Working Class Heroes
Total Film, November 2007
The Unlikely icons of British cinema Kenneth Branagh and Michael Caine have risen from gutter to glamour. Total Film meets with each to deduce why their sly Sleuth is more than just a remake.
It's 3 am on 27 March 1990 and Kenneth Branagh is propping up the the bar at the Beverly Hills hotel. Aside from a waiter the only other drinker is Steven Soderbergh. It's six hours since curtain down on the 63rd Academy Awards, where Branagh was nominated as Best Director for 'Henry V' and Soderbergh for Best Screenplay for 'Sex, Lies and Videotape'. The pair cling to their drinks, comparing exspriences of the glitz, showbiz and insanity. "Fucking hell," says Branagh. "what was that all about?"
Seventeen years later, the 46-year-old actor/producer/write/director is sitting in the less swanky surroundings of his publicist's Soho office, recalling the night two twenty-somethings from Belfast and Baton Rouge first rubbed shoulders with Hollywood royalty. "It was like, if you do something scary - climb a moutain or something - and you get the shakes afterwards. We were a bit like kids who were glad we hadn't been found out just yet..."
The "finding out", some might argue, came in 1994 when Branagh strayed from Shakespeare to 'Mary Shelly's Fankenstein', directing a faithfully - and fatally - grand adaptation. Diverting but bombastic, it duly bombed. A comeuppance for the man who had too much, too young: had dazzled on the late '80s stage, been hyped as the heir to Laurence Olivier and written his autobiography, 'Beginning' aged just 28 (a decision which seems less arrogant when you consider the 50 grand advance kept his theatre company - Renaissance - alive; and the book is actually rather good: funny, frank and inspiring).
As much as Branagh has been feted, he's also been berated. His recent adaptation of 'As You Like It' moved the Daily Mails' film critic to declare, "His movie career appears to be over." Yet here he is with two movies out in the same month, about as far apart in tone and material as you can get: 'The Magic Flute' - Mozart's opera, transposed to World War I - and 'Sleuth', a loose remake of the 1972 thriller.
The former is unlikely to find a wide audience, but deserves not to be dismissed, as it makes opera accessible - Branagh himself hadn't been a fan ("I'd been invertedly snobby about it"), but discovered a love for the music when was asked to consider the project. The latter sees Anthony Schaffer's play and screenplay retooled by Noble prize-winning writer Harold Pinter into a battle of the sexists: two men wrangling over the same woman, their egos and ambiguous feelings for each other. In the original, Michael Caine was the cocky youngster facing off against Laurence Olivier's wily old bastard; now Caine is the elder statesman, with Jude Law - who also produces - the upstart interloper. Caine calls Branagh "the most prepared and inventive director I've ever worked with"; Law says "he saw all the potential" in the obstensibly Spartan thriller, as well as noting that with Branagh aboard, there were in effect three generations of British actors involved.
It was certainly intimidating for Branagh as director, to pitch for a read-through on a Twickenam soundstage and realise Caine had shot 'Zulu' and 'Alfie' there, while Pinter chipped in with 'The Accident', 'The Servant' and 'The Go-Between'. "Jude and I just looked at each other..." Still, he wasn't the only one with stage fright. At one read-through, Branagh positioned Pinter, in his wheelchair, as if he were his camera - sometimes inches away from Law and Caine going at it. "Michael stops after about 10 minutes," says Branagh, "and goes, 'Fuck me, I haven't been this nervous since doing live television! I've got Harold Pinter's face across from me and about six inches above him, I've got Ken Branagh's face'. But we had a good laugh... I dread to say it, because [he affects a sneering tone taken to be a critic] 'it's too theatrical, this film', but it felt like a theatre company..."
The rehearsal-heavy preparation for the four-and-a-half-week shoot does sound much like the run-up to a play, and Branagh - by most accounts an excellent theatre director - has been accused of failing to exploit the visual possibilities of cinema; criticism exacerbated by his choice of largely stage-originated material.
