Kenneth Branagh: The Star Who Forgot How to Shine
Two decades ago, Kenneth Branagh was "the new Olivier". Now he's directing a comic-book adaptation. Why? Because he was never meant to be an idol
The Guardian, 31 March 2011
In 1989, when he was not yet 30 years old, Kenneth Branagh appeared in a stirring version of William Shakespeare's 'Henry V'. The film, which Branagh also directed, won tons of awards. God, was it stirring. Everybody thought the St Crispin's Day speech was just terrific, even the French, who came out somewhat worse for wear at the Battle of Agincourt and whom Shakespeare despised. Everybody wondered where this combustible young talent had come from. The answer: Belfast. Since the cultural megalith Laurence Olivier had already produced, directed and starred in his own Oscar-winning 'Henry V' 44 years earlier, the year Adolf Hitler finally went down for the count, and since Branagh had more than held his own in this revival, it seemed obvious that the actor was throwing down the gauntlet, positioning himself to be the next Olivier.
Later this month, Branagh's film based on the exploits of the Marvel comic book superhero 'Thor' will make its way into cinemas. Thor may well be the best thing since Skype, or narcotics, or the dole; it may do for Nordic mythology what 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' did for Nordic crime fiction; it may even be the finest translation of a Marvel comic ever brought to the screen though, based on the trailer, I doubt it. It will not, however, be 'Wuthering Heights' or 'Richard III' or 'The Entertainer' or 'That Hamilton Woman' or 'Rebecca' or 'Spartacus' or 'Marathon Man' or even 'Sleuth'. It will not be on a par with the best of Olivier, or even much of autumnal Olivier. It may be better than the autumnal 'Clash of the Titans' and 'The Betsy', but only slightly. However it turns out, one thing is clear: somewhere between 'Henry V' and 'Thor', Branagh's train ride to Olivier-like superstardom was derailed.
In the two decades since Branagh burst into the public's consciousness, his career has broken down into three distinct sections. He has directed or acted in several fine adaptations of Shakespeare's plays, though the best one – 'Much Ado About Nothing' – is long in the past. He has done some excellent work for television, most noticeably as the crackpot Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, a first-class megalomaniac if there ever was one, and more recently as the implacable but emotionally undernourished Swedish copper Kurt Wallander. And he has made more than his fair share of bad movies, some apocalyptically horrible such as 'Wild Wild West', some irrelevant and forgettable such as 'How to Kill Your Neighbour's Dog' and 'Frankenstein', and some generically daft like 'Swing Kids' and 'Valkyrie', both of which focus on misguided young men growing up in Nazi Germany who just can't quite get a handle on the Third Reich. Few of his films have entered the public's consciousness, with the exception of the hideous 'Wild, Wild West', a movie so bad Will Smith issued a public apology for its existence. Branagh has no gifts in the action sphere; when he attempts to play comedy, the results are not pretty. Ditto populism; anything that attempts to speak to the common man is all wrong for him. Whatever the common touch is, he lacks it. For an actor noted for a great deal of range, he doesn't have much range.
Branagh's career in the UK, without question, has been a success, but his career in Hollywood has been a disappointment. In this sense he resembles Slade or Status Quo or Blur or Pulp, perfectly nice bands that had big careers in Britain but for some reason never made it in the US. The reason was: they didn't warm the cockles of American hearts. The Stones and Eddie Izzard did. On a personal note, one of my dreams has long been to see Branagh play Noddy Holder on film. If Thor is a bust, this may yet come to pass, if Branagh avails BBC West Midlands of his considerable services. Nor am I saying this in a dismissive or contemptuous way. I really like Slade. When I lived in France in 1972 and 1973, they had a No 1 single every 12 minutes. 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.
Motion picture lore teems with legends of stars who failed to achieve the superstardom predicted for them. Sometimes this was because of epic self-sabotage (Mickey Rourke, Sean Young); sometimes the star simply wore out his welcome (Colin Farrell, Val Kilmer); sometimes the stars' gifts were not sufficient to the task (Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Phillips, Chris O'Donnell, Jon Finch, a lot of actors named Emily). And in some instances, another star got there first, and arrived with a lot more ammunition. This is how Daniel Day-Lewis ended up with the career Branagh was supposed to have; the world doesn't need two Oliviers, and it doesn't need two Day-Lewises. There would be no scenery left on the planet to eat.
