The Films of Kenneth Branagh
By Samuel Crowl
A new look at the cinematic work of Kenneth Branagh, published by Greenwood Press.

Samuel Crowl writes:

"In the fall of 1989 I was putting the final touches on what I thought was the completed manuscript of the book that was to become Shakespeare Observed: Studies in Performance on Stage and Screen. The book explored the intertextual dialogue between contemporary film and stage versions of Shakespeare's plays. Then in November Kenneth Branagh's film of Henry V suddenly materialized as if sent by the Shakespeare gods. It was the first English language Shakespeare film to generate a critical and popular buzz since Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 Romeo and Juliet, and in its clever mixture of debts to Olivier's Henry V, Welles's Chimes at Midnight, and Adrian Noble's stage production of Henry V (starring Branagh) for the RSC it brilliantly illustrated the critical issues at the core of Shakespeare Observed. Branagh's film sent me back to work and in early 1990 I revised my manuscript to include a new final chapter on Branagh's film and sent it off to the publisher.

When the book appeared two years later I was spending the year in London. I sent a copy to Branagh, and he responded with what I now know is his customary warmth and courtesy. He was playing his third stage Hamlet that season for the RSC at the Barbican and then Stratford. We agreed to meet and in April of 1993 I interviewed him for the first time in his dressing room at Stratford. He was intelligent, funny, polite, and completely without affectation. A month later his film of Much Ado About Nothing was released in England. I reviewed it for Shakespeare Bulletin and subsequently wrote a longer essay on the film that became the model for the chapters that eventually comprised Shakespeare at the Cineplex, a study of the fifteen major Shakespeare films released in the 1990s.

  Exclusive Q & A with Samuel Crowl

Hardcover, 216 pages
ISBN: 0-275-98089-8
Greenwood Press, Westport, CT

"Samuel Crowl is Trustee Professor of English at Ohio University where he has taught since 1970. He is the author of two books on Shakespeare, as well as numerous essays, articles, reviews, and interviews on all aspects of Shakespeare in performance. He has been honored many times for outstanding teaching and has lectured widely on Shakespeare at universities and conferences here and abroad, including the Shakespeare Institute and the International Globe Center."

When the writing for that project was finishing up, I was once again in London for an extended period and Branagh again kindly agreed to be interviewed as he had directed three more Shakespeare films (and appeared in a fourth) since we had last talked. The intervening eight years had drained some of the boyish enthusiasm from his demeanor but he remained as intelligent and articulate as ever in discussing his work. He had just had his hair dyed a dark brown for filming was about to begin on Shackleton, and I sensed some of the famous explorer's resolve in Branagh's refusal to be defeated by the beating his career had taken since the release of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein back in 1994. In fact our conversation was most alive and vivid when he began to quote from memory large chunks of Robert Browning's poetry that Ernest Shackleton had most admired.

Six months before Shakespeare at the Cineplex was published, I was contacted by the film editor at Greenwood Publishing inquiring about my interest in writing a book on all of Branagh's films. He was a dedicated Branagh fan and thought his films deserved a full-length study. I was a Shakespearean wary of venturing into the world of film without Shakespeare as a guide. The editor persisted; I resisted. Finally, in exasperation I said: "Can you imagine writing a thirty page chapter on Peter's Friends?" He shot right back: "Sure. Peter's Friends has one of the great opening shots in contemporary films. Wouldn't writing about it be a pleasure?" Admiring his pluck, passion, and finger-tip command of the details (that opening shot is a marvel) of even lesser Branagh films, I relented and agreed to the project. The result is: The Films of Kenneth Branagh."

An Exclusive Ken-Friends Question & Answer Interview with Samuel Crowl

Q.  What makes a perfect film and what Branagh film comes closest to achieving that status?

SC: Perfect is tricky; let's substitute successful. A successful film is one where vision, style, technique, and performance all blend together to produce a robust, engaging, and challenging experience for the audience. Films as diverse as Citizen Kane, Rear Window, Lawrence of Arabia, Some Like It Hot, and 8 1/2 are classic examples. The successful Shakespeare film must have the added ingredient of providing an intelligent and imaginative approach to translating Shakespeare's text into the language of film. I find Branagh's Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing his most successful Shakespeare films, though Hamlet is clearly the most ambitious and the hardest to adequately describe. I find Dead Again and A Midwinter's Tale the most successful of his non-Shakespearean films.

