Introducing the 'New Olivier'

Los Angeles Times, January 6 1988
by Nancy Mills

Contrary to its title, "Fortunes of War" is not a tale about armies battling. Rather, the seven-hour series, beginning Jan. 17 on PBS, recounts the experiences of a young couple caught behind the lines during World War II. The New York Review of Books describes Manning's two trilogies as "the best glimpse we will probably ever have of World War II in the Balkans and the Middle East."

Newly married Guy and Harriet Pringle arrive in Romania in September, 1939, where Guy is a professor in the English department of Bucharest University. The Pringles' timing was awful, for Hitler had just marched into Poland. The Romanian prime minister has just been assassinated by the fascist Iron Guard. The Pringles eventually flee to Athens and then to Cairo, seeing and occasionally involving themselves in the terrible effects of the war. Meanwhile, their marriage is in trouble.

"Olivia Manning wrote women's novels, and this is what I'd call a woman's film," director Jones says. "Audiences will expect a romantic heroine, but Harriet is a go-ahead, fiercely independent woman. Guy is monstrously selfish at times. Their relationship is a bit skated over in the books, but it's become much more real in what we've filmed."

"Fortunes of War" may be remembered in years to come as the vehicle that introduced Kenneth Branagh to the world. The stocky, fair-haired Branagh, who plays Guy Pringle, is considered by many in England to be the heir apparent to Laurence Olivier.

Seven years ago, Branagh won two "best newcomer" awards for his performance in the London production of "Another Country," a part he got straight from drama school. His subsequent performance in the title role in "Henry V" for the Royal Shakespeare Company raised superlatives from the pens of England's mightiest critics.

Since then, he has romped naked on the beach with Jacqueline Bisset in the upcoming film comedy "High Season" and has played a homosexual in a small British film, "A Month in the Country." When "Fortunes of War" ended, he planned to spend a year as actor/manager of his own small London theater company, partly financed by his savings.

In his BBC dressing room, just after handing his "Fortunes" costume to the wardrobe department for the last time, Branagh was both euphoric and depressed. "There's a certain satisfaction at having completed what at first seemed like an endless project," he said.

"When I read the script, I realized I'd be mad not to do it. The characters seemed very contemporary to me. I liked the very truthful and recognizable way Alan Plater (the screenwriter) dramatized the development of the relationship between Guy and Harriet.

"They didn't know each other very well when they got married, and they did have things to worry about -- like the proximity of death. Harriet's really a forerunner of feminism. Guy's a very strong man, but like most men he's got an emotional cut-off device. He's bright and sensitive but chooses to blinker his feelings. He gets by on charm.

"I hated him when I first read the books. Olivia Manning made him much more insensitive, but Plater played up his own awareness of it. Guy's a great 'nearly man.' He can't join up and fight because he's too short-sighted. He's the golden youth. I see him as the English Dick Diver (F. Scott Fitzgerald's tragic hero in 'Tender Is the Night'). His great talent is to avoid thinking about it."

Branagh was born in Belfast but has lived in England for the past 17 years. "I still have what Olivia Manning says is this Irish-Anglo sense of belonging nowhere. My enthusiasm and passion about the theater is not necessarily English. I think it comes from my fiery, working class Celtic roots."

Branagh intended to be a journalist. "Then at 16 I started acting in plays at school," he recalled, "and it happened. We were doing 'Oh, What a Lovely War!' and my teacher said almost in passing, 'You could do this professionally.' I was staggered. Then I became intoxicated with the idea."

His parents were very supportive, he said, "even though they were frightened of the strange world I was entering." His father runs a small company that puts in suspended ceilings and partitions. "They're definitely feet-on-the-ground folk. You can't impress them with things that aren't impressive."

Branagh would rather not be compared with the young Olivier. "It's a very painful road to go down," he said. "I think there's been a lost generation of actors -- like Albert Finney and Peter O'Toole -- who for their own reasons decided to go their own way rather than try to follow Olivier and Gielgud. I can understand why. You're always being compared. Maybe after a great group of titans, a generation or two has to pass."

His dream, he said, is to work in America. "I'd like to take this play I've written, which will open in my theater, to New York. I feel like I'm on the threshold of my life. I hope the play's successful, but I expect a lot of flak.

"Spending a year in the theater, acting and managing, may be the wrong thing to do in Britain. I know it's a commercial risk -- except I'm only 26."

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