Film Set and Match
Sunday Times, September 22 1991
by Iain Johnstone
The opening wide-shot is of the
vast shipyard cranes that tower over the huddled houses of east
Belfast. The camera pans down to Mountcollyer Street, alive with
children playing on the pavements. But it ignores them as it
homes in on the cathode ray of a TV set in a small back room.
A carroty-haired boy, aged about
eight, is transfixed by the Saturday afternoon movie: Dial M
fo Murder. A reverse-angle close-up catches a knowing smile flickering
across his thin lips.
We dissolve through to 20 years
later. The same lad is crossing the Paramount lot in Hollywood
with a jaunty step. He waves a cheerful hello to Mike Nichols,
who is directing Regarding Henry on another stage, and returns
the smile of Kevin Kline, on his way to work on Soapdish. Reaching
his own set, Kenneth Branagh bids good morning to his American
crew and embarks on an earnest discussion with Robin Williams
on how to attack the next scene.
The frame flips forward a year
to 1991 and the office of Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company
in Soho, an oasis of light at the top of a dark stairwell filled
with fungi, where the founder is sitting opposie me. He has just
learned that his film, Dead Again, has gone to the top of the
American box office the surprise hit of the late summer. "I'm
relieved,'' he confesses, "completely and utterly relieved.
I'm brilliant at taking bad news and find it very difficult to
deal with the rest of it. That's a troubled, puritanical, Protestant
upbringing for you.''
Troubled or not, Branagh cannot
be accused of lack of chutzpah. What other British actor in his
twenties would stride into a Californian studio, insist that
his wife play opposite him in not one but two leading roles,
acquire an American accent as effortlessly as he once discarded
his Belfast one and make his foray into mainstream cinema with
a romantic melodrama of the very genre that belonged to Hollywood
In Dead Again, Branagh plays
an LA private eye, Mike, investigating the case of a young woman,
Grace (Emma Thompson), who hs lost her memory. She is tormented
by dreams of a 1940s pianist (Thompson again), whose composer
husband (Ken again) we see executed for her murder. Karmic reincarnation
is in the air, and Derek Jacobi (hypnotist), Andy Garcia (jurnalist)
and Robin Williams (psychiatrist) help and hinder Mike in reaching
his dangerous conclusion. As a thriller, it is both complex and
compelling, with Thompson at the very apogee of her talent.
But how did Branagh get the gig?
The initial answer is a simple one: Lindsay Duncan, a former
Paramount executive who had been trying to get Scott Frank's
screenplay made for some time after rejections from several American
directors, saw Branagh's Henry V and thought he would bring style
and "real romantic chemistry'' to the story. Branagh read
it and responded to it "I'm not in love with westerns or
sci-fi particularly, but I've loved this genre since I was a
In his initial meeting with the
studio he immediately laid down bold, if not foolhardy, conditions
concerning the casting of his wife and Jacobi as well as wanting
to bring in the British designers and composer from Henry V.
"The executive eyes flickered a bit, but they knew I would
have happily walked away if they'd said no. I told them I didn't
know how to direct films in isolation; I needed all these other
people to help me.''
Today's Hollywood casts women
from the top 10 seeds and at that time Emma Thompson hardly had
a high computer ranking. "I said to Ken: 'They're not going
to want me,''' she later told me. "Then I thought: 'This
is rather a good idea these two people already know each other,
somehow we'll match, look right.' They should be connectable,
and I don't think Ken is as connectable with someone like Michelle
Pfeiffer or Kim Basinger. I think that would look much odder.''
Thompson had also, initially,
been reluctant to play Princess Katharine in Henry V. "I
told him to cast somebody French. He said, 'No, I want it to
be played this way, and you'll do it the way I want it.' We love
working together. I'm surprised at the old-fashionedness of the
reaction to the husband-and-wife thing,'' she said.
In fact, they were working together
on the stage in Los Angeles when the Hollywood offer came the
first in a series of serendipitous coincidences that enchanted
their path. Renaissance should have been in Sydney, but the sponsorship
fell through and at the same time LA's Mark Taper Forum became
free. Thompson, whose only previous work for Renaissance had
been "sticking things in envelopes'' after the couple met
on Fortunes of War, was playing the Fool in King Lear and Helna
in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
She was also getting used to
being Mrs Branagh "We had just got married, it was our honeymoon
really'' during a three-month stay in the Oakwood Apartments.
"It's where all divorcees live one of those horrible places
you're tempted to make an impact on. I used to go to the kitchen
to try to break things just to make my mark. But you can't because
it's all made of Terminator 2 materials and reconstitutes itself
during the night. The only thing you can destroy are the ants.''
She did make her mark, however,
on the Paramount exeutives, who were able to come and see her
Helena and also assess her on film in The Tall Guy, which surfaced
Her husband was making a more
buoyant mark. His meeting at Paramount, on St Valentine's day
1990, to continue the casting discussions, was unusually crowded
"The whole of the top brass turned up, all over me like
a rash that morning'' since it had just been announced that he
was the first Briton since Laurence Olivier to be nominated for
Oscars as Best Actor and Best Director. Any outstanding doubts
were rapidly resolved. "I think the gods were on our side,''
His wife didn't come back for
the Oscars by then Renaissance had reached Tokyo but Branagh
dutifully took a day-trip to LA, with John Sessions as his date.
"I remember introducing John to Steve Martin in the lavatory
at the Oscars. I was completely star-struck. Nicholson was in
the wings and said: 'Hi, I'm Jack. I liked your picture.' You're
tempted to say: 'I know you're Jack. The world knows you're Jack.'
I found it a very emotional evening. I was in tears most of the
In the eyes of his wife, Branagh
was already a Hollywood player. "He's got an instinctive
understanding of the place. He just arrived there and started
to work it out, because that's the kind of brain he has.''
He, in turn, was in need of more
than her acting talents. "She was a very good influence
on those Americans on the set who had me down as some kind of
great white hope because I'd done a Shakespeare film, she was
able to start the questions going in rehearsal and contribute
towards a more collaborative atmosphere. We've always been able
to divide the personal and professional. It's not a problem;
we're perfectly happy. But if at some point there was any danger
of us bringing any disharmony on the set because of our personal
relationship, I simply couldn't do it.''
Their charmed lives seemed about
to come to an end the night of the first preview of the film.
"One of the most unpleasant experiences in my life,'' Thompson
recalled, "like having your innards laid out in front of
you. The movie wasn't finished and it wasn't right. You can feel
the boredom and ridicule. And then they have a focus group where
a spokesman stands up and says: 'I think that it's a piece of
shit.' You're standing at the back and the studio executives
start looking at you as if suddenly you've grown an extra head.''
With ruthless re-editing, Branagh
managed to bring Dead Again up to a Fatal Attraction audience
rating by the fourth preview. The box-office returns should leave
him with some spare change after he has helped underwrite the
loss the Renaissance Theatre Company has suffered during the
recession. With a Hollywood hit behind him, he can now write
his own cheque. "It would be nice to think there's some
way the movies could finance the theatre,'' he muses, a knowing
smile flickering across is thin lips.
Back to Articles Listing
Back to the Compendium