Q.  Which of Ken's films has not been given the attention it merits?

SC: I was puzzled by the response to his Love's Labour's Lost. I found the film witty and amusing and nostalgic. The great Porter-Kern-Berlin-Gershwin songs made, I thought, a perfect fit with Shakespeare's poetic exuberance in this early comedy. I thought the film would appeal to the sophisticated moviegoing audience, but then I am always equally puzzled by the tiny audiences attracted to Woody Allen films. Match Point was a wonderful piece of filmmaking and storytelling yet died at the box office.

Q.  Is there a Shakespeare play that has not been made into a film that you would like to see Ken direct?

SC: I think we'd all like to see his Macbeth, though we do have several other interesting film versions of the play by Welles, Polanski, and Kurosawa. A play that has not been filmed that I'd love to see him tackle is The Merry Wives of Windsor, especially if he could convince Robbie Coltrane to play Falstaff.

Q.  In writing about all of Branagh's films, what most surprised you?

SC: The importance of music to his conception and realization of the film.

Q.  We "Ken-Friends" were thrilled by his film of Love's Labour's Lost. Why do you think it failed to find an audience?

SC: See the second question.

Q.  Do you see any significant differences between Branagh's Shakespeare and non-Shakespearean films? Have the two types of films influenced each other?

SC: All of Branagh's films are distinguished by vivid and vital performances, imaginative and fluid camera work, and the soaring, often operatic, romance of Patrick Doyle's film scores. Both his Shakespearean and non-Shakespearean films reveal his fascination with the codes, conventions, and major genres of the popular Hollywood film. His great genius, as a director, is for making a synthesis between rival traditions, most obviously in the way he successfully unites Shakespeare with Hollywood and American film actors with their British classical stage counterparts.

Q.  What did you find when you developed your chapter on Peter's Friends?

SC: The film reveals the company-community ethos that lies deep in Branagh's creative spirit and works as something of a trial run (large cast, multiple story lines, shooting on location) for the far greater film of Much Ado About Nothing. The film is really about Emma's friends, not Ken's, and so I find his role within the film oddly out-of-place and uncomfortable (for Ken as well as the audience).

Q.  Can you talk about elements you view as "trademarks" of Ken's style as a film director?

SC: Branagh clearly loves the communal spirit involved in filmmaking, an even more collaborative art than producing a play. His film style is bold and vigorous. He likes an active camera and builds his films around two or three "signature" shots which define his visual relationship to his material. Such shots include the great post-Agincourt four minute tracking shot of Henry carrying the page back across the battlefield; several circle shots in Dead Again; the amazing steadicam shots which open Peter's Friends and close Much Ado About Nothing; the dance sequence with DeNiro's creature in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; and the tricky mirror shot for the "To be or not to be" soliloquy in Hamlet. Branagh also has an instinctive understanding of the role music plays in a film and his collaboration with Patrick Doyle is a major element in his approach to his Shakespearean and non-Shakespearean material.

Q.  What do you think are the major influences on Branagh's work in theater and film. Are they different from those Branagh himself has identified?

SC: Branagh's best work on stage resulted from his collaboration with the director Adrian Noble. Both men are lively and keenly intelligent and both have been heavily influenced by films: Noble by the great European directors like Bergman and Fellini; Branagh more by directors like Hitchcock and Lean. In his films Branagh likes to adopt and adapt established film genres: the war film for Henry V; screwball comedy for Much Ado; film noir for Dead Again; the intelligent epic for Hamlet, etc. Branagh is most intelligent and articulate in discussing his own work.

Q.  Are there aspects of Branagh's films you haven't been able to analyse satisfactorily? What are they?

SC: Ouch. Tough question to ask the critic. I don't think anyone (and I've now tried twice) has found a way to talk intelligently about Branagh's accomplishment in his film of Hamlet. There's just so much of it and we are so accustomed to Shakespeare films tailoring the material to suit the medium that we haven't discovered how to talk about a film which gives us all of the text. And so much more. It's the most hyperbolic Shakespeare film ever made and I think it embarrasses the professional Shakespearean who thinks he knows what a good Shakespeare film is.

Q.  What Branagh film brings you the most joy?

SC: My heart leaps up and into a wide grin every time that line of seven returning warriors thunders toward the camera in Much Ado. It stirs again, in a much different fashion, when Beatrice and Benedict confront each other in the "Kill Claudio" chapel scene. These are two stunning moments and to my mind are unmatched in the long history of Shakespeare on screen.