In Branagh's case, one can argue that poor choices were made, or that when opportunity came knocking, Branagh failed to answer the door. One can also argue that Branagh was seduced by fame – the eerily prescient theme of Woody Allen's otherwise unwatchable 1998 film 'Celebrity' – and let his talents atrophy as he moved farther away from the the stage and further into film. Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, John Mills, Alan Bates, Ian McKellen and many other great British actors never drifted very far away from the theatre. But that is not my own view of the situation. Branagh, like Gielgud or Ralph Fiennes (or for that matter Reynolds or Adam Sandler) was fine when he was selling a product the public already liked – 'Henry V', 'Othello', 'Much Ado About Nothing', 'Hamlet' – but ran into trouble selling a product the public did not like, particularly the American public. The product was himself.
Is it unfair to say Branagh simply does not have movie-star looks? No, it is not. Neither does Dustin Hoffman, but Hoffman has an intensity and range and unnerving neurotic edge that Branagh lacks. Whatever charisma and magnetism are, Branagh does not possess or exude them. The public might care what happens to 'Henry V' or 'Hamlet', but it does not care what happens to Kenneth Branagh. Movies, unlike plays, are problem-solving exercises; the hero finds himself in a tight spot and must find his way out in the next 90 minutes. If the public feels no emotional connection with the actor and this may be because he is perceived as being a matey, overly ingratiating Brit – he can stay in that mountain ravine for 100,000 hours for all the public cares.
Branagh, like a lot of great stage actors, was perfectly acceptable when he was asked to breathe fresh life into characters the public was familiar with. But this is not the situation in the movies, where an actor is mostly on his own. Intense, gifted and affable in a hale-fellow-well-met kind of way, Branagh has gifts that work well on the stage, but work far less well on film. On the stage you can use all your hammy eye-rolling and frowning and glaring tricks to manipulate the audience, but this does not work when a camera is tightly focused on your eyes, your mouth, your chin. Branagh's face is not especially interesting; it is rather bland and ordinary. In this sense, he resembles the haughty Emma Thompson, his first wife and co-star in 'Dead Again'.
Even when he was younger and thinner Branagh always looked a bit jowly and soft; he never had that sculpted, chiseled Cary Grant, Tom Cruise, Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Johnny Depp profile. He was certainly no match for Olivier in the looks department. Branagh's face is not sweet, nor is it compelling; it lacks the sinister edge Olivier used to such great effect in films such as 'Wuthering Heights', 'Sleuth', 'Marathon Man' and 'Spartacus'. It is the face of a man born to play unglamorous roles. It is the face of a character actor. This is perhaps why Branagh has succeeded so well in the role of Wallander, a sad sack, a burnout and a bit of a loser. Wallander, as his creator Henning Mankell originally envisioned him, has a world-weary quality about him; he is indefatigable and relentless, and still clings to a vague belief in the virtue of police work, but he never looks as if he's having fun. Obviously, it doesn't help that he lives in Sweden. Branagh, who is still technically a bit young and a bit too glamorous to play the dour, out-of-shape Swedish policeman, pulls off the assignment because, personality-wise, he and Wallander mesh splendidly. Wallander and Branagh both look a bit washed out. They look as if their best days are behind them, and their best days weren't anything to write home about anyway. If someone delivered the St Crispin's Day speech to them, they'd probably leave the room and take the rest of the day off. They definitely wouldn't storm the walls at Agincourt. They'd ask Thor to do it.
Sometime later this year, a BBC film called 'My Week With Marilyn' will be released. It deals with a young assistant film director who got to spend a week with Marilyn Monroe in 1956 when she was making 'The Prince and the Showgirl' in London. In it, Branagh will play Olivier, Monroe's co-star in the misguided film. I am sure he will be very good in the part. He will bring his trademark intensity. He will huff and puff. But there is something bittersweet about this turn of events. Branagh was supposed to be the next big thing, the new Olivier. Now he directs films such as 'Thor' and appears in middling TV movies and stars in Nordic noir. Maybe it's time for Branagh to take on Macbeth or Lear. 'Thor' is beneath his talents. It's beneath anybody's talents.
I'd still like to see Branagh in that Slade movie, though.
Thor is released on 27 April.