The Many Faces of Kenneth Branagh

Houston Chronicle, August 25, 1991
by Bruce Westbrook

30-year-old directs and stars in ambitious movie, but that's nothing new

He arrived in Hollywood as a wonder boy.

Only a few years out of his teens, he'd made as many waves as the Atlantic. He'd won major awards. He'd won critical acclaim. He'd become a revered actor and director.

In short, a genius.

No, not Orson Welles in 1941. Kenneth Branagh in 1991.

The Irish-born Branagh , 30, made his name in the London theater. But with 1989's "Henry V," he made a bigger impact in movies, winning big audiences, prestigious British awards and Oscar nominations for best actor and director.

So when Branagh went to Hollywood to make "Dead Again," which opened this weekend in Houston, to some he seemed like Welles, the boy genius who went west to make the classic "Citizen Kane." But Branagh (the "h" is silent) dismisses such notions as rubbish.

"Having done just one picture before," he said, "I didn't think of myself as a genius but as a very lucky boy indeed, who'd worked with a very good script on my first film" - a facetious reference to Shakespeare - "and was surrounded by very good people."

Branagh was calling from a brief stop in Dallas. Soon he returns to London, where he lives with Emma Thompson, his wife and his co-star in "Henry V" and "Dead Again. " In "Dead Again," they each play two roles: a contemporary LA private eye and an amnesiac woman trying to learn her identity, and (in flashbacks) a doomed '40s couple whose lives the woman recalls while under hypnosis - hypnosis that suggests they may be reincarnations of the couple whose marriage ended in murder.

This tale is a far cry from Shakespeare, but Branagh feels his thriller is just as artistic in its own way.

"What a great yarn," he said of Scott Frank's screenplay, which careens through a wild melee of events and characters, embellished by quirky humor and filmic references ranging from Welles' "Kane" to Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo."

In favor of living writers

Branagh doesn't consider his "Henry" "artsy" either, but a populist entertainment, just as it was in the Bard's days. His goal was to bring Shakespeare to a larger audience "and make the distinction between high and low culture a little less wide."

With "Dead Again," Branagh said he was "very pleased to be working with a living writer. You shouldn't canonize dead writers at the expense of living ones. I don't think Shakespeare would have approved of that."

He and Scott "share the same sense of humor. We want to thrill people but make them laugh, too. That's part of a thriller. That's what stops it from being a horror movie."

He said he watched many Hitchcock movies before starting the shoot. But he also credits the inspiration of Brian De Palma's "Obsession," which follows in Hitchcock's tradition.

"De Palma at his best has that sense of delight in the genre," Branagh said. "I love it, too. Many of us have been brought up on those films. They're a big part of our visual vocabulary."

Dead Again has a strong sense of fun, but Branagh , who went "from a standing start with no formal film education," says making movies is "stressful."

To direct himself, he uses video monitors to screen scenes just after shots and relies on comments from colleagues. But that didn't make "Dead Again" much easier.

"At the end the of day I had no neck left," Branagh said. "My shoulders were up around my ears. My brows were furrowed. It wasn't that I was unhappy, but I had to be everywhere to keep things moving.

"In Hollywood, I was very conscious of being in very serious company," he said. "On the next sound stage was Mike Nichols, then Demi Moore, then "Soapdish," then "Star Trek." I was surrounded by people who'd been making movies a lot longer, and I didn't think, `Let me show you.' I was quietly keeping to myself and hoping I wasn't messing up."

Such humility may sound strange coming from a man whose first film was an audacious remake of Laurence Olivier's Oscar-winning 1945 "Henry V" - and who wrote his autobiography at age 28.

"Well, I wrote that for a large sum of money that I needed for my theater company, so my head's not as big as all that," Branagh said.

"My feet are on the ground. I've got enough people around me making "sure" they're on the ground - including my wife. She's "nailed" them to the ground."

Unlike some couples, they find working together is not a strain.

"Emma prepares and works hard and is very flexible," Branagh said. "She can do things very differently from take to take. She's good with other actors. And we don't take the work home, thank God."

Thompson is now making a film on her own. "Working together is not something we'll do exclusively," Branagh said.

But he was adamant about them playing both "Dead Again" roles.

"It adds immeasurably to the twists and the surprises," he said, "and you get more of a sense that it's a love story about two souls, not four people."

Making time for theater, too

Also, Branagh thinks the fact that he and Thompson aren't yet recognizable to many people helps serve the material.

"That way the story is free to be told," he said. "The plot really is the star of the film."

Besides, Branagh said he "can't conceive of myself as a movie star."

For now, he plans to rest and decide if movies are even in his future. "I've been working solidly now for 10 years and want to take some time out.

"I'd love to find a balance between films and theater, because I love them both," he said. "But I want time to consider how feasible that is, because it "is" a juggling match and I don't want to kill myself."

Regardless of his decision, "I won't be moving to Hollywood," Branagh said firmly. "But going there from Europe to make a picture really was fun. I pinched myself every day at the excitement of that opportunity."

And with that, the wonder boy who's more of a boy in wonder bid goodbye with a soft "cheerio."

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