Introducing the 'New Olivier'
Los Angeles Times, January 6
by Nancy Mills
Contrary to its title, "Fortunes
of War" is not a tale about armies battling. Rather, the
seven-hour series, beginning Jan. 17 on PBS, recounts the experiences
of a young couple caught behind the lines during World War II.
The New York Review of Books describes Manning's two trilogies
as "the best glimpse we will probably ever have of World
War II in the Balkans and the Middle East."
Newly married Guy and Harriet
Pringle arrive in Romania in September, 1939, where Guy is a
professor in the English department of Bucharest University.
The Pringles' timing was awful, for Hitler had just marched into
Poland. The Romanian prime minister has just been assassinated
by the fascist Iron Guard. The Pringles eventually flee to Athens
and then to Cairo, seeing and occasionally involving themselves
in the terrible effects of the war. Meanwhile, their marriage
is in trouble.
"Olivia Manning wrote women's
novels, and this is what I'd call a woman's film," director
Jones says. "Audiences will expect a romantic heroine, but
Harriet is a go-ahead, fiercely independent woman. Guy is monstrously
selfish at times. Their relationship is a bit skated over in
the books, but it's become much more real in what we've filmed."
"Fortunes of War" may
be remembered in years to come as the vehicle that introduced
Kenneth Branagh to the world. The stocky, fair-haired Branagh,
who plays Guy Pringle, is considered by many in England to be
the heir apparent to Laurence Olivier.
Seven years ago, Branagh won
two "best newcomer" awards for his performance in the
London production of "Another Country," a part he got
straight from drama school. His subsequent performance in the
title role in "Henry V" for the Royal Shakespeare Company
raised superlatives from the pens of England's mightiest critics.
Since then, he has romped naked
on the beach with Jacqueline Bisset in the upcoming film comedy
"High Season" and has played a homosexual in a small
British film, "A Month in the Country." When "Fortunes
of War" ended, he planned to spend a year as actor/manager
of his own small London theater company, partly financed by his
In his BBC dressing room, just
after handing his "Fortunes" costume to the wardrobe
department for the last time, Branagh was both euphoric and depressed.
"There's a certain satisfaction at having completed what
at first seemed like an endless project," he said.
"When I read the script,
I realized I'd be mad not to do it. The characters seemed very
contemporary to me. I liked the very truthful and recognizable
way Alan Plater (the screenwriter) dramatized the development
of the relationship between Guy and Harriet.
"They didn't know each other
very well when they got married, and they did have things to
worry about -- like the proximity of death. Harriet's really
a forerunner of feminism. Guy's a very strong man, but like most
men he's got an emotional cut-off device. He's bright and sensitive
but chooses to blinker his feelings. He gets by on charm.
"I hated him when I first
read the books. Olivia Manning made him much more insensitive,
but Plater played up his own awareness of it. Guy's a great 'nearly
man.' He can't join up and fight because he's too short-sighted.
He's the golden youth. I see him as the English Dick Diver (F.
Scott Fitzgerald's tragic hero in 'Tender Is the Night'). His
great talent is to avoid thinking about it."
Branagh was born in Belfast but
has lived in England for the past 17 years. "I still have
what Olivia Manning says is this Irish-Anglo sense of belonging
nowhere. My enthusiasm and passion about the theater is not necessarily
English. I think it comes from my fiery, working class Celtic
Branagh intended to be a journalist.
"Then at 16 I started acting in plays at school," he
recalled, "and it happened. We were doing 'Oh, What a Lovely
War!' and my teacher said almost in passing, 'You could do this
professionally.' I was staggered. Then I became intoxicated with
His parents were very supportive,
he said, "even though they were frightened of the strange
world I was entering." His father runs a small company that
puts in suspended ceilings and partitions. "They're definitely
feet-on-the-ground folk. You can't impress them with things that
Branagh would rather not be compared
with the young Olivier. "It's a very painful road to go
down," he said. "I think there's been a lost generation
of actors -- like Albert Finney and Peter O'Toole -- who for
their own reasons decided to go their own way rather than try
to follow Olivier and Gielgud. I can understand why. You're always
being compared. Maybe after a great group of titans, a generation
or two has to pass."
His dream, he said, is to work
in America. "I'd like to take this play I've written, which
will open in my theater, to New York. I feel like I'm on the
threshold of my life. I hope the play's successful, but I expect
a lot of flak.
"Spending a year in the
theater, acting and managing, may be the wrong thing to do in
Britain. I know it's a commercial risk -- except I'm only 26."
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