Profile: Kenneth Branagh
The Luvvie Some Find Hard to Love
Over the years, the actor-director has had more than his fair share of critical sniping, but with two new films set to open this month, he should be confirmed in his position as one of this country's brightest talents
The Observer, 18 November 2007
The price of early success is the heightened standard against which lesser achievements are judged a failure. Few careers illustrate this unforgiving rule more clearly than that of Kenneth Branagh.
His latest directorial effort, "Sleuth", which stars Jude Law and Michael Caine (who appeared in the Seventies original) and is scripted by Harold Pinter, premieres today and opens next Friday. And a screen adaptation of Mozart's opera "The Magic Flute", with a libretto by Stephen Fry, is released next week.
For most people in the film business - indeed in life - the dual efforts would amount to a major accomplishment. But Branagh's work tends not to be evaluated in those terms. Instead, it's measured against the extraordinary promise of his youth. Thus each new project, be it as a screen actor, a stage actor, writer or director, is seen as a sort of comeback, even though he has never stopped working.
From the moment he was nominated best actor and best director for "Henry V" at the 1990 Oscars, Branagh was in a near-perfect position to experience a decline. Immediately afterwards, he later recalled, he felt an intimation of the approaching fall. 'I thought, "Well, this is all going to turn nasty."'
And so it did. He was guilty of a can-do attitude that, as he once observed, is seen as 'vulgar' in Britain. For a brief period in the late Eighties and early Nineties, Branagh was spoken of as the new Olivier, a comparison that, wittingly or not, he had in obvious ways invited. Not only did he follow Olivier in starring in and directing a celebrated "Henry V", he was also married to a successful actress. Emma Thompson may not have been as glamorous as Vivien Leigh, but she added substance to the image of a new theatrical aristocracy and, therefore, to the desire of his critics to see him brought down to size.
His decision, at 29, to publish his autobiography, "Beginning", in the same year as his Oscar nominations was widely interpreted as hubris. A decade later, he acknowledged the book, though ostensibly written to raise funds for his theatre company, was 'probably a step too far'.
The snide resentment or envy that Branagh and Thompson engendered was to be heard in the barbed response to 1992's "Peter's Friends". Packed with Kenneth's friends, it was dismissed as self-indulgent luvviedom. However, the reception afforded "Frankenstein" in 1995 made the earlier notices seem like fan letters.
In his "Biographical Dictionary of Film", David Thomson called it 'one of the worst films of the decade' and concluded: 'Nothing suggests that Branagh is either competent or interesting when detached from Shakespeare.' That was one of the more restrained reviews. In truth, it was a heavy-handed piece of work, though far from the worst blockbuster Hollywood has produced - that title goes to "Wild Wild West", in which Branagh played the dastardly Dr Loveless.
Branagh described the 'savage personal criticism' of Frankenstein as 'bruising and humiliating'. To make a difficult situation worse, his marriage broke up around the same time and he began a relationship with his "Frankenstein" co-star Helena Bonham Carter; the new coupling proved no more endearing to the media than his marriage had been.
'I have to make an appointment to see her,' he had once quipped of Thompson. When asked about having a baby, she had joked: 'Ken is so tired, his sperm are on crutches.' The ambition that had united them was duly blamed for their separation.
As is the journalistic tradition in these circumstances, there was schadenfreude all round. When he also parted with his agent, he was depicted as an egomaniac and accused of displaying the 'petulant arrogance of a spoilt child when things go wrong'. The same writer warned that his ambition was congealing into 'the spite of peevishness'.
Yet it remains unclear exactly why Branagh became, as one newspaper put it, the man we love to mock. He's never said anything particularly controversial, much less unkind. He isn't boorish. Friends, and even enemies, describe him as 'self-deprecating'. And unlike the vast majority of contemporary 'celebrities', he's got talent.
After his Frankenstein monstering, he returned with an unabridged four-hour film version of "Hamlet" that garnered rave reviews, again casting himself in the lead role. The play and the part form a recurring motif in Branagh's career. The story goes that it was seeing Derek Jacobi in Hamlet that inspired him to become an actor. He starred in Adrian Noble's acclaimed 1992 stage production and in 2009 he will be directing Jude Law as the Danish prince at the Wyndham's Theatre.
