Branagh A Rising Maestro of Film and Theater
San Diego Union-Tribune, August
by David Elliott
Great Britain no longer has the
world's greatest empire. But -- such is historical compensation
-- the British give great interviews.
It's resonantly, ar-tic-u-late-ly
Were I magically able to summon
like Merlin a round table of my favorite interview subjects,
those who put conversation above promotion and knew how to tell
a good story, more than half of those invited would be British:
Cary Grant, Michael Caine, Alfred Hitchcock, Glenda Jackson,
Peter Ustinov, David Hemmings, John Cleese, Julie Walters and
Terry Gilliam (American by birth and humor, yet English by adoption
And now Kenneth Branagh, actor
and director. Born in Northern Ireland, he is at 30 one of the
United Kingdom's rising maestros of theater, and his sway extends
to film. His "Henry V" won Oscar nominations, excited
comparisons to Olivier, and gathered more box-office coin than
Olivier's 1943 filming of the play.
Branagh recently returned to
Hollywood, tying the ribbon on his first American movie. Opening
Friday, it's called "Dead Again" and is a work of creative
nerve: A talky, tricky noir mystery inlaid with comedy, set in
Los Angeles, fed by American money, with Sydney Pollack as executive
director, but a largely English cast and crew directed by Branagh.
The stars include Branagh and
Emma Thompson in double roles that alternate ornate English and
plain American accents. Scott Frank's plot, involving reincarnation
and melodramatic motives, cuts between modern L.A., shot in color,
and the city of the '40s, filmed in silvery black-and-white.
"I never came here thinking
I've just got to make an American film," remarks Branagh,
a figure of welcoming amiability in his hotel suite. In height
about 5 feet 10 inches, he has a sturdy build, a doughy complexion,
thin lips and eyes that light on alternating current: merry or
canny. He did not employ his credible American accent when he
first shopped among the studios for support:
"I did have some trepidation.
I had arrived in January of '90 with two plays, King Lear' and
A Midsummer Night's Dream,' at the Mark Taper Forum. Henry V'
had just opened and was doing well. I wanted to make a film of
Thomas Hardy's Return of the Native.' So I showed that script
"And the feeling I got back
was, Oh God, he only does Shakespeare and Hardy. Well, Hardy
practically is Shakespeare, isn't he? We can't do that again!'
Even when I explained that I had shaped Henry V' as a popular
piece, and I was prepared to do so again with the Hardy story,
which cries out for the big screen, that just didn't cut much
Still, there was a fluttering
of courtship. Branagh was young, bright, praised and on-budget,
and almost Oscared. Frank's "Dead Again" script was
pitched to Branagh, and he was "bowled over, though it needed
changes. Really, you have to go on that gut enthusiasm, or how
could you ever find the energy to go the distance on a film?
"I couldn't put it down.
It appealed to my love of mystery and ingenious plots, even preposterous
ones dealing in reincarnation. God knows how far down the line
of possible directors I was. I must say it was being offered
around before Ghost' came out. I liked all the words -- never
had any interest in a generic thriller with car chases -- and
I liked it that the hero gets into a fight and doesn't come off
very well. It's refreshing: a human hero."
Hitchcock was abundantly a style
source. Branagh burbles with pleasure in drawing upon the master,
from his own pool of memory:
"Those were among the first
films I saw on television, in Belfast, where I lived 'til I was
9. Every Saturday afternoon the BBC-2 had matinees, with Hitchcocks
like Notorious,' Rebecca' and Dial M for Murder,' and also strange
B pictures with stars like Dana Andrews and Victor Mature, and
I'd always study the credits because I wanted to know who these
makers of magic were.
Vocabulary of images
"The dark power of those
American images was so intense, and they felt curiously like
home ground to me. It gave me a vocabulary of images, and remembered
lines, that are irretrievably there, deep inside me. I didn't
go to theater 'til I was 16, and then sort of transferred my
love from film to stage. Even in doing theater I will often tap
into that vocabulary of film images to create atmospheres or
effects. Now, luckily, I can serve both loves."
Did he restudy the classics,
before embarking on "Dead Again"?
"Oh, boy, I went through
a bundle of pictures. Most of Hitchcock, and Welles, also. And
The Third Man' and some more modern films. The noir keeps going,
doesn't it? Unlike westerns and musicals it still seems relevant
to our lives, and it's fun to work them out on both the heart
and head levels.
"It was a very tough shoot.
The script went through many drafts. We had to have rehearsal
time to straighten out how we'd do the multiple story stuff;
if any red lights went off, I wanted it to be before shooting.
I had to storyboard many sequences."
As for the accents, "We
worked very hard -- or I should say, real hard -- to get it down.
