Kenneth Branagh's Second Act
He once had the world at his feet; then the kicking began. But now, thanks to Wallander, Lord Olivier and lots of self-help books, our leading ‘luvvie’ is loved again
The Telegraph, 27 November 2011
Kenneth Branagh is musing on the traits of a typical Sagittarian.
“There’s a refusal to knuckle under, which is something I admire enormously,” he says. “There’s an endurance and a mental toughness. It’s like Steve Redgrave, winning that fifth gold medal at the Sydney Olympics, which had me in floods of tears; the unbelievable effort, and the lack of heroism that becomes its own kind of heroism. What did he do? He held on. That’s it? Yes, but it really added up.”
It seems superfluous to add that Branagh himself is a Sagittarian, and that his own stubborn determination to hold on, in the face of sometimes virulent adversity, has added up to a volume of work spanning four decades. In the late Eighties, he was the new Olivier, emulating the be-knighted colossus by forming his own theatre company (Renaissance) and staging his own (Oscar-nominated) movie version of 'Henry V'. In the Nineties, he married Emma Thompson, and the pair became lightning rods for what the media saw as a kind of overreaching luvvie-geddon, in which smugness (casting all their Footlights friends in the ensemble comedy 'Peter’s Friends') was trumped only by hubris (Branagh publishing his autobiography, Beginning, at the age of 29).
In the Noughties, he seemed to take a step back, putting in good performances in ropey movies like 'Wild Wild West'. And now?
Now – whisper it soft — Branagh is approaching the status of, if not national treasure, then at least an heirloom whose value is garnering appreciation. A large part of the reason for this was his casting as Kurt Wallander, Henning Mankell’s rumpled, melancholy Swedish detective. He’s filming his third season of the BBC’s Sunday night staple, and we’re sitting in the house he rents on the Swedish coast during filming, a capacious, onion-domed affair — a kind of Orthodox Bates Motel – which, he says as he feeds a wood-burner, used to be a meeting house for alcoholics.
Ystad, the town Wallander calls home, is a couple of miles down the road, and Branagh’s house looks over the pristine waters of the Baltic; a perfect spot for the ruminative cast of mind that comes with playing Wallander but which, since turning 50 last December, seems also to be Branagh’s default setting. “It’s definitely the age where a kind of mental stocktaking kicks in,” he says, taking a sip of tea.
How does he account for the changed public attitude toward him? “It may simply be a longevity thing,” he says. “I have a career that’s sort of stacked up behind me, and if I was once guilty of that sin of doing too much, which seems rather vulgar in British eyes, it can be forgiven if a few conspicuous failures and kickings pile up. Plus you have the concomitant ups and downs of life, the first marriage not working out, etc. So you go through the hubris and schadenfreude and out the other side,” he grins. “And there’s a whole bunch of people coming up behind you who are the next lot to annoy.”
This is fairly typical of the eloquent locutions that Branagh spins; he has the gift of taking you with him on a train of thought, while also deftly deflecting questions of a more personal or intrusive nature. Ask him too directly about his emotional ups and downs, or mention his ex-wife Thompson, and he’ll respond with an anecdote about, say, Sir Henry Irving’s fundamentalist response to his wife’s criticisms of his work (he flounced out of their carriage and never spoke to her again) which, though diverting, isn’t terribly illuminating in his own case.
In person, he’s slighter than he appears on screen, but his voice gives him a commanding presence; something he exploits to the full in his new film 'My Week With Marilyn'. In a direct engagement with his own past, the one-time new Olivier plays the old Olivier, in a comedy that follows the on-set battles between Sir Larry and Marilyn Monroe (played to the sexy-sassy-vulnerable hilt by Michelle Williams) during the making of the 1957 confection 'The Prince and the Showgirl'.
The film is based on a memoir by Colin Clark (son of Kenneth, brother of Alan) who, despite his lowly status on set, became Monroe’s confidante as the clash between her Method style and Olivier’s traditional theatrical technique risked derailing the production. Branagh, all crisp lisp and camp grandstanding, plays it like screwball comedy, while suggesting Olivier’s fear of being outmoded by the wave of naturalistic acting that Monroe was a harbinger of. But did he have concerns about rekindling the Olivier thing?
