And Kenneth Branagh Makes Three
He was British acting's golden boy – until the magic failed. Now, with a bold trio of films, Branagh is back behind the camera. Is the public ready?
The Times, 23 September 2007
It's a momentous, nerve-shredding event for every director when their film is laid before critics and public. Thanks to the vagaries of distribution, this autumn it is happening to Kenneth Branagh not once, nor even twice. "As You Like It", his fifth Shakespeare film, is out now.
In November comes a remake of "Sleuth", followed by an ambitious account of "The Magic Flute". So it's thrice more unto the multiplex for the director once saddled with the burdensome tag of being Laurence Olivier's heir.
He looks remarkably calm on it. Ten or 15 years ago, Branagh would have had a ton of muck upended over him for presuming to swamp the cinemas with so many fruits of his hyperactivity. With three films coming along at once, it may not look it, but he has been keeping his head down these past five years. Long gone are the days following his steep rise to fame in the late 1980s, when, as the thrusting young founder of the Renaissance Theatre Company and star and director of his own version of "Henry V", there was no stopping the tabloids' interest in him and his marriage to Emma Thompson. Divorce brought no respite as he promptly gave them Helena Bonham Carter to write about instead, and, in "Frankenstein", a film everyone felt ready to condemn as a catastrophic vanity project. But the final straw for Branagh was a hostile reception for his Busby Berkeley-inflected "Love's Labours Lost". It prompted him, in his description, "to step out of the ring for a couple of rounds". "I was a bit fed up with the reaction, to be absolutely honest," he explains. "I thought it was excessive and a little unjust. I suppose I thought, 'Look, come on, I'm making a film in a career that might contain a number of films. What am I, bloody Superman? There have been a number of them that maybe you'll think are absolutely crap, and that's as far as it goes, isn't it? But I don't believe that I murdered any children, and I wouldn't try to imply that the right to do any more of these should be taken away from other people.' It wasn't like one didn't expect it. But I was slightly wearied by it. I thought, 'I'll get my energy back.'"
He stopped directing films altogether, instead moving into light theatrical comedy with "The Play What I Wrote" and its – his words – "enjoyable but disastrous" follow-up, "Duck-tastic!". He also cut down on the acting. His most recent stage role was in David Mamet's "Edmond" at the National Theatre four years ago. His most recent screen lead – in "Shackleton" – was even further back, in 2002. It is "Shackleton" that is partly responsible for the infrequency of Branagh sightings these past few years. While filming in Greenland, he met and, a year later, married the production's art director, Lindsay Brunnock. They live outside London.
The happy event presumably accounts for the air of calm that has lately settled on him. Once upon a time, Branagh bounced off walls. This morning, he is slumped into the folds of a sofa. At 46, with crow's-feet tracking the wunder-kind's march into middle age, he no longer feels the self-willed pressure to generate so much of his own work. You would never accuse him of laziness, but contentment has certainly taken the edge off his ambition. "Maybe it's just being spoilt," he reasons, "and not responding to the idea of an acting job until you read something you can't put down. Actually, I have reduced the opportunities for that to happen, because a lot of people think, 'Oh, I don't think he's acting any more, is he?'"
The false impression doesn't seem to bother him. Actually, he will be acting, though not until next year, when he will take the lead in Chekhov's "Ivanov", to be directed by Michael Grandage for the Donmar Warehouse. It's a function of the mature-period Branagh that he is content to do someone else's Chekhov rather than bring to fruition his own long-standing plan to get a company together and do all the Chekhovs in one clump. "I've usually got some slightly mad idea like that," he says. The iconoclastic notion, in this case, would be "to see if there's a way of breaking this English Chekhov thing where we stare into the middle distance and you fight the urge to say, 'I was so bored.' The ideas don't go away, so it might happen. Also, I've got to the point where I'm much less bothered about the world knowing that, and worrying that someone else is going to go off and do it". In other words, don't watch this space.
