Branagh Undaunted As The 'Next Olivier'
San Diego Union-Tribune, November
by Bill Hagen
Blessing or curse, for better
or worse, Kenneth Branagh has been anointed the reigning "next
Branagh smiled thinly, perhaps
a mite painfully, when reminded of the honor, however fleeting.
"I'm the new next Olivier,'
" he said. "This week's or this month's next Olivier.'
Every young British actor, if he's any good at all, at some time
in his career will be called, by someone, the next Olivier.'
It could be a burden if it were taken seriously, but no one takes
it seriously. Not Paul Scofield, not Derek Jacobi, not Peter
O'Toole, not Richard Burton, not Ian McKellen. Certainly not
by me. They were all next Olivers,' too. And others.
"That dubious title doesn't
mean anything, except, perhaps, to the already-larger-than-life
reputation of Laurence Olivier. It reinforces his position as
the greatest actor of this century, perhaps the greatest actor
ever. There'll never be a next Olivier.' It's a sport in England,
passing on the mythical mantle."
So Branagh is flattered but underwhelmed
by the accolade. But he has furnished additional ammunition for
those who would so regard him with his directorial debut in feature
movies, which is Branagh's adaptation of Shakespeare's "Henry
V." Branagh, of course, plays Henry. So did Olivier, on
screen, in 1944. Comparisons, then, are inevitable.
To Branagh's thinking, it's like
comparing apples and oranges.
"The two films are completely
different," Branagh said. "Olivier made a wonderful
film that captured another time, another era."
Olivier was also at least partially
motivated, Branagh said, by patriotism at a time when England
yearned for heroes.
Branagh was motivated, again
partially, by something less rousing than nationalism but admirable,
which is to make Shakespeare accessible and interesting to the
masses. Or, as he said, to make a movie that would appeal to
Shakespearean scholars and to fans of "Crocodile Dundee."
"To attract high school
kids," he said, "you have to have something that moves
pretty swiftly. You have to get them to relax and convince them
they can understand it. So getting across the image of the film
as something that, just on the crudest level, is a great adventure
story is important. And beyond that, there's what Shakespeare
has to say about war and leadership and other things.
"We've tried to present
Henry V' as naturalistically as possible. We've taken a lot of
license with period. We've tried to make it for today, to make
it look and feel like a movie, not a filmed play. We want them
to respond to it as a film, not as some kind of cultural pill
they're being forced to swallow.
"The demystification process
works slowly but surely, at least that seems to be the case in
England. The crossover has been great, and I'm cautiously optimistic
that word-of-mouth will break down the Shakespearean barrier,
if that's the word.
"The thing about Shakespeare
is, we're stuck with this guy. The world's stuck with him. He's
the planet's playwright. We have to study him throughout school.
And he's either done well, utterly real and understandable and
still makes perfect sense and is relevant, or he's done badly
and is the most arse-paralyzing experience you could wish to
have. It's funny that Shakespeare exists in those extremes, but
Branagh, 28, was born in Belfast,
moved to England at age 9 and later enrolled in the Royal Academy
of Dramatic Art, winning several major awards over the course
of seven seasons there. His credits also include two years with
the Royal Shakespeare Company. He has hardly limited himself
to the classics, however, including among his credits "The
Fortunes of War" for British television.
Nor has he limited himself to
acting. He's a writer, a director and a producer. Two years ago
he was instrumental in the formation of the Renaissance Theater
Company, which will stage "King Lear" and "A Midsummer
Night's Dream" at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles from
Jan. 21 to March 4. Branagh will direct "Lear."
But for the time, Branagh's focus
was on "Henry V," on behalf of which he had subjected
himself to an exhausting promotional tour that was winding down
at sunset in San Diego. The movie opened this week in Los Angeles
and New York, will open here Dec. 15 in the Park Theatre.
Branagh worked for three years
to get backing for the project, and if he wasn't daunted by the
prospect of following Olivier, potential backers were.
"There was," he said,
"a lot of how dare you, who do you think you are?' and how
can you do it, you haven't directed before?' Eventually the BBC
put a half-million pounds into what was an $8-million budget,
and that gave the project a kind of solidity."
As part of his research into
the character of Henry V, Branagh sought and was granted time
with Prince Charles. The allotted 15 minutes turned into three
"It was very helpful, and
very gracious of him," Branagh said. "He gave me insights.
I met somebody I thought was combining the same things I wanted
to incorporate into Henry V. He was compassionate, a deeply honorable
man in a non-priggy way. He's continually questioning and open.
I felt that about Henry V. He's a man trying to lead an honorable
life. I feel Prince Charles to be a tremendously genuine man.
"So I took away from there
the sense of a man who takes his job very seriously, a man who
has a real melancholy about him. Not sadness, but a melancholy.
As if wisdom has been achieved at some personal cost. And Henry
certainly has that. I think Prince Charles, like Henry, feels
as though he's always going to be lonely, always going to be
isolated. I think he's accepted that, and it informs his own
being. It was rare to see that kind of quiet courage face to
Now Branagh will await reaction
to "Henry V," but he has already received one great
accolade, this from a teen-ager in London who approached him
on the street and said, "Hey, I know you. You're Henry.
Our teacher made us go see your film. Bloody brilliant, it is.
You're good, too."
"I treasure that review,"
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