“I suppose I did, but in the end, what it came down to was, is it a good part? And will it be fun? One thing that struck me about the screenplay was that, in our world today, not many people have actually seen a Monroe film. She’s just an iconic figure, like Chaplin, that you can summon in three strokes of a pen. And Olivier is even further removed.
“I came into the business 30 years ago, when he was still alive and still the world’s greatest actor. My generation was very aware of his work, and part of the excitement of doing this was to draw attention to him. The film captures him at a watershed moment; after it wrapped, he went off and did John Osborne’s 'The Entertainer' at the Royal Court, which transformed him from a stuffed shirt to something renewed and relevant, which he was very keen to be.”
He grins. “He was only 50, and I can say that, being the same age. He didn’t want to be some old fossil, just trotting out the classics.” Olivier, like Branagh, was a man who was admired by everyone he worked with (the testimonials to Branagh could fill volumes, from Judi Dench – “You can trust Ken with your life” – to Rob Brydon, his co-star in The Painkiller, the comedy they recently appeared in at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre: “Ken’s brain works 10 times faster than the rest of us”). Olivier understood, says Branagh, that as an actor/director/manager, you wear many masks: “You’re a tough leader, and a camp troubadour; you try to be all things to all people.
“Olivier wanted to seduce everyone; he called himself a vulgarian, and said that every man and woman in an audience should come out of a performance wanting to f--- you.” He shrugs. “Maybe that produced what Gielgud called a furious ambition in him to conquer in all ways.”
This also seemed to be Branagh’s motor in his early days. He was born in Belfast, to working-class Protestant parents; his father, William, was a joiner. In 1970, the family relocated to Reading when the Troubles pitched up, in the form of a paving-stone barricade, at the end of their street.
Branagh immediately dropped his Irish accent, to avoid being bullied at school, but retained within him “that old Irish storytelling sense”, as well as “a Calvinist work ethic”. The former got him to Rada and the RSC, before he founded Renaissance in 1987, and the latter enabled him to mount his own productions and pay people “a fair wage, on an equal footing”. But there were other factors at play. In 'My Week With Marilyn', Olivier, on being told that Monroe is scared to come on set, barks furiously: “I’ve spent half my life in abject terror — it’s what actors do.”
Was fear also a spur for Branagh? “Yes, there were times when, for example, it would take two days for me to screw up my courage to call Judi Dench and see if she wanted to do a production,” he says. “But when I look back, it seems like I was mostly running on excitement and adrenalin.
“I remember being in the wings on the first night of 'Hamlet' for the RSC in 1992, so nervous that my hands were shaking and I thought I was going to vomit. I had to make a choice, there and then, to get to the other side of that — breathe, don’t be sick, go on. I forgot a couple of lines in the first soliloquy, and had to paraphrase in front of the ranks of the press, and the world didn’t stop turning. Too much fear paralyses you.”
And what about opprobrium? At the height of his mid-Nineties’ ubiquity — playing Hamlet, directing himself and Thompson in the noir pastiche Dead Again, directing a remake of Frankenstein and playing the title role opposite Robert de Niro, then moving in with co-star Helena Bonham Carter — the levels of vitriol he attracted were inordinate, even by British standards; one critic wrote that he and Thompson were “determined to shove their gorgeousness down the public’s throats”. How did it all make him feel?
Branagh shifts in his chair, hoisting his shoulders into a vaguely combative stance. “The wonderful advantage of that time was that I was so incredibly busy that I didn’t have time to dwell on it,” he says.
“If I had, I couldn’t have functioned. But it’s like, why would I be spared? No one’s ever got away with it. Olivier didn’t. Gielgud didn’t. Maggie Smith didn’t. She went to Canada in the Seventies because she simply couldn’t hack being unfairly slagged off. She was completely out of fashion before she re-emerged as an institution. I once asked her what it felt like to do Zeffirelli’s 'Romeo & Juliet', how did it feel to wake up to that sort of success? She said, ‘I’ll tell you what I woke up with — the worst f---ing reviews of my career. But the public loved it, and we got on with it.’