This doesn't seem fair with 'Sleuth'. Whatever its failings - and its a film that will divide audiences - he and DP Harris Zambarloukos have done a remarkable job of making the house-bound two-hander visually arresting. And you've only to watch the hall of mirrors sequence in 'Hamlet', or elegant tracking shots in 'Much Ado About Nothing', to realise that in his strongest work Branagh considers the camera as much as the text. It's hard to say if 'Sleuth' will eventually sit along side his Dane, 'Much Ado' and the underrated 'In The Bleak Midwinter' as the best of Branagh. It's a thorny, funny, grubby little picture that resists easy conclusions.
With a battle of wills between two equally unpleasant, misanthropic chracters, it's hard to find anyone too root for. Branagh recognises the uncertainty. "When I read it, I said to my wife, 'This is bloody great... it feels dirty and I don't fully know what's going on and I'm not sure what's happening at the end... and I think that's great'. The ambiguity was confirmed for me rehearsal. I said, 'Harold, these phone calls at the end: what is Maggie [the unseen wife of Caine's character] saying to Milo [Law's philanderer]?' He said, ' Who says Maggie is on the the phone? The phone rings and he appears to be talking to someone; you may believe it to Maggie, it may be someone else. You don't know. I don't know!' I looked at the boys and the eyes rolled, but I understood we were healthily - or perhaps annoyingly - in this territory where it wasn't all cut and dried...".
Alongside its ambiguity and the performances, Branagh is proud of his picture's "dark, dirty humour". It's genuinely nasty - a surprise given the tone of his previous work, though as an actor he can capture cruelty exceptionally well. Witness his chilling performance as SS General Reinhard Heydrich, the architect of the Holocaust, in 2001 TV movie 'Conspiracy', which twinned with his racist government official in 'Rabbit-Proof Fence' (2002) served as a reminder, to the relative few who saw them, of how formidable an actor he can be. A wider audience appreciated his terrific, self-deprecating take on luvvie-ish teacher Gilderoy Lockheart in 'Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets' - perhaps his fuuniest, with the exception of his little-seen turn as smart-arse, child-averse playwrwright Peter McGowan in acerbic comedy 'How To Kill Your Neighbour's Dog'.
He's just wrapped as another Nazi, in Bryan Singer's 'Valkyrie', though this time a good German, plotting with Tom Cruise to bring down Hitler. "It surprised me," he says of the script. "You read it knowing the outcome, but within five pages I had sweaty palms... Singer is an Exocet with this material, he loves it so much."
Next year he returns to the London stage as the lead in Checkov's first play, 'Ivanov', before reuniting with Law, directing him in the West End as Hamlet. So do the pair share an affinity, Branagh having taken a press kicking in the '90s similar to that currently being experienced by the younger actor? The question brings - for the only time in our hour-long chat, the faintest flicker, perhaps imagined, of discomfort or irritation. "I never heard Jude complain," he says. "I've come round to the idea of never complain, never explain. I think they all [Law, Caine, Pinter] have an abiding sense of the privelege they have and there are many more subjects for those men than their own careers and their own lives. With Caine - the cliche is, 'not alot of people know that,' but he is interested in lots of things, so there were big conversations. But it was more cricket, football, politics and the world at large, and less any sense that we were part of a wounded minority. I think, by contrast, lucky buggers!"
Lucky buggers, then. And if Branagh's career, like Soderbergh's, has seen various cul-de-sacs since the pair sat in that Beverly Hills hotel bar, it still has a long road to run. At 46, he's only a year older than Tom Cruise, and now - less in the public eye, more determined and sure of himself - his best work may be yet to come. Flash-forward to the Oscars, 2009: Soderbergh, there with his two-part Che Guevara biopic, 'The Argentine' and 'Guerilla'; Branagh, as Best Supporting Actor for 'Valkyire'. Two idiosyncratic filmmakers who have seen their highs and lows, sitting in a bar still pondering: what was that all about?