Kenneth Branagh: A Man For All Seasons
Newsweek, 21 January 2008
Kenneth Branagh — who won Oscar nominations in the 1990s for "Henry V" and "Hamlet" — seemed to vanish after a few flops and his divorce from actress Emma Thompson. But 2007 was the 47-year-old's comeback. He directed Mozart's "The Magic Flute" and Michael Caine in "Sleuth." In 2008, he'll star alongside Tom Cruise in "Valkyrie," appear onstage in Chekhov's "Ivanov," play a detective on a British TV show and voice a radio adaptation of "Cyrano de Bergerac." Branagh chatted with Newsweek's Ginnane Brownell in London.
Brownell:Why did you disappear for several years after early critical success?
Branagh: There was a long period from the moment the film-directing career began — to my surprise — where there was a constant stream of material that I was passionate to do. Then I did a lot of movies with interesting people [like] Robert Altman and Woody Allen that didn't really work, to be perfectly honest — all in my view very interesting pictures, but they did not make the great splash that might have continued a sense that I was out there. Then I was in things but not carrying them, [so] I could have a quieter life inside them.
Your film "Henry V" helped me get through my university Shakespeare class — so thank you. Do you get that a lot?
To my delight, almost daily. I encounter it all over the place. I was in a garden center the other day, very busy, with people buying fork handles and massive plants and I was paying for my plant. As I was leaving, the 17-year-old girl [behind the counter] who looked, to be perfectly honest, indifferent to everything, said, "Merry Christmas, and nice Iago, by the way." And I went back and said, "Iago from 'Othello'?" And she said, "I was studying it last week." At the garden-center checkout from a 17-year-old! And not "Harry Potter"!
Do you like to court controversy? You redirect Shakespeare and have now not only taken on a Mozart opera, but the classic 1975 Ingmar Bergman version.
[Laughs] If you have a passion for an original take on the classics, you have the right to take that work on. People have the right to dislike it as well, but it seems odd to me that people are responding to what they have lazily assumed to be an act of hubris, when in fact it is another part of the tradition of revisiting the classics. If it is as simple as not liking my work, that is fine. But sometimes [people] think that the very act of doing it is an insult to the previous revered work. I say it is inspiration and a celebration, and half the time it will send people back to the original and brilliant conception.
Why do you think people react like that?
It seems extraordinary that it is so powerful in relation to film. Of course it is not an issue in theater — there is a constant revisiting. I mean, "Othello" opened up in London [last month]. No one is saying, "How dare they do another 'Othello'?" I think it is a rather easy jump to judgment that [a remake] must imply a dearth of imagination. I happily subscribe to the idea that there are only seven stories: there is a very good book by Christopher Booker who makes a very strong case for the archetypes in storytelling as they apply to the human experience, and it seems to me it will not be original material that anyone comes up to that much, but it will be an original take on existing stories and myths.
Tell me about "Valkyrie" — there was a lot of controversy about Tom Cruise's playing Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, who was one of 20 German Army officers who plotted to assassinate Hitler.
It was not nearly as big a story in Germany. I think there was an instant reaction that Tom somehow brought with him something inappropriate. I was surprised by the storm, but I think there is an understandable sensitivity of Germans of how an important element in the war — the actions of the people who were anti-Nazi in the Army in the German high command — is not an element known well by the rest of the world.
Does the political climate today, with all its conflict, make for better filmmaking?
I think that has substance. I would say that there is a sense of the preciousness with the planet; we are more keenly aware, whatever the divisions, whatever the debate, whatever the disagreements about the nature of climate change. The notion of brevity, not only in terms of human life but the life of the planet, is focusing the creative mind very intently. You can also argue that the apparently superficial — like the need for us to do things that make us laugh — is perhaps intensively created at a time like this. You really need those escape-hatch activities.
What do you think of the political messages coming out of Hollywood these days from people like George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio and Angelina Jolie?
I have a lot of admiration for these people because they are smart enough to understand the price that they will pay in terms of criticism and accusations of self-aggrandizement or trivializing of the issues. I think they understand every part of that and still decide to go ahead and respond. I think it involves a significant amount of courage to stand up and be counted and that their celebrity status does not protect them — in fact, quite the opposite.