“Unfortunate remarks stay with you for a day or two if you admit them,” he adds, taking a sip of tea. “But I’m all for keeping your tears to yourself, on the whole.”
Bruised or not, Branagh seemed to take his foot off the gas through the late Nineties and early Noughties. There were films that struggled to make it into art-houses, like a Busby Berkeley-inflected version of 'As You Like It', and a First World War-set take on 'The Magic Flute', and while he received good notices for the title role of Shackleton in a 2002 television movie (and married its art director, Lindsay Brunnock), his most high-profile role was as Professor Gilderoy Lockhart in 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets'.
There was talk that Branagh was fighting off bouts of incipient depression with meditation. Today, he says only that yes, his acting mojo went Awol, adding that he’s an avid student of self-help books, and “those travel books that have people leaving Shepherd’s Bush and setting up in a tiny place in Italy, because I like to read about people grappling with the business of being in our world.”
Branagh’s rehabilitation came in 2008, with the role of Wallander; the somewhat battered former wünderkind, and the glass-half-empty Swedish detective, bemoaning the corruption lurking beneath the Swedish liberal idyll, made an alchemically perfect fit. “It was a game-changer for me,” he says now, the dusk gathering outside the windows.
“I don’t really understand why, and I analyse less than I ever did, but there were years where I found acting very difficult — I wanted to reach some new level, break through somehow, and with Wallander, the rawness and naturalism of the character, I found it liberating to take things away. It’s all about being absorbed and making things simple and trusting your instincts more.”
'Wallander' has ushered in a fruitful period for Branagh; in the past three years, he’s also directed the Marvel action movie 'Thor', starring Natalie Portman and Sir Anthony Hopkins. He might have seemed an odd choice for such a project — Portman called it “super-weird, which made me want to do it” – but Branagh typically pitched his take on the Norse god of thunder as “a story of a father and his two sons”, and the film has grossed nearly $500m worldwide.
“I was up for the challenge,” he says, “you know, the whole 10-camera-crew and 18-tons-of-latex thing, and I loved holding my ground and yelling for my corner, and I’m thrilled it was a big hit.”
He went straight from that to 'The Painkiller', an adaptation of a French farce in which Branagh played a vain hitman. It was a reminder that he could do comedy, and was now ready, thanks to writer/director Sean Foley’s barbed references in the script to his continuing lack of an upper lip, to laugh at himself.
“I am enjoying myself more,” he says. “I loved doing 'The Painkiller', I loved playing Olivier — I even loved the prosthetic chin I had to wear to give me his dimple — and I’m loving 'Wallander'. It all felt like a period of work that’s been quite complete. I’d be happy to do another action picture, and I’m developing a few films, but nothing’s ready to go yet. I’ve just been allowing myself to go with the flow.”
Given his half-century and the fact that both his parents have died in the past seven years, has Branagh given any thought to his own legacy? He grins. “When I was 21, I did 'To the Lighthouse' on TV with Michael Gough. I asked him if he’d encourage his kids to go into the business. He looked thunderous, and said ‘There’s only one actor of my generation who’s had a career of honour, and that’s Paul Scofield.’” Branagh studies the embers in the wood-burner. “I guess, if there was a legacy, one might want to think that one had aspired to a career of honour. In its pockmarked and flawed way,” he adds, hastily.
Branagh and Brunnock have no children – “there’s no mystery, it just simply hasn’t happened” – so he’s not in a position to encourage or otherwise, though he says that young actors often seek advice from him. “It’s funny, getting to the point where I’m sometimes perceived as a veteran,” he says. “I don’t feel like a veteran. In fact, I feel in some ways almost like I’m beginning again.”
He checks himself. “Sounds like a good title for a second volume of autobiography, doesn’t it? Actually, I’d originally thought of doing three books — Beginning, Middle and End.” And where would we be now? “Just past the Middle, I think,” he says. “I hope the End’s some way off yet.”
‘My Week With Marilyn’ is on release now.