who needs enemies? In the media, Branagh has been slapped
with the indifferent label of a "luvvie", has been
accused of being "enormously egotistical", and of giving
"lifeless" performances. Even his personal life has
come under attack, with rumors of divorce bristling in the tabloids.
A recent report had Emma Thompson bunking up with Denzel Washington.
And if that's not enough to live with, even Branagh's niceness
has been criticized.
"People cannot accept that
I'm not some kind of monster," he says, "and therefore
that must render me without a certain amount of passion. You
have to be like that otherwise you're somehow lacking. People
love to say, 'He's this or he's that, and if I can't work him
out then he must be bland.' Just because you can't see it doesn't
mean it isn't there. If people care to look, there is a lot of
passion in my roles."
Indeed, the Sunday Times noticed
it. The newspaper observed that "there are some who credit
Branagh with talent backed by furious energy, rather than genius."
So is Branagh passionate or not? And if he's not brushed with
a glint of genius, what does that say for the rest of the British
theatre and film industry?
Truth be known, his sheer passion
and enthusiasm for his vocation has coaxed the likes of Sir John
Gielgud, Sir Derek Jacobi and Dame Judi Dench to work with him
on the radio (for negligible monetary return) and for such American
stars as De Niro, Robin Williams, Michael Keaton, Keanu Reeves,
Denzel Washington and Andy Garcia to support him in his movies.
He is virtually a one-man film industry, making quality British
pictures that attract enormous audiences. And we're not talking
recognisably commercial enterprises like Four Weddings and a
Funeral, but the box office no-no of William Shakespeare.
For Branagh, one of the most
satisfying aspects of his success is that he has managed to make
Shakespeare accessible through his films. At schools without
the wherewithal to transport students to the theatre, teachers
can rent out videos of Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing. He
admits in characteristically modest tones, "I don't feel
very confident technically. I just hope my enthusiasm for the
subject overcomes my inexperience."
And he's still in awe of the
talent that comes flocking to work around him. "I've always
found it extremely difficult, and still scared to pick up the
phone when you have to ask someone more famous or experienced
to do something, it really does require a great deal of courage
from me, and I usually have to write some kind of script down.
When I approached Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi to work with Renaissance,
it took me days just to pick up the phone."
His new film, shot on a budget
approaching $50 million, is his most ambitious to date and, besides
De Niro, features Helena Bonham Carter, Ian Holm, John Cleese
and Richard Briers, as well as the American Film stars Aidan
Quinn and Tom Hulce. And more impressive still, it is produced
by Francis Ford Coppola.
With typical humility, Branagh
relates, "Francis was a big help with De Niro because he
knows him well. He introduced me to him. In fact, I had the unique
experience of sitting in the back of a yellow cab in New York
with The Godfather on one side and Raging Bull on the other and
the two of them talking across me."
But for all the pressures from
Hollywood to up sticks and move Over There, Branagh insists,
"I'm very firmly committed to being in this country. My
deal with Frankenstein was 'I'll be delighted to do it provided
I can do it in Britain.' I'm fascinated by Hollywood but I don't
want to live there. It's important to work where there's an appetite
for work, where there's a vacuum, and there is over here. My
future is absolutely tied up with making movies in this country."
So give our Boy Wonder a break.
We need him. And for the time
being, we've still got him.
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