Branagh Plots Career on His Own
Minneapolis Star Tribune, December
by David Gritten
If you were Kenneth Branagh,
what would you do? Your first major film to be released in the
United States, an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Henry V,"
wins you Oscar nominations for best actor and best director and
encourages comparisons between you and Laurence Olivier.
Then, your next film, the romantic
thriller "Dead Again," becomes a surprise hit, establishing
you as an actor/director held in high regard not only by critics,
but by the public as well.
So what do you do? You leave
your native Britain, move to Los Angeles and hang out waiting
for the next starring role in a big-budget movie, right?
That's what you do. But you're
not Kenneth Branagh.
Instead, Branagh is playing the
career game strictly on his own terms. After "Dead Again"
made him a name to reckon with in the United States, he returned
to Britain and started preparing to direct "Peter's Friends,"
a modest film in which he also acts in an ensemble cast of nine,
sharing equal billing.
This is not what you'd call a
calculating career move in Hollywood terms, but Branagh is more
than happy with the resulting movie.
"It's quite a personal little
film," he said. "It's about something I feel is important:
the value of friendship, and the power of it."
which has been described as a British "Big Chill,"
is a low-key, serio-comic film about a group of college friends
who reunite over New Year's weekend after a decade apart. They
come to realize how much more difficult life is in adulthood
than during the carefree days of college, and how comforting
one another's company can be.
"Friendship gives you illuminating
moments of great companionship in a difficult time," Branagh
said. "I notice that it's very nice to have friends - simple
as that. Yes, they can be trouble, but what else have we got?"
In fact, art mirrors life in
"Peter's Friends," because the cast list is littered
with close relationships. Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie were at
Cambridge University with Branagh's wife, Emma Thompson (who
has been in all of his movies), as was Tony Slattery, another
member of the cast. Comedian Rita Rudner cowrote the script with
her husband, Martin Bergman, who is a close friend of Branagh.
Thompson is joined by her mother, Phyllida Law. All in all, it's
quite a clique.
But why would Branagh, who receives
many lucrative offers from Hollywood, embark on a low-budget
project such as "Peter's Friends"? He says it's a statement
about the kind of movies he wants to make.
"It's not at all a cynical
film," he said. "I was determined, without being sanctimonious,
to send out a positive message. ... Films can shed some light.
I mean, I just got offered a script about a serial killer. And
while I don't want to put my head in the sand and pretend awful
things don't happen in the world, I do not wish to make a movie
about a serial killer."
He has completed his next film,
an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing."
But Branagh plans to keep Hollywood
at arm's length. He will accept acting roles in studio pictures
to finance his own movies, but his heart is in his own company,
Renaissance, which makes films and stages theatrical productions.
"They've got me down as
an actors' director, and they know I'm my own man," he said
of the big studios. "Beyond that, they don't know me, which
is fine: Keep them guessing."
At 31, Branagh is one of the
leading British stage actors of his generation; he recently played
Hamlet in a Royal Shakespeare Company production. He toured the
world with his own theater group. He can call the shots in the
movie business. And he has even published the first volume of
his autobiography - an act that caused some British critics to
attack his lack of modesty.
But Branagh said he aims to stay
in London. "I would like to make British films, by which
I mean films made here for a world audience," he said
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