Belfast and Beyond: Our Ken
Belfast boy Kenneth Branagh has come a long way, but he's still got a lot of nostalgia for his home city. Edwin McFee hears about his latest enterprise - "Sleuth", starring Jude Law and Michael Caine - and how, despite his international success, his biggest ambition is still to make a great film set in Ulster
Belfast Telegraph, 23 November 2007
Kenneth Branagh has a startling revelation. He reckons part of the reason he became an award-winning actor and director was a feeling of loss he traces back to leaving Belfast as a nine-year-old boy.
"I sometimes think that the reason I pursued a career in acting was because I wasn't sure who I was any more," he ponders, sipping water in a Belfast hotel, where he is doing the obligatory round of press interviews for his new film, "Sleuth".
"When I arrived in Belfast this morning it suddenly struck me that it has been nearly four decades since I lived here. Even though I've spent nearly all my life in England, I still feel like a Belfast boy. It's in my blood.
"Whenever I lived here I knew exactly who I was and what I wanted to do with my life and whenever I moved away I wasn't so sure any more. I felt dislocated in a way.
"If I had stayed in Belfast, it's anyone's guess as to where I'd be now."
It's been nearly 40 years since Branagh left his home in the Tiger's Bay area for a new life in Reading, England. At the time, his working-class parents were keen to escape the Troubles.
Belfast's loss was the movie and theatre world's gain, however, as Branagh is now arguably one of the finest thesps of his generation. But he's not exactly a slouch behind the camera either and so far in his star-studded career he's earned four Academy Award nominations (Best Director and Best Actor nominations for "Henry V" in 1989, a Best Short Film nomination for 1992's "Swan Song" and Best Screenplay for "Hamlet" four years later) as well winning a clutch of Emmy, BAFTA and Olivier awards.
His latest project, a version of classic drama "Sleuth", is a change of pace for the 47-year-old. Based on the play by Anthony Shaffer, the film boasts a script by 2005's Nobel Laureate of Literature, Harold Pinter, and features a skeletal cast of just two male leads, Jude Law and Michael Caine.
Although a version of the play was made into a movie in 1972 featuring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, Ken is keen to stress that his picture isn't a remake.
"I actually read a lot of crime fiction at home and I was eager to get my teeth into directing this film when I heard about the cast and Pinter's involvement," he smiles.
"I had seen the play in London starring my good friends Michael Maloney and Peter Bowles a few years previously, so I was aware of the subject matter. Jude [Law] also served as the producer of the film and it's actually been in the pipeline for three and a half years so I'm really happy to see it coming out and I hope people love it as much as we do."
The plot of "Sleuth" is deceptively simple. A millionaire detective novelist (Caine) matches wits with the unemployed actor who ran off with his wife (Law) and for 90 minutes it's a game of cat and mouse between the two. While the original was perhaps a little too simple, Branagh, armed with Pinter's script, really gets to the root of the darker side of masculinity.
"It was a huge thrill for me to work with a genius like Harold," says Kenneth. "A lot of the times when I'm directing films it's by people who are no longer with us, so it's hard to ask for advice.
"Harold was there for the rehearsals and he's one of those guys where you have to be on your game to talk with him. If you want to change anything in the script you have to have your reasons thoroughly thought out beforehand.
"But it was a joy directing "Sleuth". Caine and Law are just such gifted actors."
Not one to rest on his laurels, Kenneth has a whole host of projects he's currently working on. Up next is his version of the Mozart opera "The Magic Flute" which is slated for January next year.
He's also just finished filming the role of Henning Von Tresclow in the Bryan Singer-directed "Valkyrie" and he's planning to do a lot more writing too. Clearly, Ken doesn't let the grass grow under his feet.
"Now that I'm in the middle part of my career, I'm starting to look at projects a little differently," he offers. "I'll usually take a project now if it offers a fun collaboration. Take "Valkyrie", for example. I got to work with an amazing actor like Tom Cruise and Bryan Singer who directed "The Usual Suspects". Who wouldn't jump at the chance to take part in a film like that? I don't want to totally move behind the camera and I want to keep my work as varied as possible."
During the mid-Nineties, Ken was criticised in some quarters of the media for his passion for Shakespeare and the classic theatre repertoire - in short, he was oft portrayed as an earnest 'luvvie'. He's keen to dispel the notion.
"A project doesn't have to be 'worthy' in order for me to do it," he says. "It doesn't have to be high-brow or anything like that. I got a lot of stick a few years ago for doing "Wild Wild West". People may have hated it but I took the role because I got to work with Barry Sonnenfeld - an absolute master of big-budget films - and it was a great experience."
As Ken chats about his future, he drifts back to his first love - Belfast - and how he'd love to make his definitive masterpiece in his home town.
This writer suggests that Robert McLiam Wilson's novel "Eureka Street" could be the perfect vehicle and his eyes light up.
"I'll make sure to pick up a copy when I'm at the airport," he says enthusiastically. "I just have this feeling in my gut that I need to come back home to make a film about here. I don't know what it'll be like, I don't know who'll be in it, but I just know I need to do it.
"I still haven't found the right script or idea, but I will some day."