Much Ado About Branagh

The Radio Times, 4-10 January 2003
by Barry Norman
** Thanks, Catherine

Kenneth Branagh is probably the most undervalued actor/director/producer/screenwriter/what have you in Britain. Even his successes, and there have been plenty of those, tend to inspire reviews that include a grudging "Yes, but ..." note, while his failures, and there have been plenty of those, too, are stamped upon savagely by critics wearing hobnailed boots.

The popular press simply doesn't like him. As he says himself, it has over the years steadfastly promoted "an idea of me as an egomaniac". This is something I have never understood. I know him reasonably well and find him agreeably modest. Talking, for instance, of his standing in America he says, self-mockingly, "Oh, yes, they all know Kevin Branagan over there."

He doesn't, then, take himself seriously. His work, yes - he takes that very seriously indeed and for more than a decade now he has been one of the few people in this country who actually get things done. Films such as Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet (Sunday C4) and Love's Labour's Lost testify to that.

So why all the animosity? Maybe it's because he was too successful too soon. At 23 he was the youngest Henry V in the Royal Shakespeare Company's history; at 26 he was running his own theatre company; at 28 he wrote his autobiography and directed and starred in the film version of Henry V; and by the time he was 30 he was being hailed as "the new Laurence Olivier", which can be akin to the kiss of death for any actor.

Branagh never claimed to be the new Olivier, but pretty soon the same people who had so described him were asking derisively: "Who does he think he is - the new Laurence Olivier?" He couldn't win. And, in truth, ambitious flops such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein added fuel to the critical fires stoked by those in the press who cannot forgive anyone for being young, talented and successful all at the same time.

Branagh is certainly talented both as an actor and a film-maker. His full-length version of Hamlet, for example, with himself as both the prince and the director was a remarkable achievement. On a more modest level he lent his voice very effectively to the animated feature The Road to El Dorado (Thursday Sky Movies Premier Widescreen). And if he doesn't always choose his roles wisely - Wild Wild West comes drearily to mind - he is not alone in that. His misfortune is that too many people are eager to overlook the many good things he has done and concentrate on his failures and disappointments.

For a while, recently, there were several of the latter, such as his charming musical version of Love's Labour's Lost, whose comparative box-office failure led to the collapse of his plans to make two more Shakespeare films, Macbeth and As You Like It. But those who, as a result, were happy to write him off must now think again.

In the last couple of years he has done some of his best work - on stage in Sheffield as Richard III, on TV as Reinhard Heydrich in Conspiracy (for which he won an Emmy) and in the cinema last year in Rabbit Proof Fence and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, where, as even his most grudging critics might allow, he stole the show as the vain, craven Gilderoy Lockhart. Mind you, some of these critics would have us believe that, as Lockhart, he was merely sending himself up. Understandably, Branagh denies that.

He is not vain or craven, nor is he an egomaniac. He isn't the new Laurence Olivier either. In fact, he is very much his own man and I predict that when he is 60 and awarded a peerage for his services to film and theatre, the very critics who deride him now will be asking, plaintively: "Who will be the new Kenneth Branagh?"

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