Kenneth Branagh On an Intelligence Mission in 'Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit'

Sydney Morning Herald, 5 January 2014
By Stephanie Bunbury
Thanks, Emma

They call it the Clancyverse: a world much like our own, with roughly similar geopolitical conflicts and galloping technologies, but all set a short way into the future when, as Tom Clancy's legions of readers know, all kinds of craziness are waiting. Camel-driving religious fanatics, Colombian drug lords, eco-warriors armed with viruses, Russians armed with bombs: it's just lucky for Mum and Dad asleep in their beds that Jack Ryan and his covert ops boys are ready to give them that craziness right back.

Clancy, who died on October 1, 2013, at the age of 66, was the multimillionaire author of 17 New York Times bestsellers and the presiding intelligence behind more than 50 video games bearing his name. To quote The New York Times, he was "the most successful bad writer of his generation".

Clancy had a shooting range in his basement, a Sherman tank on his front lawn and a clear agenda. He also had the good luck to be recommended by a United States President: Ronald Reagan, who was given a copy of his first novel, The Hunt for Red October, for Christmas, told the press how much he liked it and a bestseller was born.

The Clancyverse is not necessarily the sort of place you might expect to meet Sir Kenneth Branagh, who began his career with the Royal Shakespeare Company when he was 22. He was not yet 30 when he directed and starred in his first film, an adaptation of 'Henry V', which gained him worldwide fame and an Oscar.

In November 2012, when he was 51, he was awarded a knighthood. Yet here he is with 'Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit', the fifth film to feature Clancy's trademark spook and the Clancyverse of arsenals and enemies. How does the great Shakespearean interpreter fit this picture?

By the time Branagh was engaged to direct 'Jack Ryan', the film had been through several rewrites and had another director attached to it for several years. The producers asked him to read it and, he says, the story gripped him.

"I read thrillers, I read crime fiction, I like a good page-turner and I like ideas to be presented to me while I'm potentially entertained with exhilaration, pace and speed," he says. "I'm happy go along with that kind of ride, lightly done. And wrapped up in this is a sense of how we can present Jack Ryan in the here and now."

That is, of course, the tricky bit. After several years of Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, diplomatic cables made public and revelatory videos of military antics in Iraq, even hard-core action fans may baulk at Clancy's running message that America's undercover boys always know best. Fortunately, 'Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit' is not based on any single book. It is a kind of "origin" story that focuses on how Ryan is persuaded to join the CIA in the first place, which gives both the writers and Chris Pine, who plays Ryan, some wiggle room.

Pine's Ryan is not as professorially tweedy as Harrison Ford's in 'Patriot Games' and 'Clear and Present Danger' a characterisation hated by Clancy but he is full of doubt.

"I think it's an evolution," says Branagh cautiously. "I think he questions himself, he questions the government and he questions what he's doing. He knows there is dirty business afoot and this is not just something you necessarily simply dismiss just because you appear to be on the right side.

"Essentially, this starts with Kevin Costner [as commanding officer William Harper] saying, 'I'd like you to join the CIA', and him saying, 'Why should I? Why should I join the CIA? What about rendition, what about Guantanamo? I love my country but I don't love it in that way or I don't love it and want to do those things'. Then he has to decide whether he's better off inside, challenging it from within."

Ryan's crucial conflict is his commitment to keeping his job secret even from his fiancee, Kathy, played by Keira Knightley. Branagh plays the mysterious Russian terrorist Viktor Cherevin. He is the villain, although Branagh doesn't want to use that word.

"From the start, I said, 'I don't want to be po-faced about it, but if we start talking like that, then that is what it will be'. I couldn't say he doesn't do villainous things, appalling things, morally bankrupt things, but he does have a personal agenda. He is more than just a psychopath with a desire for power or destruction."

Probably nobody but Branagh would be so determined to turn a character as familiar as the evil Russian agent the stock baddie of probably thousands of Cold War films into someone akin to Shakespeare's embittered Iago.

It is at this point that you remember that it was Branagh who turned Marvel's comic-book blockbuster 'Thor' (2011) which, incidentally, was a huge financial success into a classical battle between brothers. When you think of it as another kind of comic-book world, the Clancyverse is every bit as fantastic as Thor's Valhalla.

"Well, you know people say there are only six, seven stories you can tell," says Branagh, pointing out that 'Jack Ryan' covers several of them. "You know, there is a protagonist and an antagonist who to some extent reflect each other. There is the basic clash of old and new technologies, east and west, old and new empire the old empire now being perhaps America and the new empire being a version of Russia."

There was nothing wrong with the raw materials and, he says, everyone on the project was prepared to treat them as seriously as he was.

Branagh can be alarmingly serious. When he was married to Emma Thompson (they divorced in 1995), they were lampooned as the king and queen of a kind of self-regarding theatrical aristocracy. But Branagh, the son of a Belfast ship's carpenter, deeply resented this "luvvie" tag. "I don't go around saying, 'Hello, did you know I'm the new Olivier?' " he retorted when someone asked him about it.

Somehow, though, he couldn't see that anyone who wrote an autobiography at 30 was going to take stick for it, or that a rookie director who kept casting himself in leading roles whether successfully, as in 'Much Ado About Nothing' (1993), or in a film like 'Frankenstein' (1994), which took a critical mauling would come across as hopelessly vain.

He has since put in many great performances. Last year, he gave the Manchester Festival a landmark 'Macbeth'. Even so, critic Joe Queenan was seen to have hit the nail on the head when he commented that Branagh had been "seduced by fame and let his talents atrophy as he moved farther away from the stage and further into film".

Those who work with him, however, say how hard he works, how efficient he is and how much respect he shows his crew. "He'll be the first person back on set after lunch," said comedian Rob Brydon while they were rehearsing a play in Belfast last year.

Pine, who was attached to play Ryan before Branagh was hired, remarks on how fast he worked. "He kind of knew pretty much what he wanted to get, because if he wasn't directing, he was working on his accent or working on a scene or doing a rewrite or doing all the stuff a director and a writer does. It's crazy to watch a guy who is right there with you doing a scene, then cut and he's back to video village to check it out."

Whether Clancy would have found that fun is another matter. Before he wrote The Hunt for Red October, he was running a small insurance office in Maryland. His extreme myopia meant he was rejected for army service. But he admired action men and wrote as if he were one of them.

Branagh once said that growing up in Belfast meant you couldn't help but be immersed in politics, but it's safe to say they weren't the politics we get from a Jack Ryan novel. It's an odd match. You hope that, for the sake of that once stellar career, it works.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit opens January 16.

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