This Isn't Criticism, It's Stand-up. Kenneth Branagh Doesn't Deserve It
He is still an impressive actor and has directed films I'd be thrilled to have on my CV
The Guardian, 15 April 2011
I was astonished, dismayed and ultimately repulsed by Joe Queenan's reputation-shredding of Kenneth Branagh (The star who forgot how to shine, Film & Music, 1 April). Was it an April Fool's Day joke, I wondered, or do Branagh and Queenan have personal history? Nothing else could explain the glee. An amusing blow to the head, an ironic kick to the nuts, a touch of analysis intentionally overwhelmed by a sly joke. This isn't criticism, it's stand-up.
Queenan's argument sets up a vainglorious proposition: "In 1989 … Kenneth Branagh appeared in a stirring version of William Shakespeare's Henry V … Since the cultural megalith Laurence Olivier had already produced, directed and starred in his own Oscar-winning 'Henry V' 44 years earlier … it seemed obvious that the actor was ... positioning himself to be the next Olivier" (my emphasis).
Now Queenan has only to prove that Branagh has failed to achieve his unexpressed goal. And the evidence? That he has just directed a movie based on a Marvel comic-book superhero: 'Thor'. Queenan hasn't seen the movie yet, mind. Just the trailer. But that's it. QED. "'Thor' may well be the best thing since Skype, or narcotics, or the dole … it may even be the finest translation of a Marvel comic ever brought to the screen though, based on the trailer, I doubt it … However it turns out, somewhere between 'Henry V' and 'Thor', Branagh's train ride to Olivier-like superstardom was derailed."
Having constructed his own story of tragic hubris and abject failure – based on supposition and then, well, watching the trailer - Queenan now lays into every aspect of Branagh's career, ambition, personality, stage technique, eyes, mouth, chin. No insult is too whimsical: "One of my dreams has long been to see Branagh play Noddy Holder on film … And to those who say Branagh is not right for the part of Noddy, I would reply that he was not right for Hamlet or Wallander either, but he certainly made a go of them … Realistically, the odds of anyone in Hollywood ever green-lighting a film about Slade are not all that great. But dreams die hard in my house." Dreams, maybe, but not reputations.
I don't know Kenneth Branagh personally, but from where I sit his career appears to be going strong. I've recently been impressed by him as Ivanov on stage, Wallander on TV, and Gilderoy Lockhart in 'Harry Potter'. As a director, he's made some movies I would be thrilled to have on my CV. And however 'Thor' turns out, if being entrusted (25 years into one's career) by a Hollywood studio with $150m to direct its highest-profile film of the year constituted failure, well, many envious members of the British film industry would have something to say about that.
I'd have understood how to take, or leave, Queenan's thoughts if they had landed on the breakfast table as a puerile bit of butchery of some British sacred cows, or online as an adolescent "look at me, I know how to insult successful people's every attribute". But to have them presented as justified arts opinion is not just disappointing, it's mind-boggling. Branagh doesn't deserve this treatment. Nobody does.