A 'New Olivier' Is Taking on Henry V

New York Times, January 8 1989
by Michael Billington

Any exciting young British actor is almost inevitably dubbed ''the new Olivier.'' But in the case of 27-year-old Kenneth Branagh, the comparison is unavoidable.

He went straight from drama school into a West End hit, Julian Mitchell's ''Another Country.'' He left the Royal Shakespeare Company to form his own Renaissance Theater Company, for which he has written one play, directed another and this year played Hamlet, Benedick and Touchstone in a sold-out nationwide tour and London season.

And no sooner had the curtain fallen on that than he was on the floor at Shepperton Studios directing and starring in his own screen adaptation of ''Henry V'' - something not even Olivier did till he had reached the ripe old age of 36.

Unruly-haired and firm-jawed, Mr. Branagh is clearly a young man in a hurry. What is most striking about him, however, is his determination to control his own destiny, which is partly explained by his complex background. ''I have,'' he says, ''what Olivia Manning calls the Anglo-Irish sense of belonging nowhere.'' Born into a Protestant, working-class Belfast family, he was uprooted at the age of 9 to a middle-class suburb in Reading, 50 miles outside London. He remarks wanly of Reading that ''I feel, rather like Oscar Wilde, that the best way to see it is going through on a train.''

Like a lot of displaced people, he found a surrogate home in the theater. As a teen-ager, he studied theater magazines with fanatical zeal, skipped school games to go to London shows and fell under Olivier's dark, mesmerizing spell: He remembers reading avidly about the peak years of Olivier's National Theater company in the 1960's and looking in a biography at the amazing array of Protean faces all belonging to one man.

Even before leaving drama school, he was cast as a teen-age Marxist in ''Another Country,'' a work that suggested that the British pattern of upper-class treachery had its origins in public-school life. A year later, he was at Stratford-on-Avon playing a pensive, troubled, post-Falklands Henry V appalled by the degradation of a war he had been assured was just. But, after a season with the R.S.C., Mr. Branagh left the company, feeling that the organization had grown over-large and impersonal.

His immediate answer was to set up (with fellow-actor David Parfitt) the Renaissance Theater Company, investing $15,000 he had earned in a dim film called ''High Season.'' The company started small, with Mr. Branagh starring in his own play, ''Public Enemy,'' about a footloose Belfast youngster with a Cagney fixation. He went on to direct a much-admired, Victorian version of ''Twelfth Night.''

But the big push came this past year when Renaissance toured Britain (and Elsinore) with three Shakespeares directed by three star actors making their directorial debut: Derek Jacobi (''Hamlet''), Judi Dench (''Much Ado About Nothing'') and Geraldine McEwan (''As You Like It''). Besides being a Renaissance man, Mr. Branagh also found time to star in a BBC drama, ''Fortune of War,'' and to make an acclaimed film, ''A Month in the Country.''

With all options currently open to him, why does Mr. Branagh specifically want to make a film of ''Henry V''?

''Even before I played it at Stratford,'' he says, ''I had a strong feeling about this particular piece. I feel it has been unjustly treated as a jingoistic hymn to England. Olivier's film, because it was made in 1943, inevitably became a propaganda vehicle and cut out the less amiable aspects of Henry's character. There was no mention of his threat to the Governor of Harfleur to show 'your naked infants pitted upon spikes.'

''Whereas Olivier's Henry was a knight in shining armor, I feel the play is about a journey toward maturity. It is about a young monarch who at the beginning is burdened with guilt because his father has unlawfully seized the crown, who has a sometimes precarious relationship with his men but who, by the end, has learned abut true leadership. It is also a fascinating debate about war, in which the action can turn upon a sixpence. One minute Shakespeare shows Henry at his true heroic zenith. The next he gives you the hideous reality of war.''

The film is being made under the banner of Renaissance Films on a $10 million budget largely assembled by its executive producer, Stephen Evans. The financing comes from a variety of sources, including a government-sponsored business expansion plan, BBC TV and a small army of private investors.

