Kenneth Branagh: The Image of Shakespeare in the 20th Century

Just English, May 1998
**thanks to Estela

Kenneth Branagh is a key figure of today's motion picture scene. In 1988, he made his debut as the director a full length motion picture with Henry V, surprising the international film community, who are unaccustomed to seeing well-known actors make the transition to directing. The film -considered a masterpiece by many- marks the start of his multifaceted career as an award-winning director/actor/screenwriter. Henry V received three Oscar nominations, including best director and best actor. In addition, he has been named best actor and best director by numerous critics' associations in Europe and North America, and has also won prizes for the best film by a young director.

Born 37 years ago in Belfast, one of the most strife-ridden cities in Northern Ireland, he was educated in England, where he studied acting. During his internship at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art he was awarded various prizes for his acting. In 1982, a month after concluding his studies, Branagh made his professional debut in the play Another Country, winning two prizes for the best new actor of the year.

In 1984, the Royal Shakespeare Company took on Branagh to play Henry V, the same role that would bring him fame in the motion pictures four years later. He subsequently appeared in Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, in which he earned acclaim for bringing new life to the classics.

In 1987, he and fellow actor David Parfitt founded the Renaissance Theatre Company, for which he directed and starred in -and in some cases, wrote- works such as Public Enemy, Twelfth Night, and The Life of Napoleon. He took advantage of a brief pause in his stage career to debut as director/actor/screenwriter in the motion pictures with Henry V, kicking off a new phase for his theatrical company that included such notable successes as film versions of Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet. During the 1991-92 season, the company toured the world with productions of King Lear and A Midsummer Night's Dream directed by Branagh. In 1993 he reached new heights of personal success following stage productions of Hamlet and Coriolanus that broke all British box-office records.

In 1991, Branagh and Emma Thompson won international recognition for their appearances in Paramount Pictures' Dead Again, in which he plays two roles: a present-day Los Angeles detective and a 1940s European composer. The following year he co-produced, directed and formed part of the cast of Peter's Friends, an independent low-budget film. If any critics had been harbouring any doubts about his skills as an actor and his ability as a director, Much about Nothing showed just how talented he really was. Sharing the screen with such internationally known actors as Michael Keaton, Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, and Emma Thompson, he succeeded in making this the most profitable adaptation of a work by Shakespeare in two more decades.

Much Ado About Nothing was followed by further successes. In 1994 he directed and acted in Frankenstein, and the next year he acted under other directors in Othello, A Month in the Country, High Season, and The Swing Kids.

In 1996 he produced, directed, and acted in a new film version of Hamlet that is very possibly the most faithful cinematographic adaptation of a play by Shakespeare ever mounted. Once more he had reached the heights of success with help from the Bard of Avon.

Branagh's most recent film performances include The Proposition, in which he co-stars with William Hurt and Madeleine Stowe, Fall Project by Woody Allen, and The Gingerbread Man, directed by Robert Altman and based on a screenplay by John Grisham (the first of his films not based on a previously published novel). In this motion picture distributed by Lider Films, Branagh heads an excellent cast that includes Daryl Hannah, Embeth Davidtz (the evil German commandant's Jewish housekeeper in Schindler's List), Robert Duval, and Tom Berenger.

In The Gingerbread Man Kenneth Branagh plays a lawyer whose life is threatened by the father of a beautiful waitress. Branagh's existence becomes a living hell as he struggles to save his own life. Set in the beautiful Southern town of Savannah, Georgia, this thriller offers audiences an entertaining combination of ciné noir, melodrama, sexual obsession, and suspense.

It was Branagh's having accepted the lead role the film that convinced Robert Altman to sign on as director. Altman admits: "[I'm] a fan of Kenneth Branagh, and when they told me that he had accepted, I signed on at once. Without a doubt, we're looking at another stellar performance by an actor who chose something as prestigious and risky as the works of Shakespeare for his springboard to fame".

J.E. ("Just English!"): This is a bit of a departure from some of your more usual roles, how did you come to accept it?

