The Glorious Contradictions of Kenneth Branagh
San Francisco International Film Festival: Founder's Directing Award: Kenneth Branagh, April 2012
Of all the assignments I have undertaken, writing about Kenneth Branagh is by far the toughest. It all boils down to ego. The man is quite beyond beyond (a rare Shakespearean phrase that I hope assuages our honoree's suspicion of my being, well, a dope).
It's not the fact that he is famous, successful, handsome and talented and was deemed, at the painfully (for me to acknowledge) young age of 26, "the new Olivier." Well, okay, that's part of the reason. But who in this world can say that he or she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for 'Hamlet'? (I mean, what did he change?). That, of course, was above and beyond performing the title role — all the while looking pretty dashing in dyed blonde hair — and directing it brilliantly, including eliciting a surprising array of performances from an eclectic cast, not least an exquisite, deeply felt performance from Charlton Heston (as the Player King). And now, some 15 years later, in addition to so much else, he's added this feather to his cap: the big budget action-adventure-fantasy 'Thor', which not only made a lot of money for its studio but is really, really fun to watch.
I mean, who has this breadth in him? And don't get me wrong. It's not the fact that he was nominated for an Academy Award that impresses me. (For the record, he's received five Oscar nods, eight BAFTA and over 70 international nominations and awards for his acting, writing and directing work.) It's that he is so successfully brazen in his ability to take ownership of the blessed Bard — including the most cherished work of the canon, 'Hamlet', which he made into one of the smartest and most rip-roaring Shakespearean movies ever, ranking with Orson Welles's 'Chimes at Midnight' and Akira Kurosawa's 'Ran'. Adaptations all, and all brave, epic, human and genuinely, cinematically entertaining.
Then you throw 'Thor' into the mix, and you think, "How can that contradiction make sense?"
Well, that's what makes Kenneth Branagh someone to behold, admire, envy and honor. He gets the contradictions that make a work of art — "high" or "low," onstage or on screen — undeniably great. That's why we still do Shakespeare. To the playwright, humanity was defined entirely by the contradictions of good and evil, funny and sad, celebratory and tragic, nuanced and broad. The truth in Shakespeare is not grey — it's magnificently multicolored. He wrote the human at its fullest.
And Kenneth Branagh makes movies like that. His cinematic responses to Shakespeare combine all of the contradictions, including the one I love the most: They are highly theatrical and authentically cinematic. Aspects of his 'Henry V' owe as much to Welles's 'Chimes at Midnight' as to the quartos and folios of Shakespeare's original text.
Branagh's 'Henry V' also distinguished its entirely brave and modern self by bucking the tradition of seeing the most famous of the Bard's history plays through the lens of "the valor of war." Sir Laurence Olivier made a magnificent rallying-cry screen version for an England fighting World War II. But Mr. Branagh's 'Henry V' is, as my friend Michael Paller wrote, "dark and decidedly unglamorous." His Henry takes the nobility of Olivier's portrayal and adds a pensiveness and ruthlessness that results in a fully contradictory (and therefore fully dimensional) portrayal of a man who sees the world not through a valorous lens but through one that is forever muddied by, among other events, the Vietnam War, the advent of nuclear power and the Falklands. Shakespeare, Branagh posits with bravado bordering on hubris, is ours to grapple with. He belongs nowhere but on the cinematic and theatrical stage. Branagh not only takes Shakespeare off the shelf, he knocks it off, while pushing the shelf over. And the result is decidedly clear and worthy of celebration: Shakespeare is proven to be, as he always will be, our contemporary.
I have yet to see him on the stage. But the man makes the camera frame vibrate when he acts. I can't imagine the stage doesn't do the same. I admit being awed by Kenneth Branagh. In fact, I'm a gushing fan, which is why I am at heart, a popcorn-addicted cinephile. Cinephiles are the masters of the gush. But more to the point, as a maker of theater, especially that which takes brazen aim at the historical hold on Shakespeare and the classics to bring them to life right here right now, I am inspired by him.
A few more gushes. There is nothing like a fierce Irish intellectual who knows how to use words. That's why I love the plays of George Bernard Shaw. Well, much to my surprise, Kenneth Branagh is also of Irish descent and has said that he owes his love of language to being Irish. He is also supposed to have said that he learned a British dialect to avoid bullying at a young age. That's a new kind of deterrent to bullying: pretending to be a Brit. And Kenneth Branagh has grown up to be one of the great, and one of the most authentic, pretenders of our time.
Jonathan Moscone is in his 12th season as artistic director of California Shakespeare Theater. His directing credits include 'Ghost Light' for Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and Bruce Norris's 'Clybourne Park' for American Conservatory Theater. He is the first recipient of the Zelda Fichandler Award for "transforming the American theatre through his unique and creative work."