Kenneth Branagh
By Mark White

Reviews and Blurbs

Sydney Morning Herald, 21 February 2006
By Bruce Elder

Is Branagh the Greatest Interpreter of Shakespeare Since Laurence Olivier?

Olivier? This question is central to an understanding of the way historian Mark White has written this very detailed and well-researched biography.

There is no doubt where White stands. He is an unashamed admirer of Branagh and he loves the idea of a working-class boy from Belfast, who grew up in Reading, being such a precocious talent that his first film, Henry V, in which he starred and directed, was made when Branagh was only 28.

White is in awe of Branagh's technical acting skills. But more than simply developing a thesis about Branagh's genius, he tries to dissect why the English have problems with great talent and why they need to engage in savage personal attacks.

The result is a fine and engrossing biography of a gifted actor who did much to revolutionise the way movies were made of Shakespeare's plays.

British Theatre Guide, 6 December 2005
By Philip Fisher

Kenneth Branagh is an amazing artistic and perhaps human phenomenon. Still only in his mid-forties, he is fully deserving of a biography exploring his life to date and, compared with footballers or other sportsmen, has fitted in so much more that should be of interest to a wide audience.

In part, this is because he was a prodigy who achieved far more by the time that he was 30 than the average thespian manages in a lifetime. From a very early stage, he was likened to Lord Olivier as an actor. Comparisons of this type are rarely helpful and in this case proved a real millstone for the young pretender. However, Branagh's remarkable versatility means that in the widest sense he really could eventually be seen as having taken on the mantle of his illustrious predecessor.

Mark White might seem a strange person be writing a biography of a latter-day matinee idol. He is an academic who teaches history and has written four previous books, all of them connected to President Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis.

His main credential for writing this unofficial but encouraged biography is an appreciation of his subject that can border on hero-worship. Indeed, he describes the actor-director as the greatest Shakespearean of his age and "would argue that his 'Henry V' and his performance in it have not been matched.

Despite the evident dangers of drooling excessively, White manages to write a reasonably balanced book, which does not hide some of Branagh's less attractive traits and a number of unsuccessful career and life choices.

Kenneth Branagh was born in Northern Ireland and, as a result of the Troubles, his family moved to Reading while he was still a child. He was always driven and there is little doubt, once he set his sights on becoming an actor, that not only would he get accepted by RADA but also come out at the other end with a gold medal as the pick of his year.

Before he even graduated, he was appearing on Shaftesbury Avenue as one of a talented team of young actors in Julian Mitchell's 'Another Country'. From there, his star kept ascending for the next decade.

At the RSC, he demanded and was given the role of 'Henry V' and in no time comparisons with Olivier were flooding out. Soon, he was working in television and film, had created his Renaissance Theatre Company and become regarded as the great star of his generation.

His fame was substantially built on his decision, still in his mid-twenties to take on 'Henry V' on film and to make a major success of it both as director and actor. This was the start of his mission to bring Shakespeare to the people, who were surprisingly receptive, particularly to his charming adaptation of 'Much Ado About Nothing'.

A credible argument is put forward to suggest that commencing with 'Henry V', Branagh has heralded the greatest age of Shakespeare on film that has so far been known, following a long, fallow period after Roman Polanski's 'Macbeth'.

He was not shy in courting publicity and his marriage to actress Emma Thompson leads the biographer to describe them as "The Beckham and Posh Spice of their day". A more accurate comparison might have been that with his patron and friend, Prince Charles and his troubled marriage with the late Princess of Wales. From there, Hollywood beckoned, as he became director and double star, with Miss Thompson also playing two roles, in Dead Again.

After almost unbounded success, it was perhaps inevitable, knowing the nature of the British press that this young man would give his biographer the opportunity to write a painful chapter entitled "Backlash". While the American press has generally been sympathetic to Branagh, their British counterparts whether in theatre, on film or in the gossip columns have loved sniping at the ginger-haired, working-class boy who attempted to take on the world.

This eventually seems to have got through and pained a man who had no notion of failure and expected everyone to believe in him. This single-minded man also deserved his success, partly for his artistic genius but more for an incredible work ethic and speed of mind, without which he could never have achieved so much, so soon.

Branagh then faced some commercial and artistic disasters in his thirties, not all of them media generated, but has seemingly emerged as an older, wiser and happier man.

In recent years, he has had a number of film successes including 'Rabbit Proof Fence' and one of the Harry Potter films, worked in theatre, acting in David Mamet's 'Edmond' at the National Theatre and directing The Right Size in 'The Play What I Wrote', which won over both the West End and Broadway. According to Mark White, he was also seriously considered for the position of artistic director at the RSC when Adrian Noble resigned.

It will be fascinating see which way Kenneth Branagh's career develops over the next couple of decades. His biographer is tipping him as a potential leader of either the National Theatre or the RSC, citing his organisational skills combined with the artistic ones that could make him a major success in either role. There is also a reasonable possibility that he could go back to Hollywood as director, star or both, or lead a new renaissance in the British film industry. One thing is certain, we have not heard the last of this very driven Northern Irishman.

From The Independent:

Kenneth Branagh by Mark White (Faber, £17.99) is an authoritative account of the actor-director's career, which pays tribute to his achievement in popularising Shakespeare on screen.
From What's On Stage
No actor of Kenneth Branagh’s generation achieved so much so rapidly. And yet no actor of his generation received such relentless criticism. Mark White explores this paradox in a fascinating new biography about Branagh’s meteoric rise and the backlash that accompanied it.

From humble beginnings, Kenneth Branagh drove himself to dizzy heights of accomplishment. By twenty-one he had starred in a West End hit. At twenty-three he was playing Henry V for the Royal Shakespeare Company. By twenty-six he had established his own theatre company. Shortly after that he directed and starred in a movie version of Henry V, the start of a series of Shakespeare films that resulted in him being viewed by many as the leading interpreter of Shakespeare in the world. No actor of his generation achieved so much so rapidly. And yet no actor of his generation received such relentless criticism. Mark White explores this paradox in a new biography of Branagh. Based on extensive research in previously untapped archival materials and on numerous interviews, White traces the vicissitudes of Branagh's career, examining his meteoric rise and the backlash that accompanied it.