Kenneth Branagh: Hero or Luvvie?

James Cameron-Wilson assesses the situation
ES, November 1994

In America, ambition makes dough. In Britain, it makes enemies of the media. And nobody in recent years has suffered the slings and arrows of the press more than Kenneth Branagh.

And he is ambitious. At 15, he had his own column, Junior Bookshelf, in a local newspaper. At 23, he was the youngest actor to play Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Company. At 28, he had his autobiography (Beginning) out in the shops. And a year after that he directed his first film, Henry V, in which he also starred, and was Oscar-nominated on both accounts. Since then he's directed three more films: Dead Again, Peter's Friends, and Much Ado About Nothing, which were all box office hits. And this month sees his fifth directorial outing, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Opening in a blaze of expectation, Branagh plays Frankenstein, with Robert De Niro costarring as the Monster.

Kenneth Branagh has also written his own play, Public Enemy, wrote the music and lyrics for Tell Me Honestly, founded his own stage company, the Renaissance Theatre Group, and film company, Renaissance Films. And we musn't forget that he's married to Britain's most in-demand actress, Emma Thompson, an Oscar recipient for Howards End and recent co-star of such Hollywood icons as Arnold Schwarznegger and Robert Redford.

Yet, for all the success heaped on this young man's shoulders (Branagh is still only 33), he is, by all means, remarkably shy and self-deprecatory. So why all the print-stained vitriol?

"I know on the whole the press are not three-headed monsters," Branagh concedes. "I know a lot of the people who have written ghastly things about me. But I think in Britain you go through a cycle -- you get discovered, then maybe you get a little too popular or too lauded. Maybe it's the nature of this country, it's so small and insular that you go through a kind of family relationship and get told off a lot."

But, with a family like the British press, who needs enemies? In the media, Branagh has been slapped with the indifferent label of a "luvvie", has been accused of being "enormously egotistical", and of giving "lifeless" performances. Even his personal life has come under attack, with rumors of divorce bristling in the tabloids. A recent report had Emma Thompson bunking up with Denzel Washington. And if that's not enough to live with, even Branagh's niceness has been criticized.

"People cannot accept that I'm not some kind of monster," he says, "and therefore that must render me without a certain amount of passion. You have to be like that otherwise you're somehow lacking. People love to say, 'He's this or he's that, and if I can't work him out then he must be bland.' Just because you can't see it doesn't mean it isn't there. If people care to look, there is a lot of passion in my roles."

Indeed, the Sunday Times noticed it. The newspaper observed that "there are some who credit Branagh with talent backed by furious energy, rather than genius." So is Branagh passionate or not? And if he's not brushed with a glint of genius, what does that say for the rest of the British theatre and film industry?

Truth be known, his sheer passion and enthusiasm for his vocation has coaxed the likes of Sir John Gielgud, Sir Derek Jacobi and Dame Judi Dench to work with him on the radio (for negligible monetary return) and for such American stars as De Niro, Robin Williams, Michael Keaton, Keanu Reeves, Denzel Washington and Andy Garcia to support him in his movies. He is virtually a one-man film industry, making quality British pictures that attract enormous audiences. And we're not talking recognisably commercial enterprises like Four Weddings and a Funeral, but the box office no-no of William Shakespeare.

For Branagh, one of the most satisfying aspects of his success is that he has managed to make Shakespeare accessible through his films. At schools without the wherewithal to transport students to the theatre, teachers can rent out videos of Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing. He admits in characteristically modest tones, "I don't feel very confident technically. I just hope my enthusiasm for the subject overcomes my inexperience."

And he's still in awe of the talent that comes flocking to work around him. "I've always found it extremely difficult, and still scared to pick up the phone when you have to ask someone more famous or experienced to do something, it really does require a great deal of courage from me, and I usually have to write some kind of script down. When I approached Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi to work with Renaissance, it took me days just to pick up the phone."

His new film, shot on a budget approaching $50 million, is his most ambitious to date and, besides De Niro, features Helena Bonham Carter, Ian Holm, John Cleese and Richard Briers, as well as the American Film stars Aidan Quinn and Tom Hulce. And more impressive still, it is produced by Francis Ford Coppola.

With typical humility, Branagh relates, "Francis was a big help with De Niro because he knows him well. He introduced me to him. In fact, I had the unique experience of sitting in the back of a yellow cab in New York with The Godfather on one side and Raging Bull on the other and the two of them talking across me."

But for all the pressures from Hollywood to up sticks and move Over There, Branagh insists, "I'm very firmly committed to being in this country. My deal with Frankenstein was 'I'll be delighted to do it provided I can do it in Britain.' I'm fascinated by Hollywood but I don't want to live there. It's important to work where there's an appetite for work, where there's a vacuum, and there is over here. My future is absolutely tied up with making movies in this country."

So give our Boy Wonder a break.

We need him. And for the time being, we've still got him.

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