I would go off on weekends and just be' an American guy. No problem
of my being recognized, over here. It was funny, though, because
I kept running into people from Japan or Mexico or the Philippines,
and they wouldn't have noticed if my accent was terrible!
"Both Emma Thompson and
I have Celtic roots, and I think that helps us with voices. I
once had a very hard Belfast accent, and had to learn that softer
English speech, where dear' becomes deah' and near' becomes neah.'
You either have an ear for it, or you don't. I never wanted a
very specific American voice, where someone would listen and
then say, Oh, you're from that part of Milwaukee.' "
The filming did not make Branagh's
head swell, for all the laurels heaped on it when he wore Henry
V's crown. He modestly avows, "I needed tons of help. This
was only my second film as director, and as a stranger in a strange
land I needed people to pull with me, fill in all my blanks of
technical ignorance. I had to set up base camp for our effort,
and then edit our choices, but without the team, largely the
same I used for Henry,' I would have been lost."
Walking Welles' floor
Instead, he had the joy of finding
himself on the most hallowed ground of movie history. With a
warm smile Branagh recalls the day when "we were shooting
on the lot and I was told that part of the set had been used
for the house in Rebecca.' And on another stage, at the old RKO
lot, Orson Welles had filmed part of Xanadu for Citizen Kane.'
And I thought, however this thing goes, it's an enormous thrill
to walk the same floor 50 years after Welles did."
Noir buffs also note a modern
homage, for the Art Deco apartment with an elevator tower used
in "Dead Again" was that of Phillip Marlowe (Elliott
Gould) in Robert Altman's great 1973 revision of Raymond Chandler's
"The Long Goodbye."
"The texture of that place
was so wonderful," says Branagh. "The city had to be
used with love, as it was in the old films. I felt a very strong
pull from Los Angeles. Filming there was a fantasy dream come
true. Though not without its agonies."
And laughs. Playing an antiques
dealer who dabbles in seances and crime, Derek Jacobi has a plummy
burst of stuttering that echoes his famous vocal fumbling as
Claudius on TV's "I, Claudius." Yet according to Branagh,
"that bit was in the script before we hired Derek. Still,
it's a delicious thing for him to do, and I'm sure it will cause
comment back in Britain."
Meanwhile, back in Britain, Branagh
has co-directed an "Uncle Vanya" now on tour. He'd
like to take some months off, perhaps not in his London flat
but "a little place we have up in Scotland. I love the rough
weather and wildness. Just to be reading in a warm room surrounded
by cold -- delightful!"
And next year, "I'd like
to direct another picture, perhaps Shakespeare, after I do a
Shakespearean play in the spring, perhaps Richard III.' I'd like
to film one of his comedies. Henry V' did so well all over the
world, and now it is big in schools, so I shall return to film
more of his work, assuming this crazy lottery of a game allows
But it is Hardy's "Return
of the Native" that really churns his soul, and he places
hope in the guess that "every decade there's room for another
Hardy picture. Like Far From the Madding Crowd' in the '60s,
Tess' in the '80s. And this is just such a great story! Sex,
"It takes place over a year
and had a classic combination of couples, in a rural society,
very primitive, with witchcraft and passionate, independent women.
And sex and romance and power! It could be pure cinema, a big-scale
job, almost a David Lean sort of picture."
Inevitably we talk about Lean's
last project, an epic based on Conrad's "Nostromo,"
aborted by his death last spring. Branagh doubts that the already
famed script will ever make it to screen:
"Who could possibly do it,
who would have the nerve? I feel so sad about all the people
who worked for it to happen. I have an actor friend who went
to several auditions over two years and then got a part in the
film. But now, what director would want to measure himself in
Lean's shadow? It would require another great director, but they
all have their own dreams, not his. It will probably become one
of those greatest films never made."
Asked if he feels the mantle
of another dead giant, Olivier, falling on him -- as many critics
rushed to proclaim when "Henry V" opened -- Branagh
shrugs off the comparison, but thoughtfully:
"In a strange way the idea
has become passe. The world of that theater led by Olivier, Gielgud,
Richardson, Guinness and Scofield is gone. It was a theater of
shorter rehearsal times, shorter runs, a different way of viewing
actors as royalty. That sort of dignity is not quite accorded
us anymore. Today there's more of a jeering tone, perhaps even
an affectation of cynicism in the press, though they still find
the new Olivier' or new Gielgud' frequently.
"Perhaps I was born out
of my time. I would love to have been in Edmund Kean's company,
that brothy, whoring 18th century theatrical world of taverns
and renegades, of swords and soliloquies.
"But to answer your question,
I feel no pressure to live up to an inheritance of greatness,
to rival anyone. I just want to take my work seriously, while
also enjoying it.'
Not a bad way to become, in time,
Sir Kenneth Branagh.
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