A 'New Olivier' Is Taking on Henry V
New York Times, January 8 1989
by Michael Billington
Any exciting young British actor
is almost inevitably dubbed ''the new Olivier.'' But in the case
of 27-year-old Kenneth Branagh, the comparison is unavoidable.
He went straight from drama school
into a West End hit, Julian Mitchell's ''Another Country.'' He
left the Royal Shakespeare Company to form his own Renaissance
Theater Company, for which he has written one play, directed
another and this year played Hamlet, Benedick and Touchstone
in a sold-out nationwide tour and London season.
And no sooner had the curtain
fallen on that than he was on the floor at Shepperton Studios
directing and starring in his own screen adaptation of ''Henry
V'' - something not even Olivier did till he had reached the
ripe old age of 36.
Unruly-haired and firm-jawed,
Mr. Branagh is clearly a young man in a hurry. What is most striking
about him, however, is his determination to control his own destiny,
which is partly explained by his complex background. ''I have,''
he says, ''what Olivia Manning calls the Anglo-Irish sense of
belonging nowhere.'' Born into a Protestant, working-class Belfast
family, he was uprooted at the age of 9 to a middle-class suburb
in Reading, 50 miles outside London. He remarks wanly of Reading
that ''I feel, rather like Oscar Wilde, that the best way to
see it is going through on a train.''
Like a lot of displaced people,
he found a surrogate home in the theater. As a teen-ager, he
studied theater magazines with fanatical zeal, skipped school
games to go to London shows and fell under Olivier's dark, mesmerizing
spell: He remembers reading avidly about the peak years of Olivier's
National Theater company in the 1960's and looking in a biography
at the amazing array of Protean faces all belonging to one man.
Even before leaving drama school,
he was cast as a teen-age Marxist in ''Another Country,'' a work
that suggested that the British pattern of upper-class treachery
had its origins in public-school life. A year later, he was at
Stratford-on-Avon playing a pensive, troubled, post-Falklands
Henry V appalled by the degradation of a war he had been assured
was just. But, after a season with the R.S.C., Mr. Branagh left
the company, feeling that the organization had grown over-large
His immediate answer was to set
up (with fellow-actor David Parfitt) the Renaissance Theater
Company, investing $15,000 he had earned in a dim film called
''High Season.'' The company started small, with Mr. Branagh
starring in his own play, ''Public Enemy,'' about a footloose
Belfast youngster with a Cagney fixation. He went on to direct
a much-admired, Victorian version of ''Twelfth Night.''
But the big push came this past
year when Renaissance toured Britain (and Elsinore) with three
Shakespeares directed by three star actors making their directorial
debut: Derek Jacobi (''Hamlet''), Judi Dench (''Much Ado About
Nothing'') and Geraldine McEwan (''As You Like It''). Besides
being a Renaissance man, Mr. Branagh also found time to star
in a BBC drama, ''Fortune of War,'' and to make an acclaimed
film, ''A Month in the Country.''
With all options currently open
to him, why does Mr. Branagh specifically want to make a film
of ''Henry V''?
''Even before I played it at
Stratford,'' he says, ''I had a strong feeling about this particular
piece. I feel it has been unjustly treated as a jingoistic hymn
to England. Olivier's film, because it was made in 1943, inevitably
became a propaganda vehicle and cut out the less amiable aspects
of Henry's character. There was no mention of his threat to the
Governor of Harfleur to show 'your naked infants pitted upon
''Whereas Olivier's Henry was
a knight in shining armor, I feel the play is about a journey
toward maturity. It is about a young monarch who at the beginning
is burdened with guilt because his father has unlawfully seized
the crown, who has a sometimes precarious relationship with his
men but who, by the end, has learned abut true leadership. It
is also a fascinating debate about war, in which the action can
turn upon a sixpence. One minute Shakespeare shows Henry at his
true heroic zenith. The next he gives you the hideous reality
The film is being made under
the banner of Renaissance Films on a $10 million budget largely
assembled by its executive producer, Stephen Evans. The financing
comes from a variety of sources, including a government-sponsored
business expansion plan, BBC TV and a small army of private investors.
The money has been shrewdly spent.
Walking round the Shepperton lot, Mr. Branagh points out that
60 percent of the film will be shot on two sound stages and that
Agincourt will be re-created in the surrounding fields (Olivier
spent a quarter of his $600,000 budget shooting the battle scenes
in Ireland). He points to a vast wall on the back lot that will
serve for Harfleur and for a night-shoot of ''Once more unto
the breach,'' with the King desperately trying to stem the retreating
tide of soldiers. He also points to slit trenches being dug in
the ground and providing an instant visual reminder of World
War I. ''I want,'' he says, ''to make a popular film that will
both satisfy the Shakespearean scholar and the punter who likes
'Crocodile Dundee.' ''
Mr. Branagh insists that the
film will look very different from the Olivier version. ''It
will show,'' he claims, ''a much darker world, with less picture-book
medieval prettiness. The costumes will be simplified rather than
decorative. The Chorus - Derek Jacobi - will be used in a Brechtian
way, starting on a deserted film stage rather than in a mock-up
of the Globe. Also where Olivier made the French effeminate fops,
I want to treat them as an enemy worth fighting and suggest that
they belong to a different, highly civilized European world.