K.B.:They sent the script to me and I was intrigued because it's the first, uh, screenplay that Grisham has come up with that isn't from a novel, and uh, I think, in a way, it's the books are written, in a way that makes you feel they, as indeed the have, could become movies. Um, and so it was interesting to work the other way around, to read this and then feel, as, as I think Grisham did, that it needed, like, a strong directorial impulse behind it and when Robert Altman came on board that was, you know, that was me, that was a yes from me straight away.

J.E.: What about the feel of the film?

K.B.: It looks like a film noir, it looks very, there's an atmosphere of sinister something and dread, there's a very uneasy feeling in it. He's come to Savannah to capture that side of Savannah that is, ah, a little, compellingly creepy, and the movie has that, so there's very powerful atmosphere and a very interesting ensemble of characters, it isn't just, you know, the good and the girl, it's a, it's a, much more of an ensemble, the kind of thing you might expect in a normal film but not necessarily in a Grisham film.

J.E.: How do you feel about your character?

K.B.: One of the interesting things is whether this is a true blue good guy or a bad guy or somewhere in between, and again, as, as in many of Altman's things, he, he enjoys working in this grey area, where this guy adores his kids, is a successful, and a good lawyer, with some sense of honour in there, but also a man who's lost his way slightly and for whom winning now is, is everything, and it is certainly not how you play the game and he's been casual about his relationships, casual about his sense of fairness with people, and ah, he has a great deal to learn during the course of the movie, there's a big sort of morality tale in there I suppose.

J.E.: How does the film's intense pace contribute to the development of you character?

K.B.: So it makes you think, it makes you think, because you hate this guy at the same time as recognising there are parts of him as he's drawn into this web of intrigue and this life-threatening situation where his kids may be lost, where he may die, where he gets involved in a murder himself, um, and ah, are forced to feel along with him. It has quite a strong emotional punch, I'm surprised and that's how it's played as we've been shooting it, ah, both with this tremendous sort of suspenseful thing and ah, a surprising emotional charge, and this is, ah, I think down to Altman.

J.E.: How does your character become involved in all this intrigue?

K.B.: He meets Mallory at this point where he's rather empty, he's still attracted to his ex-wife but knows it won't work, he's very attracted to his partner, played by Daryl Hannah, and then he meets a woman from a different class, different social position, and he is in the grip of a sort of obsessive love, desire for a combination of lust and love and, a, and a sort of determination to prove to his colleagues that it isn't just another one-night-stand, but in so doing, he gets dragged into a world that he had no idea about, thinks he can control, learns very quickly he can't, and, ah, has a rare old time dealing with it, um, but he finds her utterly fascinating, she is enigmatic, she is trouble, she is vulnerable, she is passionate, and, ah, I think, ah, as men do sometimes I guess, people do sometimes, he's, he's looking for someone who can sort of provide everything; she seems to do it. Gorgeous, intelligent, damsel-in-distress as well, I mean, she's a kind of fantasy figure for him.

J.E.: Tell us a bit about the story line.

K.B.: Rick Magruder is a successful lawyer, winning yet another case, he hasn't lost one in seven or eight years, he, ah, on the very night that he celebrates it meets a waitress, somebody he wouldn't normally decide to date, the have a one-night-stand, which comes out of a kind of, ah, desperation on her part, she's clearly upset, he doesn't intend it, but it happens, and it happens very successfully, he discovers she's being stalked by her father and he decides to help and from that point on all sorts of other things go wrong, and he gets dragged into a, a murder intrigue, into a kidnapping scenario, he is involved with hiring a private investigator to protect him, his family, his children, his world starts to crumble, she is threatened, the Robert Downey character the private investigator, is threatened, the Robert Duvall character, who's the, ah, ah, the stalking father, ah, is let loose and ah, you see an entire kind of existence crumble around him. It's kind of everybody's worst nightmare, ah, but, you know, exciting to watch at a distance, you know, vicarious thrills to be had.

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