Beyond Our Ken
Back in the director’s chair with "Sleuth", Kenneth Branagh reveals there is more to him than his luvvie image suggests
Sunday Herald, 1 December 2007
You could watch "Sleuth" very closely without learning much about its director. As for its lead actor Jude Law, who initiated this particular film project, you might consider it evidence of a film star with his prettiness fading, scratching in the litter tray of his ego, and measuring himself against greatness, or Michael Caine.
Caine's own presence in "Sleuth" suggests only playfulness, as the old stager fiddles with the dimmer switch of his professional charisma.
And about Harold Pinter, who wrote the script, you could measure the length of his pregnant pauses, and wonder about the misanthropy of the Nobel Laureate. (Or as, The New York Times's Manohla Dargis put it: "If you like your contempt for humanity served overcooked and oozing fatty blobs of preening, lazy self-regard, you could not improve on Harold Pinter's redo of the 1970 Anthony Shaffer play.") But Branagh? Well, once your eyes get accustomed to the harsh light he throws on his characters, this seems an oddly experimental film, and daring in its avoidance of anything that might relax the audience. It is about acting, and the fact that good acting is persuasive deception. But more than this, it is about the terror of finding yourself in a room with another man.
So, we are in the office of a PR company. Branagh is on the far side of the coffee table waiting for his decaff. He is dressed in forgettable clothes and looks weary - and wary too. The last time we spoke, he was directing "Ducktastic!", a West End entertainment that closed early. I tell him I was surprised to find a man of his reputation dabbling with magic ducks.
"Ducktastic!" was a collaboration with The Right Size (Hamish McColl and Sean Foley) who also worked with Branagh on their Morecambe and Wise show, "The Play What I Wrote". That too seemed like a departure for Branagh, but he says his natural inclination is towards comedy.
His 1989 autobiography, Beginning, also reveals that in his late adolescence, as a bookish Belfast boy living in Reading, he used to write letters to TV stars. The first was to Eric and Ernie, and their reply was the first letter he ever received addressed to him as an adult. Even now, that seems surprising, as Branagh is defined by seriousness, and the implication of self-regard. That autobiography was written before he was 30, and it came with a dust-cover proclaiming him the most acclaimed actor of his generation.
His debut as a film director, "Henry V", was showered with awards (including Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Actor). He followed it with "Dead Again", in which he co-starred with his then-partner Emma Thompson, and in 1992, made the grating "Peter's Friends", in which a group of university chums are reunited after 10 years.
Around this time, his public image was fixed as a smug luvvie. Branagh is too canny to admit that he cares about this stuff, but he doesn't deny it when it is suggested that he has attracted suspicion, if not hostility. Why did it happen?
"You end up talking to too many people. You do too many interviews. Because the man who paid for the film says you have to, because you must. So you say yes, and suddenly you're over-exposed. And people think you're an arse, when to some extent you were doing what you were told. Then you know a little bit better, say no, and people get the hump because you're not talking to them. So you're damned if you do, and damned if you don't, and that's fine - and you've just got to find your own way through it."
Was that first flush of fame confusing?
"Yes. But I think that growing up is quite confusing. I was lucky as well as hard-working to do the work that I did, and to gain attention for it, and to remain employed and doing interesting things, which seemed to me to be the achievement of it, rather than the notoriety or fame. There was a determination to stay real. It sounds a bit clichéd, but to thine own self be true. And keep your friendships going, and have a sense of who you are outside the spinning top that is one's first encounter with celebrity."
Branagh is about to turn 47 and lives quietly with his wife Lindsey Brunnock, an art director he met on the Emmy-nominated TV drama "Shackleton", and his recent work has been diligent. After his cinematic "Hamlet" (four Oscar nominations), he acted in Robert Altman's "The Gingerbread Man" and Woody Allen's "Celebrity", and won an Emmy for the TV drama "Conspiracy". Along with the rest of the British theatrical establishment, he appeared in the second Harry Potter film (as Gilderoy Lockhart). All good stuff, and displaying more variety than his stuffy reputation might suggest, if not quite as much brilliance as his early notices promised.
Asked whether turning 40 was significant he brushes the question aside and then reconsiders it. "It's an interesting point in my life, because I lost my parents in the last two-and-a-half years.
"Of course, I'm not remotely happy that they're gone. But you can carry on. You can get on with the morning [sic]. They were both ill, so there was some sense of the burden has been taken away', although there's the big ache of the loss. But, by the very fact of them going, you are woken up again to the fact that we are here for a shortish time. It makes you look at life in a slightly different way. I feel very positive about life. I'm determined to enjoy every part of it I can."
