Roles That Are Poles Apart
Kenneth Branagh is serious and funny in movies this month

National Post, 29 November 2002
By Barrett Hooper

If Kenneth Branagh truly is the recluse the British press has been so quick to label him as -- his professional output the last couple of years amounts to a pair of Emmy Award nominations for best actor (he won for 2001's Conspiracy) and extensive voice-over work -- you wouldn't know it from movie marquees.

This month alone, the media-reluctant Shakespearean actor appears in two feature films, including one of the most highly publicized movies of the year, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and one of the most critically anticipated, Rabbit-Proof Fence.

In Harry Potter, Branagh steals every scene he's in as the buffoonish Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher Gilderoy Lockhart, all sweeping robes and towering vanity. In Rabbit-Proof Fence, based on a true story about three Aboriginal girls' trek across Depression-era Western Australia, Branagh does an about-face as a meticulous but misguided bureaucrat who oversees the relocation and re-education of Aborigines' children.

Branagh spoke with the National Post's Barrett Hooper recently from his hotel room in London.

Why did you want to be in Harry Potter?

I love the books. They appeal to the imagination. And the books contain quite a lot of lightly drawn satire. And I was not indifferent to the great send-up of celebrity the character is.

Gilderoy Lockhart is a kind of celebrity. He's ambivelent about celebrity. It all goes with the territory to him, and he embraces the idea that the world revolves entirely around him. He is the epitome of supreme confidence and supreme incompetence. And by playing him it also becomes a send-up on me, in a way, which quite frankly makes me rather nervous about what people think of me.

In what way are you like the vainglorious Gilderoy Lockhart?

I'm not sure I am like Gilderoy. Just because I'm in the public eye does not mean that I enjoy being in the public eye. Gilderoy would comment on anything. He'd attend the opening of an envelope, as they say.

You're a four-time Academy Award nominee [as best actor and director for 1989's Henry V, best adapted screenplay for 1997's Hamlet, and for best live action short film in 1993] and you wrote your memoirs when you were 29. That takes no small amount of ego.

Significant ego. Ego of created ambition. Not narcissism. I cannot pretend to be an unflawed human being. And I cannot take myself too seriously.

Yet Rabbit-Proof Fence is a very serious film.

Again, the director [Phillip Noyce] was very passionate about this story, the stolen generations in Australia. It's a small story about a huge, complicated subject. But it's not treated in a polemical way. The story is unbearably moving. It's a sort of meditation on the subject. It felt like an important film but not a pretentious one.

And again, you're playing a bad character opposite three children.

But he's not a pantomime villain. There's inner conflict about him. He's genuinely fascinated with [Aboriginal] culture and he believes he's doing the right thing. He's passionate about it, in a sense.

What are you passionate about?

Directing, producing, writing, a desire to present a story. And I like a nice big part. Just kidding.

What are you working on now?

I'm directing for the stage here in the West End. It's called That Play What I Wrote. It's a tribute to the British comedy duo Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise, and it requires a real-life celebrity to appear each night [Ralph Fiennes, Kylie Minogue and Posh Spice have all taken part]. And it's two hours of daft entertainment, nothing more. A vast amount of slapstick of hysterical quality. And we're bringing that to Broadway in March with Mike Nichols producing, where it will either run for five minutes or a long time. It all depends on which stars I can convince to show up.

Any plans to return to film?

I've recently written and directed a short film called Listening. It's an experiment for me after these big Hollywood-sized films. I like the economy of the short format, the chance to practise telling a story. This is a pure piece of cinema for me, moreso than anything else I've done. I'll hopefully be taking it around to film festivals. Beyond that I'm really not quite sure. I'm rather hoping J.K. Rowling writes me into the next book so I can return to Hogwarts.

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