''Above all, I believe the story
has more suspense if you feel that the English have no chance,
that the army is in a state of disrepair and decay, that discipline
is ragged and that the heroism on display is spiritual as well
Mr. Branagh doesn't deny that
he has been influenced by the thinking behind Adrian Noble's
anti-romantic R.S.C. production in which he starred. But isn't
there a certain chutzpah in challenging our memories of Olivier's
''My answer to that,'' he says,
''is that the man is the man he is and has done what he has done.
I'm not making this film to see if I can score a draw with Olivier,
but because I passionately believe that all of Shakespeare's
plays need to be constantly re-interpreted. It happens all the
time in the theater. Olivier plays Richard III, then Antony Sher
comes up with a wholly different conception of a crutch-bound
cripple, and now this year at Stratford, Anton Lesser overturns
that idea. If Olivier even knows about this film, I suspect he
thinks 'cheeky bastard.' But the point is that, if a previous
'Henry V' film had existed, it certainly wouldn't have stopped
For Mr. Branagh, the film is
the culmination of the work Renaissance has done over the last
18 months. He is very proud of the fact that 90 percent of the
current theater company will be in the film (including Judi Dench
and Geraldine McEwan): the few newcomers include Paul Scofield
as the King of France, Ian Holm as Fluellen and Alex McCowen
as Ely. He has also taken care to surround himself with a crew
(including the director of photography, Kenneth MacMillan, and
the production designer, Tim Harvey) with whom he has worked
on either ''Fortunes of War'' or ''A Month in the Country.''
The fact remains, however, that
directing a film on this scale is a huge and daunting undertaking.
''You are talking,'' he says,
''to a man who has done a crash course in film history. Orson
Welles said that when you make a film you should either know
everything or very little. I'm not saying which I know, but I
have watched endless war films, from 'Chimes at Midnight' to
'Platoon' and 'Oh, What a Lovely War' to 'The Longest Day.' I've
also story-boarded every scene so that I know just how each sequence
''And when the technical crew
asks me if I want to use a 'hothead' or a 'chewy,' I simply look
them in the eye and ask them what they mean. I also have my old
drama-school principal on hand, to monitor my own performance,
and an actor who has played Henry V on stage to stand in for
me. Because of the timetable, there simply isn't time to get
Mr. Branagh constantly stresses
that he wants to make a popular, accessible film. But there are
points in ''Henry V'' - such as the King's guilt about his father's
seizure of the crown - that only make sense if you know the preceding
''I get round this,'' says Mr.
Branagh, ''by beginning with a voice-over speech from 'Richard
II,' which dwells on the fragility of kingship. We then see Henry's
features looking out to sea, which I hope will convey the idea
of a haunted man in a state of agitation. The audience will intuit
that Henry is a young man whose conscience is troubled by the
sins of the past. But, in general, I want to avoid the kind of
voice-over soliloquizing that Olivier used both in his 'Henry
V' and 'Hamlet,' because I feel some bit of the actor is denied
when you do that. I also want to go for a non-declamatory style
of speaking. What one is after is an under-the-skin effect, whereby
one astonishes people with how naturalistic the verse seems.''
For the moment, all of Mr. Branagh's
energies are focused on the film (to be released next October
on St. Crispin's Day). But already he is pondering the future
of Renaissance. Next year, he plans to direct ''Hedda Gabler''
on stage with Emma Thompson (his co-star in ''Fortunes of War''
and Princess Katherine in ''Henry V''), to set up a British and
world tour of ''King Lear'' and ''A Midsummer Night's Dream''
and even to create a season of as many as seven new plays.
Oddly, for someone whose schedule
is so crowded, Mr. Branagh wonders if he is becoming unemployable.
''I'm not sure,'' he says, ''if
people see me as a Bolshie young so-and-so, but I swear I'd be
perfectly happy to work for someone else. Next year, I may have
to because I am now flat broke. But if any one thing pleases
me about what Renaissance has achieved, it is that we have proved
that actors can direct. Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench and Geraldine
McEwan all say that their directors now treat them differently
because they have shown their own capacity.''
What the future holds for Kenneth
Branagh is anyone's guess. But when a friend recently asked him
if he would like to be running Britain's National Theater in
30 years time, he simply laughed. Given his current rate of progress,
30 years seems like a very conservative estimate.could be 40
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