For Nearly Three Decades, Kenneth Branagh Has Been Bringing the Bard to the Big Screen: Has He Earned the Title of Shakespearean Auteur?
Shakespeare Magazine, January 2017
Auteurs are filmmakers whose personal influence and artistic control are so great that, despite the collaborative process of moviemaking, we recognize them as the authors of their films. Auteurs you may have heard of include Charlie Chaplin, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino.
What about filmmakers who consistently work within the realm of Shakespeare? Can we consider, for example, Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, Julie Taymor and Kenneth Branagh masters of Shakespeare onscreen? A recent issue of Shakespeare Quarterly takes on the first four directors, so let’s consider Kenneth Branagh – who has brought to screen, in some form or another, nearly 20 percent of Shakespeare’s works.
Branagh has directed film adaptations of 'Henry V' (1989), 'Much Ado about Nothing' (1993), 'Hamlet' (1996), 'Love’s Labour’s Lost' (2000) and 'As You Like It' (2006). His 1995 film 'In The Bleak Midwinter' (US title: 'A Midwinter’s Tale') features a struggling actor who strives to put on a production of Hamlet in a village church. Most recently, rumors have circulated that Martin Scorsese will produce a sort of documentary with Branagh as Macbeth.
Even Branagh’s non-Shakespearean ventures feature Shakespearean themes. 'Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein' (1994) contains Hamlet’s existential ideas, a Titus Andronicus-like house of spare body parts, and echoes of Caliban as Robert De Niro’s monster laments onscreen: “Yes, I speak, and read, and think, and know the ways of man”.
Additionally, Branagh’s Hollywood blockbusters like 'Thor' (2011) and 'Cinderella' (2014) consist of, respectively, a flawed hero who must earn the right to be king and a fairy-tale world that Branagh has, in interviews, likened to 'The Winter’s Tale'. Finally, also reaffirming Branagh’s association with cinematic Shakespeare are his turn as Iago in Oliver Parker’s 'Othello' (1995) and as Laurence Olivier in 'My Week with Marilyn' (2011).
Another reason we can consider Branagh an auteur of Shakespeare onscreen is his loyalty to British Shakespeare actors and production team. This deliberate choice contributes not only to Branagh’s style, but also to the films’ seeming credibility. In other words, trained British actors “doing Shakespeare” are theoretically more palatable for many audiences than someone like Al Pacino, for example, whose American accent was ridiculed in his Richard III-based documentary, 'Looking for Richard' (1996).
Like John Ford, Spike Lee, and Quentin Tarantino, Kenneth Branagh recycles collaborators. He consistentely employs Tim Harvey (production designer), Patrick Doyle (composer) and Roger Lanser (cinematographer) as well as core cast members like Brian Blessed, Derek Jacobi, Richard Clifford and Richard Briers. Indeed, when these names appear onscreen, we know we’re getting a Branagh film.
That said, Branagh also stocks his films with multinational and multiracial casts. He knows that, in order for his Shakespeare adaptations to succeed in the US, American stars like Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, Keanu Reeves, Kevin Kline and Bryce Dallas Howard can help boost those box-office receipts.
Speaking of casting, Kenneth Branagh also repeatedly casts himself in his own adaptations. Like Spike Lee and Woody Allen, this makes him a director/auteur who unquestionably stamps his own personality onto his body of work. Aside from 'As You Like It', in which he appears only via voiceover, each of Branagh’s Shakespeare films stars Kenneth Branagh. Moreover, as Jessica Maerz reminds readers in 'Locating Shakespeare in the Twenty-First Century', virtually all of Branagh’s Shakespeare film adaptations are based on previous theatrical productions in which he starred at the Royal Shakespeare Company and Renaissance Theatre Company. Again, this decision lends a sense of credibility to Branagh’s filmic work.
As a Shakespeare film director, Branagh mostly eschews early modern settings and costumes, a decision that reinforces his desire to bring Shakespeare to the masses. Kenneth Branagh’s 'Henry V', 'Much Ado About Nothing', and 'Hamlet' offer audiences a vague notion of the past, and the Shepperton soundstage for 'Love’s Labour’s Lost' has been described as being “decked out with walls, willows and punts to make a kind of ‘movie Oxbridge’.”
Only with 'As You Like It' does Branagh give viewers a specific historical time and place: the film’s title card begins with: “In the latter part of the 19th century, Japan opened up for trade with the West”. For Branagh then, moving around Shakespeare physically and temporally makes it seem as though he, as the Washington Post once noted, is finally “blowing away the forbidding academic dust”.
Finally, Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare film adaptations (and many of his non-Shakespeare films) include rich mise-en-scenes and sweeping cinematography, both of which serve to illuminate Shakespeare’s poetry and prose. Recall the lushness of color, texture, food, and costume within Branagh’s 'Much Ado' and 'As You Like It', both visually romantic films. Even his Hamlet – with its wintry setting, the never-ending streams of gilded mirrors, and the hardened stone walls of Blenheim Palace – appear visually luxurious on a 30-foot screen, not to mention in 70mm (as it premiered). Likewise, Branagh’s cinematographic choices – specifically sequence shots, or scenes that unfold in one long take, and Steadicam tracking shots that encircle characters – work with the flow of Shakespeare’s language. Perhaps the most memorable example of both of these stylistic choices is his four-minute tracking shot in 'Henry V', in which Branagh’s Prince Hal carries his dead luggage boy (Christian Bale) across the solider-strewn battlefield as ‘Non Nobis’ somberly plays on the soundtrack.
Like other filmmakers who’ve been labelled auteurs, Kenneth Branagh is drawn to distinct stories, themes and motifs. He commits to a core cast and crew (that often includes himself). He also refuses to set Shakespeare contemporaneously and possesses a passionate desire to bring Shakespeare’s language to the masses.
Finally, he boasts a signature directorial style and production aesthetic. But through it all, Kenneth Branagh almost always helps to shine a light on Shakespeare – and really, isn’t that what a master of Shakespeare onscreen should do?