Kenneth Branagh Is Back

Boston Globe, September 1991
by Jay Carr

The king is dead, long live the private eye. Which is one way of looking at Kenneth Branagh's 180-degree turn from Shakespeare's ``Henry V'' to the lush romantic thriller ``Dead Again.'' As he did in ``Henry V,'' the Irish-English Branagh again is directing as well as starring in the film. At 30 (``I feel 110''), Branagh seems a born hyphenate. And a doer: Restricting him to one function would seem inhuman. Relaxed during a recent interview, he jokes, Polonius-style, about the fact that in America he's perceived as a classicist (especially after bringing his theater company to this country with ``A Midsummer Night's Dream'' and ``King Lear''), whereas in England he's seen as a popularizer -- and hardly the darling of the theatrical establishment. ``I see myself as either a popular classicist or a classical populist,'' he says. ``Actually, in England, I'm partly perceived as a brash git.''

He seized the chance to exchange chain mail for a rumpled trenchcoat, he says, not out of any image-retooling program but because the 1940s echoes of Scott Frank's script for ``Dead Again'' -- which pays homage to such billowing thrillers as ``Rebecca'' and ``Spellbound'' -- struck a responsive chord. ``Actually, I was trying to get a film of Thomas Hardy's `Return of the Native' made,'' Branagh says, ``when this script arrived out of the blue. It was a kind of movie I felt I had grown up watching on television. More than any other American genre, it's one with which I felt a close affinity, rather than Westerns or comedies or, you know, science fiction. When I reran `Dial M for Murder,' `Rebecca,' `Notorious' and `Spellbound' before doing this picture, I was amazed at how much I remembered. At how much visually had struck me. It's just a very exciting genre -- very swish and sexy and kind of rather heightened and dangerous. And I liked the wisecracking, rather hard-boiled private eye.''

Just as Branagh's ``Henry V'' was antiheroic, so is the new movie's Mike Church as he tries to probe the past of a beautiful amnesia victim, played by Emma Thompson, Branagh's longtime leading lady and, since 1989, wife. The Gothic flashbacks, the creepy house, the creepier housekeeper, the mysterious hypnotist are one thing. But wasn't Branagh worried about the shift from Shakespeare to shamus? ``Basically, I had to work to make sure it came off,'' he says. ``It was months of accent tapes and listening to people, wandering around Los Angeles being an American. Trying to walk behind people on the streets and copy their walks and get a bit looser.

``What made Mike Church distinct was a certain fallibility. He's an orphan, he's not brilliant with women, prone to a little temper. When he runs after a character, Doug, who is trying to dupe him, you're expecting him to jump on Doug and deal with him in a trice, because that's what those guys do. Instead, he gets beaten up and ends up defending himself in a rather pathetic way by saying, `Did that guy look to you like he knew karate?' That side of him started to make him distinct, and that side of him I identify with strongly because I feel that's what happens when I try to make some really decisive, semiheroic decision. That's when you trip, that's when you walk into the door, or you trip over.''

On Branagh, though, the image of the bumbler can't convincingly be superimposed. In keeping with the temper of the '90s, he comes on soft and lively. Not every ginger hair is in place over his slightly doughy face, which is dominated by blue eyes dancing with intelligence. But it's not surprising to learn that he wrote a play called ``Public Enemy,'' about a Belfast gangster who begins obsessively watching Jimmy Cagney videos and then finds that his life begins to merge with Cagney's. Cagney -- graceful, resolute, never one to look back -- is the star to whom Branagh seems a modern throwback. He could have settled back into precocity and acclaim after a brilliant launch with the Royal Shakespeare Company at age23. But, impatient with what he saw as insufficient flexibility in England's great troupe, he left it to form his own company, calling it Renaissance, and doing things such as touring, offering cheap seats to students and old-age pensioners and opening the door to women directors (actresses Judi Dench and Geraldine MacEwan among them).

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to see Branagh as something of a threat, which perhaps explains what he describes with muted glee as various London noses reportedly out of joint when he got two Oscar nominations for ``Henry V.'' Like the gravitation to Cagney, it may be the Irish in Branagh that takes pleasure in the idea that he's less than universally embraced by England's cultural elite. Like his composer for ``Dead End,'' Patrick Doyle, whom he encouraged to work in big, sweeping gestures, Branagh describes himnself as a romantic Celt. It wasn't always easy for the Belfast boy moved to England at 9 (along with his mother and siblings) by his carpenter father. In his autobiography, ``Beginnings,'' Branagh writes of being English at school and Irish at home. ``It's a question of fitting in in the world in which you are working,'' he says, ``and being yourself at home.

``So, hiding. Basically hiding. Which certainly develops a facility for the thing I went on to do, which was to be professionally paid for telling lies, essentially. In a sense, it's taken some time for that home personality, if you like, to reemerge. It's partly through going back to Belfast a lot. During your youth and adolescence, you try to fit in. You want to be like everybody else. And that period, in England, when Ireland was exploding -- Northern Ireland was exploding, basically -- it felt very important to fit in and not stick out. Sports, of course, was the passport in England. It permitted you to then do nancyish things like plays. I was a plodder at sports, but I could get through it. I was never terrible. I was never brilliant. So, therefore, I was no threat to anyone. But I was game. Since my bit of professional success and since getting married, I've been able to relax into a bit more of who I am, I think.''

Branagh says he and Thompson choose to live quietly, to dodge the draining socializing so characteristic of the industry. ``That whole side of the celebrity business of things is not something that strongly attracts me,'' he says. ``I'd never not give somebody an autograph, or anything like that, but I like not to work when I'm not working. Our house near London has a lovely study. I like to sit there. The walls are full of ghosts. There's a little open fire and a cup of tea. I can put my feet up and read a book or drink a glass of wine. That's my idea of heaven. Or a nice meal. No more than six. You can sit six people around a dinner table and have a really good chat. But I don't like going out and being pecked apart in ... one of those social situations where you're rent-a-celeb. We only went out once in nine months in Los Angeles, which was for a tribute to Martin Scorsese. I wanted to see how they put the clips together, and in what order.''

Branagh says he'd like to make a series of Shakespeare films. Also, he says, he's got a couple of ideas for original screenplays. Having just directed, he'd like to take it easy by just acting in his next movie, he says. But next year he'll go to Italy to film ``Much Ado About Nothing,'' and yes, it will include Thompson (who garnered glowing reviews for her roles as the nurse with whom Jeff Goldblum is smitten in ``The Tall Guy'' and the social-climbing hostess who brings Chopin and Liszt out to the country in ``Impromptu''). It helped, Branagh says, to have her aboard for ``Dead Again'': ``She's very, very pro-ey. She really gets on with it. You know, she wouldn't scream at me on the set or anything. With her and Derek Jacobi and myself, I knew we wouldn't be bringing movie stars' associations to the set -- asking to change the script to fit our images. Most of the larger audiences this film is aimed at wouldn't know who ... we were anyway. We don't take it home. We don't want to talk about it at the end of the day. I'm pretty catatonic.''

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