From Belfast Boy to London Luvvie
Kenneth Branagh Tells Donal Lynch How He Fled the Troubles to Find Fame and Fortune
Independent.ie, 25 November 2007
Outside the door of Kenneth Branagh's ultra-chic Belfast hotel room hangs a huge framed montage of Catholic and Protestant wall murals from the Troubles. It's jarring seeing them presented as a tourist curiosity, as though the symbols of the age-old animosities are now sufficiently palatable as to have been co-opted for corporate art. "I know, it's extraordinary, isn't it?" he exclaims when I point this out. "The place has certainly changed a lot since I was last here. It's nearly 40 years now since we left."
Branagh, avuncular and better looking in real life, was, in his own way, a casualty of the Troubles. Renowned as a consummate English luvvie he is, in fact, a Belfast boy. To escape the violence, his father moved the family to Reading, Berkshire, when Branagh was nine years old -- he's 46 now. It wasn't an easy move. "I had massive numbers of relations here, it was big and village-like at the same time. It gave me a secure sense of who I was -- that was probably rather ruptured by the leaving."
In England he felt a "tremendous desire to fit in" and was Irish at home and English outside the house. "I had a really broad accent when I went over. And nobody could understand a f**king word I said. So I did what I could and that meant changing my accent. But that brought its own guilt. I felt I was letting my parents down."
The fear not to let his parents down was one of the huge themes of his career. Even though he was a success in his early 20s, landing big theatre and film roles, founding a theatre company and becoming part of the British "invasion" of Hollywood in the Nineties, his parents always feared that he should do something more "steady".
"It was a very Irish quality of theirs; 'Don't get above yourself' or, as my mother used to say (adopts pitch perfect Belfast accent) 'catch yourself awn.'" Assuming for a second that early employment was a guarantee of long-term success, his choice of work was still anathema to them. It was nearly 15 years into his career before they finally stopped worrying about him. "It was my birthday and the premiere of "Hamlet" in America. We had been part of a tribute to Jack Lemmon the night before in Washington, and we got to visit the White House and met the president and Tony Bennett. I thought my mother would leave the ground. My father could hardly speak. It was the premiere the next night. I asked for them to be given a round of applause and they both went to the toilet and held court there, receiving people and shaking hands."
His parents were perhaps more legitimately worried about how Branagh would handle life as a celebrity. Along with Emma Thompson, he formed one half of Britain's golden couple of cinema in the 1990s and the media scrutiny was intense, particularly when the relationship faltered and Branagh was reported to have shacked up with Helena Bonham Carter. "There was a certain level of innocence then, though," he remembers. "We came along at a sort of proto-point in celebrity culture. There was a certain level of interest; particularly as we were a couple, but that sort of saturation level of interest that you'd get today just hadn't arrived yet. And I'm grateful for that."
He has since remarried, to art director Lindsay Brunnock, something he was apparently initially reluctant to do, given the failure of his marriage to Thompson. "The heart does what the heart does. You can never say never again," is his rather terse comment now on the subject.
He's philosophical about his typecasting as a Shakespearean. "I suppose people do think of me as being that [a Shakespearean actor]," he tells me. "Or at the very least, as someone who does period stuff. But of course, I've done a lot more than just Shakespeare." In fact, he seems to have his fingers in about five cinematic pies and hardly seems to have slowed down since the relentless activity of his early years in the business. His latest project, "Sleuth", is a tense and gripping remake of the 1972 Laurence Olivier film. Branagh has a reputation for bringing together all-star ensembles and this project is no different. It was adapted from the Anthony Shaffer play by Harold Pinter and stars Jude Law (who also produces) and Michael Caine. "It's a sort of a dream team, I just couldn't say 'no''', he tells me.
The film has been met with some snippy reviews Stateside, but he doesn't seem overly perturbed. "I've been getting poor notices there as far back as when I did "Henry V" on the stage. Nine months later the show came back to London and it was described as 'the acclaimed performance'. "Hamlet" was also seen as a bit of a disaster at the time. People were saying it hadn't won any Oscars. And I was on a British Airways flight recently and I saw that they have it in their 'classics' section. So sometimes snap judgment can be wrong. Mind you, I'm sure 10 years could pass and some people would still say I was crap!"
His parents are both dead now, his father passed away just last year and he says he feels a "certain amount of melancholy" being back in Belfast for the first time. "It was always connected to them every time I would come back. And now it's not."
"I might have to come back more often though," he muses, peering again at the framed Bogside mural. "This place seems to have changed as much as I have."