Kenneth Branagh: In Command and In Control

New York Times, August 23, 1991
by Bruce Weber

Brash British actor/director will go a far as Hollywood lets him if it's on his own terms.

Kenneth Branagh doesn't look particularly like a leading man, but he is inclined to cast himself as one, both on- and off-stage, on- and off-screen. A Shakespearean actor and director with a precociously long resume, he is small and pleasant-faced, without the implacable bearing of a star.

On the street you'd mistake him, just 30 and dressed in blue jeans and an open-collared shirt, for an earnest, tidy-looking graduate student, perhaps, or a young suburban husband just home from work and out of his office clothes.

In conversation he's friendly, quick-witted, good at banter. And yet there's something going on behind his forehead, an idea of himself as a central figure that pretty much bursts out all over the place with the slightest encouragement. This is a man, after all, who wrote his autobiography at the age of 28.

Branagh's instinctive gall was very much noted in critical reaction to his 1989 film adaptation of "Henry V" - the first screen treatment of Shakespeare's play since Laurence Olivier's classic in 1944. It was Branagh's first effort as a film director, and that he played the title role also, as Olivier did, struck many critics as wildly audacious. In the end, though, he won most of them over - and received Academy Award nominations for acting and directing as well. As Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times, he "transformed what initially seemed to be a lunatic dare into a genuine triumph. "

Branagh's second film, "Dead Again," his first Hollywood production, opens on today, and once again a measure of swashbuckling bravado seems to be at work. The film is a loopy murder mystery that takes place in Los Angeles, partly in the 1940s and partly today. It has a plot unrestrained by plausibility, involving reincarnation and revenge, a woman without a memory, a tormented opera composer, a jaded reporter, a foul-mouthed grocer who was once a psychiatrist (played by an uncredited Robin Williams) and a hypnotist with an almost lecherous fondness for antiques.

Full of hyperbolized American types, it is also very much about the hyperbolized world of movies. Its grandiose musical score recalls the bold strokes of Max Steiner and Bernard Herrmann and references, verbal and visual, to American films as diverse as "Citizen Kane" and "Edward Scissorhands. "

In addition to directing, Branagh plays two central roles: the opera composer, who in the film's 1940s prologue is put to death for allegedly murdering his wife in a jealous rage; and Mike Church, a modern-day private eye specializing in missing persons.

On the surface, it's an odd project, to say the least, an attention-grabbing change of direction in a film career that is just getting under way. But Branagh says he feels no strain in the stretch. He did not begin going to the theater until he was in his mid-teens, instead growing up watching and adoring American movies on television. So the fit, he says, is not as unnatural as it appears.

He admits, eventually, to relishing the cultural clash, using it, manipulating it, and though he gives ample credit to screenwriter Scott Frank and producer Lindsay Doran, there's a bit of mischief in his voice when he speaks of what he feels he has accomplished, as if bending the film to his directorial will was a lot of wicked, intellectual fun.

He made sure, for instance, that the core of the cast - including his wife, Emma Thompson, and Derek Jacobi - plus the score's composer, Patrick Doyle, and the costume designer, Phyllis Dalton, were British.

"It has to do with bringing a European sensibility to an essentially American genre," he says. "All the cliched areas in which the film would undoubtedly tread had to be reinvested with the delight of being in an unfamiliar genre while surrounded by people in the American crew who felt as though they'd done this 1,000 times. "

Branagh takes evident pleasure in using words and he's got a lot to say, even when he seems to be discovering what it is as he goes along. His explanation of how he came to direct "Dead Again," for example, begins slowly and prosaically, gains a rather tortuous momentum and then gallops expansively toward a conclusion.

What he had wanted to do after "Henry V" was a screen version of Thomas Hardy's Return of the Native. In early 1990, when his Academy Award nominations were announced, Branagh happened to be in Los Angeles, performing "King Lear" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with the Renaissance Theater Company, the troupe he had founded in London in 1987.

"The studios were all keen to meet me," he says. "I was in town and, you know, at my most flavorsome. But they really didn't know what to do with me. A lot of them admired `Henry V' but they didn't know where that left me in relation to Hollywood. And here I was bringing a Thomas Hardy thing to them, which in their minds was Shakespeare, anyway. "

He began receiving scripts: "Lots of battle pictures. All the Vietnam pictures that never got made. Anything with rain and fighting. Next to those were all the worthy pictures that never got made. The life of Tolstoy. The life of Chekhov. Three lives of William Shakespeare. They didn't appeal to me.