When it was published, Branagh's autobiography disappointed those who were after showbiz gossip. But the early chapters, about his upbringing in Belfast, bear re-examination. It is a childhood of visiting relatives. At his granny's, he'd be certain to see his Aunt Annie, and maybe her kids, Eileen and Joss. On the bus, he'd bump into Aunt Kathleen and Uncle Jim. There was football in the street, holidays at Butlins, and games of hide-and-seek.
From this distance, it sounds idyllic. But his schooling was Dickensian, with a Pinteresque headmaster. There were no books in the house.
Branagh locates the roots of his interest in performance in two incidents: his brother's rehearsals for an end-of-term concert in which he played a blacked-up minstrel; and seeing Burt Lancaster in "The Birdman Of Alcatraz".
This was also the time of the Troubles, and the Branaghs fled Belfast for Reading after an incident where young Ken heard a strange buzzing, like the sound of distant bees, which turned out to be a group of "wild-eyed Protestants" from the Shankill Road, smashing the windows of Catholics. A barricade was erected at the end of the street, and Branagh notes that "in the strange intoxication of the time" he joined a gang looting a supermarket, and was surprised by the speed with which his mother knocked him sideways when he returned home with his trophies: a packet of Omo and jar of Vim.
Of his years, he recites a litany of formative influences. "Working class, protestant - although I don't know that the protestant side of things made much difference - both parents, so a large extended family; a sense of duty, a sense of where you are, a series of values. And part of the impact of Belfast and Northern Ireland on me is the leaving of it. At nine, and being slightly untimely ripped, as it were, from that situation, into a fairly isolated nuclear family situation. And moving up the social chain slightly, in terms of being lower middle-class.
"And, I suppose, a slight sense of losing oneself and then being involved in the life of the imagination. Having your own dreams and schemes."
Clearly he has thought about this. In Reading, he had to become almost bilingual, speaking in a suburban English accent at school, and reverting to Belfast at home. "An Ulster accent wasn't a popular sound to be making." He pauses. "It was just a sense of being isolated, actually. Of being a fish out of water. So I suppose that developed the muscles to be independent of mind and thought.
Does he mean he got used to the idea that adults have to make up their identities? He shakes his head.
"The work I have as an actor involves you on the reverse journey. You're constantly trying to work out what is absolutely real. You're trying to find the real you. That might be assuming a different accent or playing somebody from a different historical period, but you're looking for the genuine, authentic voice of a human being. It's part of the paradox of being an actor: you end up making up a lot of voices in order to find out what your voice is."
By any standard other than his own, Branagh's past few years have been busy. But he admits he restricted the work he did so that he remained close to his ailing parents. In the year since his father died, he has travelled more than he did in the previous seven. This is reflected on the slate of his upcoming work. He has a film of "The Magic Flute" coming out, and a central role in Bryan ("Usual Suspects") Singer's "Valkyrie", playing Henning von Tresckow, alongside his old friend Tom Cruise, in a film about the plot to assassinate Hitler. Cruise, he says, is well-cast as the aristocratic Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg.
The death of his parents has affected him profoundly. His father, he says, "was an absolutely spectacular fella. He was a genuinely decent man. And very unshowy. Very happy with his lot. He used to say: I've got a lot to be modest about'."
The hostility he attracts may be because he is a working-class boy who appeared to get above himself? "Possibly my mum and dad never changed from the year dot. They did not acquire airs and graces. Till the day she died, my mum was going to bingo twice a week. My dad had a bet every day and a pint every day down at the working men's club. And he came to live with me for the last six months, and there's a working men's club up the road from me, which I'm a member of, and he was a member of. It was just a very particular way of looking at the world. For instance, they didn't start going to the theatre. They were never keep-up-with-the-Joneses types.
"The cliché would be that they kept me grounded. I didn't want there to be any sense that they needed to know things, or have read books or operas in order to speak to me, or be spouting Shakespeare. So it was a permanent reality check. Which is faintly ridiculous. Not getting above yourself can be taken to ridiculous extremes in the protestant work ethic conscience. You're in such denial sometimes, about the fact that you've done rather well, that it's exhausting."
On the page, this may seem like a man being boastful about his own modesty. In person, it is delivered reluctantly, with a self-deprecating laugh. Branagh should, perhaps, worry less about the masks of "Sleuth", and let people see more of the Morecambe and Wise fan within.