Long Linked to Shakespeare, Branagh Now Plays a Silent Swede
Boston Globe, 8 May 2009
Kenneth Branagh has come through the acting equivalent of the bends.
For years, the Irish actor/director has been a wordy presence on stage and film, due largely to his rich experience performing Shakespeare. In the movie version of "Hamlet," Branagh recalls speaking more than 1,500 lines.
Now, in a new television offering called "Wallander," he plays an impacted Swede (is there any other kind?) whose words are sparse and emerge with effort. His challenge as an actor who revels in words is to keep his mouth shut.
"He's very silent. We actually cut dialogue," Branagh says in a telephone interview about the three-part series that begins Sunday night on "Masterpiece Mystery!"
Rather than soar on his elegant delivery of Shakespeare's words, Branagh, as detective Kurt Wallander, must reach the audience through his pudgy face and body language. His face is routinely opaque, so when he rewards us with a rare smile, it packs a wallop and we can glimpse the joy bottled up with the pain inside him.
Even his posture is lamentable. Branagh remembers that his shoulders actually slumped in character by the time he finished reading the script of the first of three more "Wallander" episodes to be filmed this summer.
Wallander is, for the record, a paunchy, middle-aged man, separated from his wife and perpetually exhausted, who maintains a sketchy relationship with his grown daughter. He drinks. We see him run at one point and it's not pretty. Think of a water buffalo.
This fractured profile is de rigueur these days in crime novels on both sides of the Atlantic. Forget classic singletons like Raymond Chandler's hardbody Philip Marlowe or older pros like Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer. The new batch are loners because of the mess they have made out of their lives - bad marriages, failed relationships, booze. Lawrence Block's estimable character Matt Scudder is in A.A.
Why are these characters so popular? "Dysfunction in a relationship is recognizable," says Branagh. "Human frailty makes for compelling drama - there but for the grace of God go I. As we get older, new truths come home to roost."
Swedish writer Henning Mankell made Wallander a global name years ago in the bestsellers he built around the character. Branagh had read Wallander novels and jumped at the chance to play him. "I like the fact that he seems to be a broken man trying to put himself back together," he explains. "He uses his job to ask himself questions about the meaning of life. He is unafraid to do so. His ill-balanced life/work relationship asks the question whether someone as brilliant as his record makes him out to be will always pay a price led by the demands of the job."
In fact, Branagh developed the project and is an executive producer of the series. He met Mankell a couple of years ago. They got along well and the television project followed, first in England and now here.
Why was he chosen to play Wallander? "Kenneth Branagh could play anything with the possible exception of Queen Victoria," says "Masterpiece" executive producer Rebecca Eaton. "He's always a choice."
So who is more morose - the Brits or the Swedes?
"The Brits," Branagh says. "Swedes somehow allow it out more. Brits bring an element of angry repression. Swedes have an acceptance of psychological emotions. Yes, they have those long, dark, savage winters. But we still have the pervasive effects of the class system and the loss of empire."
Branagh, now 53[sic], is far from the boy wonder he was in his early stage work in London, where he drew immediate acclaim for his Shakespearean performances. His reputation grew, a slew of acting awards arrived. So did his ambition. He emerged from all this a protean talent, keenly intelligent, but lacking star quality on screen. His first movie, "Henry V" (1989), which he directed and played the title role, was a success, and proved that the great unwashed in cineplexes really could enjoy Shakespeare, properly presented. In it he played opposite the entrancing Emma Thompson, whom he later married and divorced.
Asked what he is most proud of in his career, Branagh responds, "First, I'm still here. Second, the Shakespeare films I've made. Each was sort of an impossibility, and they make me proud."
Now he confronts another tall order - doing more by talking less.