It's another mark of the older Branagh that he is no longer casting himself, as he has in all but one of his eight previous films. "I've always felt like an actor who directs," he says. "I suppose a little gremlin in my head was saying, 'For God's sake, make up your mind. What is it you do?' A key thing that's happened in these three pictures is enjoying working with actors and not feeling, 'I wish I was playing that part.'"
Not that he was never going to give us his Tamino. Part of the lure of "The Magic Flute" was the opportunity for a spot of autodidacticism. He had the same impulse when playing Heydrich in "Conspiracy", for which he won an Emmy: it was his chance to read up on the Third Reich. As for opera, his knowledge "was almost nonexistent. It seemed appropriated by people – it probably says more about me than them – who made me feel a little stupid. I was brought up listening to popular music on the radio. I continue to play my three chords on the guitar, and my three-fingered piano. When I search for the so-called hobbies I have – and I have to search – I might describe that as one of them". When he was invited to pitch for "The Magic Flute", opera buffs of his acquaintance tried to put him off. "One friend said, 'If you can find a plot in there, well, congratulations.' I've gone into the prospect of doing it thinking, 'It's a comic opera, isn't it?' Papageno is the guy who does the music from the Red Bull adverts. But when I started listening, all I heard was conflict. That's what astonished me – the violence of it."
He chose to place Mozart's masonic world of deadly challenge in a fairy-tale version of war-torn Flanders. Whether the final product, with a libretto by Stephen Fry and lashings of CGI to augment the spectacular studio set, fires the loins of people who watch opera in evening dress is beside the point. With Shakespeare, as much as with "Peter's Friends", Branagh has proved himself a defiant populist, which is why critics aren't always behind him. Thus the mud-spattered, rain-lashed Agincourt of "Henry V", the song-and-dance version of "Love's Labours Lost", and now "As You Like It", transplanted to a trade port in 19th-century Japan patrolled by violent armoured swordsmen. "I once heard a remark that Peter Brook made about the uninformed hunch. I wanted to be away from the cakes-and-ale version, to find a sense of danger I've never really felt in the play." He looks a bit crestfallen as he admits that his neighbours' children didn't find his kendo warriors scary.
His highbrow terror trilogy is completed by "Sleuth". Anthony Shaffer's play has been entirely reworded by Harold Pinter, who invests the tussle of two men over an unseen woman with all his signature menace. Indeed, the only remnant of the 1972 film version is Michael Caine, who takes on the role played by Olivier, while his old part is inherited by Jude Law. Law, who was instrumental in getting the film off the ground, evidently has a much happier time stepping into Caine's shoes than he did in the misconceived "Alfie". "Yes!" says Branagh, thumping the arm of the sofa. It's a revealing gesture. He has rather more than the success of "Sleuth" invested in Law's abilities – in 2009, he is directing him in "Hamlet", also for the Donmar. One collaboration grew out of the other. "I did fall out of love with the theatre for a while. The appetite is back, much enhanced by working on "Sleuth". It was so performance-centred." In rehearsal, he tried to treat "Sleuth" like theatre – evidently too much so for Caine, whose cockney bark Branagh impersonates with relish. At the end of two weeks' rehearsal – unheard of in film – he and the actors ran through the play, with Branagh pushing Pinter in a wheel-chair to wherever the camera was going to be. "It was going well, and the boys knew their lines. It was impressive, and it meant they didn't have to project – we were nice and close to them. But after 10 minutes, Michael said, 'I've got to stop, I've got to stop just for one minute. I have never been this f***ing nervous since I did live television. I've got f***ing Harold Pinter's face about two feet from me, and above him I've got f***ing Branagh giving me notes. Let me have a cup of tea.'" Branagh won't watch any of these three films until some putative point in his old age, perhaps when all passion is finally spent. "I always think of that phrase from sociology when I was a kid, 'in the current state of knowledge'. In the current state of knowledge, you do the film as best you can. What you can't do is beat yourself up unnecessarily. "Frankenstein" – the most spectacular example of having your testicles removed critically – I see roll up on TV these days, and it's often eulogistically reviewed. The sand settles in a different way. It's in the nature of things. I always felt that getting on with it was the thing to do."