"But this script arrived out of the blue, and I couldn't put it down. Immediately I was thinking of `Dial M for Murder,' all those Hitchcock movies. The Welles stuff. Pictures I grew up watching on television.

"It was a good yarn, underneath which it touched lightly on the sense of `Are we meant to be with people in relationships that we resolve from lifetime to lifetime? ' It had a theatrical size. You couldn't make this a pedestrian thriller, because if you tried to hedge your bets it would be something that people could pick up plot implausibilities in and analyze in a way that the script was not asking to be judged. The Grand Guignol element of it, the stuff that old Shakespeare touches on in things like `Titus Andronicus,' people baked in pies, hands chopped off, tongues cut out, a size that, macabre though it is, is within an almost absurd frame.

"So here, when I read this script, I was astonished how my disbelief was completely suspended and I was reminded once again of the power of a good narrative, which was Shakespeare's supreme strength. And in this very popular genre. I thought, `It's great. I want to do this. ' "

If Branagh gives the impression occasionally that he's about to lift off into some cerebral stratosphere, he has an earthbound influence near at hand. He and Emma Thompson have been married for two years. They met as working colleagues, in 1986, on the set of "Fortunes of War," a mini-series that eventually appeared on Masterpiece Theater.

Now 32, she began her career as a comedian - she had her own series on British television - but for several years has largely opted for more serious roles, many as part of Branagh's Renaissance Theater Company. She played Katherine in "Henry V" and will appear next in the Merchant-Ivory production of E.M. Forster's Howard's End. Like her husband, she has two roles in "Dead Again. " One is the murder victim, the opera composer's wife; the other is Grace, the woman with no memory whose identity Mike Church is hired to uncover. Love, of course, is kindled.

It's actually easier, on first impression, to imagine Mike and Grace as a couple than Ken and Emma, although imagining is all that is possible because they refuse to be interviewed together: "We're not joined at the hip," says Branagh.

They describe a collection of opposing traits. Where he is rather compact and squared off, she is tall with long, slender features. Where his face is expressive, hers is a little austere. Where he is vibrantly loquacious, she is careful. And where he is effusive and grand, she tends toward introspection, and even self-deprecation. Though she allows she'd like to direct a film one day, she says she feels absolutely unprepared for it at the moment, and she prizes good writing above all.

"It's harder than acting, miles harder," she says. "A lot of the acting is done for you with makeup and costumes. It's such a practical matter, acting. "

Indeed, speaking about the film, Thompson is more practical, and more revealing, than her husband about the details of craft, describing not an instinctive vision but a process of discovery.

"It was a toughie," she says of the role of Grace. "If you've lost your memory you've lost your power to relate to anything at all. You can't sit on a sofa and think, `This is a little like the material from my wedding dress. ' Memories are not available to you, and you find you have very little to say apart from `It's cold,' `I am hungry. '

"The principle thing you discover is it produces intense loneliness. That's the major emotion. Absolute aloneness. So I thought, `OK, I'll play that. ' "

And then there was the matter of the American accent. "I find that Americans tend not to express themselves ironically," she says, "at least not to the extent that British people do. My voice has a nasal drawl. " (True.) "It's expressive of irony almost all the time. Almost all the time I sound as if I don't actually mean what I'm saying, which is weird, because I'm an extremely earnest person. However, these things are sent to try us.

"Anyway, when I started talking in what is laughingly known as general American, I realized this resource was no longer available to me. It was terribly, terribly interesting, because that veneer, that carapace, was removed and something else took its place, something younger, slightly more vulnerable, naive, which are not words I would associate with myself. "

"Emma has a reasoning mind. She reasons with a problem," says Branagh, and that seems about right. "She doesn't get neurotic about her work, and we don't take it home. The husband-wife thing rarely bleeds in. "

Which perhaps is a good thing. "I wanted her in `Dead Again,' selfishly and ruthlessly," he says, and though that sounds sort of touching, it isn't.

"I knew she would do it with the kind of brio that I would do it, and that Derek Jacobi would do it. That was paramount, important for me to know. I'm much too ruthless in that regard, because I can't bear working with people who are not talented."

He pauses, briefly, and a realization alights. "It sounds very arrogant to say that, actually. "

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