Branagh is beyond doubt a fine and, on occasion, brilliant actor. And not just in Shakespeare. Two of his most powerful performances have come this decade in television productions. In "Conspiracy", his chilling portrayal of the Nazi Reinhard Heydrich won an Emmy. And in "Warm Springs", unseen in Britain, he earned plaudits for his convincing depiction of Franklin D Roosevelt.
And though the luvvie label has stuck, his instincts have always been if not populist, then geared to impressing a wider audience than merely his theatrical peers. Which is perhaps just as well, given the comment of John Gielgud: 'You can't call him great. In a way, he's a better organiser and director than actor.'
Certainly, actors testify to his abilities as a director. Michael Caine says he's a 'great actor's director', but also talks glowingly of his 'filming sense'. Branagh also liked to send himself up on set. 'He's not at all a luvvie, but he's worked with luvvies,' says Caine, 'so he used to say to me and Jude after a scene, "Very nancy natural, dears!"'
Hamish McColl, who co-wrote and co-starred in the West End hit "The Play What I Wrote", was surprised by the intensity of Branagh's method. 'He was not at all what I was expecting. He was very unaffected, deeply committed, exacting, with a lot of brass balls and a precise intelligence. He really brought our game up.'
McColl was especially impressed by the way he took a back seat when it mattered. 'There was a guest star, famous actor element to the production and when it came to opening night in London, we were terrified. But he was fantastic at making us feel that it was our show. He's not in the least a self-publicist. I'm forever grateful to him for raising us up a notch.'
Like another misunderstood character, he is the son of a carpenter. He was born in Belfast to a Protestant family. They moved to Reading when he was nine to escape the Troubles. To his credit, he's shown little interest in playing the working-class hero. For all his Shakespearean pedigree, he's as close to classless as the English theatre does.
He was the kind of bright kid who informed his mother, when she told him that she had to be cruel to be kind, that the phrase came from Hamlet. Graduating from Rada at 21, he landed the role of Judd, the angry public-school boy in "Another Country". The following year, he became the youngest actor ever to perform the role of "Henry V" for the Royal Shakespeare Company. And when he was 27 he and fellow actor David Parfitt set up the Renaissance Theatre Company.
It was assumed that Branagh could have done none of this without supreme self-confidence and a massive sense of his own importance. But he has subsequently revealed the fear and insecurity he had to overcome. Just to call Judi Dench to ask her to direct for Renaissance took 'two days of pacing up and down, physically shaking and sweating, even writing a script for the phone call'.
Nor is he without his psychological doubts and demons. He said once - perhaps not coincidentally while promoting "Hamlet" - that he suffered from 'deep and wide-ranging' depression. 'You wake up one morning and everything is grey. Nothing makes sense.' His close friends, he said, described him as a 'loner', though he felt 'at ease' in his own company.
According to one of his friends, Branagh seems happier now in middle age. He married art director Lindsay Brunnock in 2003 and they live in Berkshire, the county of his youth. He got together with Brunnock when they both worked on "Shackleton", the C4 mini-series in which he played the Antarctic explorer. Next year, there are plans for his return to British television in a BBC series of Tudor detective stories based on CJ Sansom's Shardlake. He'll also be seen on stage as the lead in Chekhov's "Ivanov". Throw in all the other performances in recent years, among them Gilderoy Lockhart in the second Harry Potter film, and direction - he slipped out his fifth Shakespeare film, "As You Like It", earlier this year - and there seems little evidence that his engine is slowing.
So why has this rather mild, unstarry and sensitive man been the subject of ongoing ridicule? The answer appears to be that his mouth is too small. He doesn't look like a leading man. And as a character actor, he lacks character. Or to put it another way, his reach exceeds his lips.
Had he been more conventionally handsome, he could have been forgiven his ambition. But the signs are that a more accurate picture of Branagh is beginning to take shape. He's not a big mouth, just a big talent.
The Branagh lowdown
Born: 10 December 1960 in Belfast. He moved to Reading with his family in 1970.
Best of times: The best actor and best director Oscar nominations for Henry V in 1990.
Worst of times: The savaging Mary Shelley's Frankenstein received in 1995 and the break-up of his marriage to Emma Thompson the same year.
What he says: 'I'm like a shark. There is a sense that I have to keep moving forward, the motivation always being to try and just get better.'
What others say: 'I wanted a regular man who wasn't so good-looking.' Woody Allen on why he cast Branagh in Celebrity.