The Wellesian Success of Citizen Branagh
Los Angeles Times, November 9
by Charles Champlin, Times Arts Editor
To film Shakespeare's "Henry
V" when Laurence Olivier's 1944 version is revered as a
classic seemed an audacity bordering on madness. But the blazing
reviews that Kenneth Branagh's "Henry V" is receiving
here and abroad suggest that Branagh has not only brought it
off, but in so doing has extended his reputation as a fearless
wonder child whose equal the English theater has not seen.
Branagh (rhymes with manna, as
from heaven) has inevitably been compared with Olivier himself,
to Branagh's impatience.
"It's essentially meaningless,"
Branagh said at lunch in Los Angeles during a quick visit for
the local opening of his film.
"We are nothing like each
other. He is the greatest actor of the century. The comparison,"
Branagh adds with a quick grin, "is annoying to people who
don't like my work, and also to those who expect the Second Coming."
Branagh might more accurately
be compared with Orson Welles, although his flamboyance does
not extend to capes and cigars and is concentrated on the stage
and before the cameras. But, still only 28, Branagh reveals much
of Welles' drive as what might be called an artistic entrepreneur.
On about $40,000 (depending on
which exchange rate you quote) raised in $800 dollops, Branagh
launched his Renaissance Theatre Company 2 1/2 years ago and
lost the whole investment on his first production, a contemporary
play he had written called "Public Enemy."
"A swift, horrible death
at the hands of the critics," he says. But the public who
saw it liked it, he adds, and one of the customers, Stephen Evans,
executive producer of "Henry V," helped raise money
for a second production, a hugely successful "Twelfth Night."
He also used an astonishing $75,000 advance for his autobiography.
The idea of a 27-year-old having that much to remember occasioned
some snide comments at home; then again Branagh has covered a
lot of ground.
By now Renaissance has done nine
productions, including the film and two plays for television.
Two more, "King Lear" and "A Midsummer Night's
Dream," which will play here in January as Branagh and the
Mark Taper Forum's Gordon Davidson announced Tuesday, are in
Branagh was born in Belfast,
Northern Ireland, to a working-class family, his father a carpenter
who moved the family to Reading, England, when Branagh was 9.
"In Reading, there were
three career choices for a school leaver: British Rail, insurance
or the army." On the basis of a school play, an encouraging
teacher and several trips to London to see professional theater,
Branagh decided to become an actor.
"I could see my father's
face collapse when I said it. For him all actors had to be shrieking
Branagh applied for the Royal
Academy of Dramatic Art, which each year has about 23 places
for 1,600 applicants. He brashly did "Hamlet" soliloquys.
Hugh Crutwell, who ran the academy, said immediately afterward:
"Everybody else wants to give you a place. But I found the
work 10-a-penny, 10-a-penny. I think you can do better. I'd like
you to do some more."
"He said I was performing,
not acting," Branagh says now. "There was so much I
didn't know, about the difference between energy and vitality,
all of it." He was accepted and graduated in 1981 with the
Bancroft Prize as best actor. Crutwell has since become an unofficial,
critical but supportive adviser on all of Branagh's projects.
Right from the Royal Academy
of Dramatic Art he made a considerable stir in the West End as
a Marxist schoolboy in "Another Country." He was seen
on American television co-starring with Emma Thompson in "Fortunes
of War," based on the Olivia Manning trilogy. He acted with
Jacqueline Bisset in the film "High Season." He and
Thompson, who plays Catherine in "Henry V" and will
play the Fool in "Lear," were married in August.
"At home in Reading,"
Branagh says, "there wasn't a book to be found, so I went
to the pictures all the time. I found I was studying the credits
very carefully. Who were these Westmores, who did all the makeup?
I started to notice the long tracking shots and say, 'Hey, that's
all one piece.' "
If he hadn't been an actor, he
would likely have become a journalist. "I wrote to a paper
and complained that they didn't have a young person reviewing
children's books. They let me do the reviews. No money but I
got to keep the books, and I was all set to join the paper when
I turned 16."
But the decision to act came
as what Branagh now calls "the gift of certainty."
He began to read every book he could find on theater history
and theater personalities, watched careers develop, noting with
pleasure the rise of Anthony Hopkins, for example.
Along with the gift of certainty
came a corollary conviction to one day have a company of strolling
players to bring theater to a wide audience. "I was fascinated
by what you can call the pre-director era of British theater,
when Gielgud, say, would do a season with a wonderful company,
Peggy Ashcroft and several others, and they could rehearse for
"I had the sense of being
connected to some kind of tradition, and I wanted to be part
of it. I could identify with the spirit of the actor, especially,
I suppose, being Irish-English and having moved from the working
class to the middle-class suburbs."
He remembers his parents seeing
one of his early Shakespeare performances and one of them saying,
"Oh, it's good, but we wouldn't really know, would we?"
It was his thought that if they liked it and followed it, that
was enough to know.
It is a populist dream of his,
which continues. In Los Angeles he had several conversations
with studio executives and producers attracted by the success
of "Henry V." Branagh, who has helped keep the Renaissance
Theatre Company afloat with his earnings as an actor, would like
to work here, not least to assure the company's popular outreach.
He undertook "Henry V"
with a clear vision, to create "an adventure with some subversive
notions." Olivier, making a film of thrilling patriotic
fervor on the eve of D-day, could not attend to the dark, antiwar
text or subtext Branagh found in Shakespeare.
The influence of those pictures
Branagh saw in Reading seems clear, the lessons of Ford, Hawks
and Welles. "I saw 'Citizen Kane' several times," Branagh
says. "And I had to keep remembering something Welles said
someplace: 'Be bold, be bold.' He also said you had to know everything
about film making, or nothing. You can't play safe. There's no
safe to play."
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