Kenneth Branagh Opts For a Simpler Path — Onstage and Onscreen
As acclaimed actor, writer and director matures, he now prefers to let stories tell themselves, as he did with his latest hit film, 'Cinderella
Toronto Star, 11 September 2015
If you're looking for someone to put a contemporary spin on a classic story, look no further than Kenneth Branagh.
The 54-year-old actor, director and writer most recently showed his stuff with the hit Disney rendition of 'Cinderella' (available Tuesday on DVD and Blu-ray), but he also brought the superhero genre back to thundering life with 'Thor', rethought Shakespeare onscreen for an entire generation with his 'Henry V' and even gave the TV detective format new zing with his performance in 'Wallander' (back on Netflix).
Now he's about to step into those most treacherous of waters, the sea of the actor-manager, when he launches the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company this fall in London, presenting six plays featuring veterans such as Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi, as well as his 'Cinderella' stars, Lily James and Richard Madden.
“You think I'm a bit busy these days?” he laughs over the phone from England. “Well, that's just the way I like it.”
Branagh is the kind of man who paints with bold colours, in his life as well as in his art, which is why he might have seemed an odd choice to put in charge of a Disney version of 'Cinderella', but he thinks it made perfect sense.
“It's a classic saga, in the best sense of the word, and I have devoted my life to those kinds of tales. I believe in the power of the story; that is what I devote myself to first and foremost. Whether it's a doomed Danish prince, a mythological Nordic god or a young girl searching for happiness at a ball, I must take their tale and tell it truly.
“You won't find me going in for any postmodern garbage, being cynical about the story or mocking the people I'm presenting to you. That's not my style. There's a certain traditionalism you expect when you see 'Cinderella' and I am there to deliver it: the mountainous middle European kingdom, a certain colour palette, a degree of visual lushness.”
He's been spinning a web with that gorgeous voice of his, but suddenly he slams his hand down on an unseen desk, jolting the conversation into another key.
“But don't think all of that means I think it's just masquerade and make believe. No! I insisted on a contemporary emotional quality. More heightened than people were expecting. Acting that was happening from the inside and was as real as possible.”
Canadian star Colm Feore, a friend of Branagh's who worked with him on 'Thor', recalls his experience watching 'Cinderella' on a plane recently.
“I thought, ‘Oh well, here's Ken's movie, I ought to look at it,' and the next thing I knew, I had tears rolling down my cheeks. Dammit, he's good at what he does.”
And he's not alone in that estimation. To date, 'Cinderella' has grossed more than $542 million worldwide, yet Branagh is strangely modest in discussing its success.
“You know what the big secret of 'Cinderella' was? That I, Kenneth Branagh, got out of the way and let the story be told.”
That kind of modesty didn't mark Branagh earlier in his career. Born in Belfast in 1960 and educated at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he quickly cut a swath through the world of British theatre and, by the time he was 28, he had married Emma Thompson and released his film version of 'Henry V', which he adapted, directed and starred in.
He was nominated for two Oscars for the film (as actor and director) and his star kept rising. During the filming of his 'Mary Shelley's Frankenstein', he began a very public affair with his leading lady, Helena Bonham Carter, which led to the end of his marriage to Thompson.
He continued making high-profile films, such as his 1996 'Hamlet' (another Oscar nomination for adapted screenplay), but after the failure of his 'Love's Labour's Lost' in 2000, his career slipped into a more minor key for a decade, until 'Thor' ($449 million worldwide gross) kicked him back to the top.
“Yes, things are different for me this time around,” he admits. “I feel blessed every day. Every moment is a bonus. Every second of working on a project I love fills me with joy.
“Do I feel I am more mature now? Indeed I do. Nowadays, I gravitate to the greatest amount of simplicity possible. I'll be directing 'Romeo and Juliet' this year, with my wonderful Lily and Richard from 'Cinderella'. And yes, I've done it before, but now it's going to be different. Nowadays, I'm continually trying to take things away to reveal, reveal, reveal rather than impose, impose, impose.”
He chuckles ruefully. “Yes, I suppose I was rather imposing in my early years and the pun is intentional. Back then, I felt I had to do everything and do it as rapidly as possible. People used to call me a young Orson Welles and I used to think that was pretty wonderful. But then I realized I didn't even know who the young Kenneth Branagh was.”
It might seem contradictory for Branagh to talk about self-effacing modesty as he's about to start his own theatre company, something that was the provenance of illustrious predecessors such as Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud, but he's well aware of the irony.
“Olivier, Gielgud, all of them, they make me modest, not arrogant. You realize that you're walking in the shadow of great talents, great examples. You have to take all they have to offer but be unintimidated by their legend.
“And, despite my name being above the title, this is a consortium of great artists: Dench, Jacobi, James, Madden, (Zoe) Wanamaker, (Christopher) Oram, (Rob) Brydon, (Rob) Ashford. This is about the creation of a creative family.”
They're presenting a challenging season, which includes 'The Winter's Tale', 'Romeo and Juliet', 'Harlequinade' and 'The Entertainer', but Branagh has chosen them all as part of a pattern.
“The whole season is about the preciousness of time and the possibility of love in a world where lives go by so quickly. Maybe underneath it all is a message about theatre as a metaphor for the passing of time.”
All well and good, but with Branagh capable of reaching young audiences around the world with films such as 'Cinderella' and 'Thor', why is he returning to the theatre?
“I think audiences are constantly underestimated in our super-connected, device-ridden world. I'd like to give them a chance to make the sort of commitment of time, attention and emotion that so few people or things ask of us these days.”
Branagh thinks this is the right time to do so.
“There are moments in the lives of people when a sort of summation takes place. A calling to account for what their lives have meant and can mean. Not tarred with the brush of dark self-recrimination and regret.
“I'm simply telling stories and trusting that people will want to hear them.”
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