Kenneth Branagh Strives To Be Picture Perfect

Philippine Star, 23 January 2014
By Alison de Souza

Kenneth Branagh not only stars in action movies, but is directing them, too.

Some Kenneth Branagh fans are still recovering from the shock of finding out that their beloved Shakespearean actor was responsible for 'Thor', the 2011 movie based on the hammer-wielding Marvel comics superhero. But those who recognise the 53-year-old Irishman in the new spy thriller 'Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit', where he plays the villain, are in for another surprise when the credits roll: he directed this big action flick, too.

Speaking to reporters at the Montage Hotel in Los Angeles recently, Branagh staunchly defended what has become something of a pet thesis for the actor-director ever since he began doing more mainstream commercial fare, even though he remains best known for his film adaptations of the Bard.

“I haven’t really quite accepted that there’s any particular divide or barrier between so-called high culture and low culture,” he says. “There’s only good culture, whatever that is. So whatever the genre is, there are good and bad examples of all kinds.”

Thus, he does not distinguish between a film such as 'Henry V', which he adapted, directed and starred in to a great reception in Hollywood in 1989, and his latest effort, inspired by Tom Clancy’s novels about the reluctant spy Jack Ryan. This, despite the fact that his forte has been dialogue-driven dramas in television, theatre and film, the latter including such movies as 'Much Ado About Nothing' (1993), 'Hamlet' (1996) and 'As You Like It' (2006).

In fact, Branagh can draw a line directly from 'Henry V' to 'Jack Ryan', which also stars Chris Pine and Keira Knightley and features numerous and complex action sequences.

“Certainly, trying to explore it cinematically and make it as interesting and original as possible, that was all new. But, at the same time, I feel as if I started as an action director. Because although 'Henry V' was full of dialogue, actually, you end up with the Battle of Agincourt.

“And I remember one autumn day in October 1988 with Vic Armstrong – the legendary second-unit director who worked on 'Jack Ryan' and 'Henry V'. He and I were standing there going, ‘How do we make all these guys firing arrows look interesting, how do we do the French outnumbering the English?’

“And 25 years later, we’re on a highway in New York saying, ‘So, Jack’s on a motorcycle, he has to save the world, how do we make that interesting?’

“So in a bizarre way, action’s run right through my career, but often mixed up with a lot of words. Which leads me to believe that action and words can co-exist.”

For Branagh, more important than a movie’s genre or approach is whether it is well-executed.

“If it’s a broad comedy, it’s either good or it isn’t. When the good ones are good, they’re fantastic and take your breath away. I also admire artistry, skill and technique. And when things appear to be effortless.”

He cites the work ethic of legendary ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov as an example. Baryshnikov has a supporting role in 'Jack Ryan' and two small scenes with Branagh’s character, yet wanted to rehearse “more than any actor I’ve ever come across” in order to make everything look effortless and natural. And that perfectionism “can apply anywhere – it doesn’t matter whether you’re making 'Dumb And Dumber 3' or 'King Lear'. To do something well requires concentration and focus, and it can be valuable and rewarding and entertaining”.

“The idea that one dismisses something because it’s low brow and common, or high brow and too pretentious, need not be the case.”

Branagh was drawn to 'Jack Ryan' because of a childhood fascination with classic political and action thrillers from the 1970s.

“When I started going to the pictures properly, I was watching films such as 'Three Days Of The Condor', 'The French Connection', 'The Parallax View' and 'All The President’s Men'.

“So the conspiracy, paranoia, thriller element of (Jack Ryan) – the idea of making a film where there’s a secret drop in a cinema, where two men meet on a bench at night in Moscow, where there’s a threat to the world’s security at the end – was all that I was excited to do.

“And I think, sometimes if you’re lucky, you often end up working on films that made a profound impression on you as a kid. All the things that stamped themselves in your memory from about seven to 17 are the ones that come back to you, I think.”

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