Imitation is Flattering to the Greats
St. Petersburg Times, August
by Stephen Wigler
Kenneth Branagh, the man who
would be king, knows that the best way to become king is to kill
That is exactly what the young
British actor-director has been doing. Two years ago the then-28-year-old's
first movie, Shakespeare's Henry V, went head to head with the
great Laurence Olivier's 1944 classic, scoring in the opinion
of many critics a clear victory.
Now Branagh has set out after
both Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock in his second movie, Dead
Again, which opens today. This film is a brilliant homage to
Citizen Kane that alludes to many of that movie's most famous
scenes only to re-do them in witty and brilliant fashion. And
Branagh also takes on the Hitchcock of Dial M for Murder, Vertigo
Is there no limit to the ambition
of Branagh, who at 30 is less than 10 years out of drama school?
"I'm happy to think that
I'm in the traditions they (Olivier, Welles and Hitchock) represent
and like to think that we all steal and borrow from those we
admire," he says.
"I love them and I'm a traditionalist.
I felt I was missing something I love in the movies I see nowadays.
That's why I made Dead Again."
Dead Again is a dazzling thriller
about reincarnation and sexual transformation that is set partly
in the late 1940s and partly in present-day Los Angeles.
"It's a whodunit and a whydunit,"
says Branagh, who plays tworoles: a private detective named Mike
Church (in the color film that takes place in the present) and
a brilliant German-refugee conductor-composer named Roman Strauss
(in the black-and-white 1940s segment).
The classy cast includes Branagh's
wife, Emma Thompson (who also plays two roles), Andy Garcia and
Robin Williams, Hanna Schygulla and Derek Jacobi.
It is a roller coaster of a movie
that keeps the viewer guessing and never lets up until a logically
inevitable in retrospect finale.
Whether or not the movie is a
financial success, it likely will be the most talked-about and
debated film since Thelma and Louise and it should make Branagh's
stock high since his nomination for several Academy Awards for
Henry V higher than ever.
The Irish-born Branagh has been
on a collision course with destiny since he was the star student
at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London in the late '70s
and early '80s.
After graduation he became, at
23, the youngest person ever selected by the Royal Shakespeare
Company to star in Henry V and he went on to star in a highly
But Branagh was not satisfied
with merely being a star in the English-speaking world's most
important repertory company. The next year he founded the Renaissance
Theater Company into which he shanghaied friends such as Jacobi,
Paul Scofield and Dame Judi Dench.
Branagh had so much chutzpah
that he asked Prince Charles whom he had interviewed earlier
while researching the role of Henry V to become the patron of
the company. Charles, one of Branagh's biggest fans, accepted.
Branagh soon became so successful
that he was asked at the age of 27 to write his autobiography.
The book became a best seller
in Britain and has sold well in the United States. He has used
all of the profits to benefit the theater troupe.
The critical reaction to Branagh's
aggressive courtship of success in his native country has been
swift and terrible.
One prominent critic described
his film version of Henry V as "megalomania on a grand scale";
another called Branagh "the most overrated, over-celebrated
English actor to reach leading-man status in over two decades."
"Kenneth is very hot especially
in your country," says Thompson. "But where we're from,
making it (to the top) so quickly and so apparently flashily
is not quite cricket. They say that Kenneth is full of hubris,
that he's a self-promoter and that he can't act.
"The last part of that certainly
isn't true, but Kenneth while perhaps not as much as he once
was is certainly driven."
If there is any actor Branagh
resembles in person and certainly in the Dead Again character
Mike Church it is not the princely, British Olivier but the square-jawed,
two-fisted, American James Cagney.
One would never guess from Branagh's
portrayal that he was English.
He says that he began to create
Mike Church's Irish-American accent by listening to tapes.
"But that was just the beginning,"
he says. "Fortunately, I had a lot of time in L.A. because
I was in there performing King Lear and A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Any time I noticed two guys on the street who reminded me of
what Mike Church might be like, I'd walk behind them for blocks,
eavesdropping and watching their gestures.
"But Mike Church is such
an amiable guy that I also borrowed believe it or not from Woody
Allen, whom I think is one of the most likable characters in
movies. If you watch Woody Allen movies, you will notice that
when he walks with a woman, he uses large gestures in his conversational
style. I tried to make the gestures slightly less large and less
New York-Jewish, but I couldn't have created Mike Church without
When Branagh was growing up did
he ever think he would someday be playing a the part of an Irish-American
detective with overtones of a Jewish-American stand-up comic?
"It would have made perfect
sense to me," he says.
"Mine was a childhood spent
in the movies. I worshiped Burt Lancaster in The Birdman of Alcatraz
before I even knew who Laurence Oliver was. Before I started
Dead Again, I screened Dial M for Murder, Spellbound, Vertigo,
Citizen Kane all the movies I had adored when I was a kid.
"I wanted the qualities
those movies have operatic qualities of simultaneously involving
and detaching the viewer, of excitement and emotion and I was
amazed at how much I remembered, at how much those movies are
part of what I am.
"Dead Again is about reincarnation,
but it's also about the reincarnation of the movies I love,"
Branagh says with a smile. "I'd like to think that somewhere
out there Olivier, Welles and Hitchcock are glad."
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