The money has been shrewdly spent. Walking round the Shepperton lot, Mr. Branagh points out that 60 percent of the film will be shot on two sound stages and that Agincourt will be re-created in the surrounding fields (Olivier spent a quarter of his $600,000 budget shooting the battle scenes in Ireland). He points to a vast wall on the back lot that will serve for Harfleur and for a night-shoot of ''Once more unto the breach,'' with the King desperately trying to stem the retreating tide of soldiers. He also points to slit trenches being dug in the ground and providing an instant visual reminder of World War I. ''I want,'' he says, ''to make a popular film that will both satisfy the Shakespearean scholar and the punter who likes 'Crocodile Dundee.' ''

Mr. Branagh insists that the film will look very different from the Olivier version. ''It will show,'' he claims, ''a much darker world, with less picture-book medieval prettiness. The costumes will be simplified rather than decorative. The Chorus - Derek Jacobi - will be used in a Brechtian way, starting on a deserted film stage rather than in a mock-up of the Globe. Also where Olivier made the French effeminate fops, I want to treat them as an enemy worth fighting and suggest that they belong to a different, highly civilized European world.

''Above all, I believe the story has more suspense if you feel that the English have no chance, that the army is in a state of disrepair and decay, that discipline is ragged and that the heroism on display is spiritual as well as physical.''

Mr. Branagh doesn't deny that he has been influenced by the thinking behind Adrian Noble's anti-romantic R.S.C. production in which he starred. But isn't there a certain chutzpah in challenging our memories of Olivier's wartime masterpiece?

''My answer to that,'' he says, ''is that the man is the man he is and has done what he has done. I'm not making this film to see if I can score a draw with Olivier, but because I passionately believe that all of Shakespeare's plays need to be constantly re-interpreted. It happens all the time in the theater. Olivier plays Richard III, then Antony Sher comes up with a wholly different conception of a crutch-bound cripple, and now this year at Stratford, Anton Lesser overturns that idea. If Olivier even knows about this film, I suspect he thinks 'cheeky bastard.' But the point is that, if a previous 'Henry V' film had existed, it certainly wouldn't have stopped Olivier.''

For Mr. Branagh, the film is the culmination of the work Renaissance has done over the last 18 months. He is very proud of the fact that 90 percent of the current theater company will be in the film (including Judi Dench and Geraldine McEwan): the few newcomers include Paul Scofield as the King of France, Ian Holm as Fluellen and Alex McCowen as Ely. He has also taken care to surround himself with a crew (including the director of photography, Kenneth MacMillan, and the production designer, Tim Harvey) with whom he has worked on either ''Fortunes of War'' or ''A Month in the Country.''

The fact remains, however, that directing a film on this scale is a huge and daunting undertaking.

''You are talking,'' he says, ''to a man who has done a crash course in film history. Orson Welles said that when you make a film you should either know everything or very little. I'm not saying which I know, but I have watched endless war films, from 'Chimes at Midnight' to 'Platoon' and 'Oh, What a Lovely War' to 'The Longest Day.' I've also story-boarded every scene so that I know just how each sequence should look.

''And when the technical crew asks me if I want to use a 'hothead' or a 'chewy,' I simply look them in the eye and ask them what they mean. I also have my old drama-school principal on hand, to monitor my own performance, and an actor who has played Henry V on stage to stand in for me. Because of the timetable, there simply isn't time to get frightened.''

Mr. Branagh constantly stresses that he wants to make a popular, accessible film. But there are points in ''Henry V'' - such as the King's guilt about his father's seizure of the crown - that only make sense if you know the preceding history.

''I get round this,'' says Mr. Branagh, ''by beginning with a voice-over speech from 'Richard II,' which dwells on the fragility of kingship. We then see Henry's features looking out to sea, which I hope will convey the idea of a haunted man in a state of agitation. The audience will intuit that Henry is a young man whose conscience is troubled by the sins of the past. But, in general, I want to avoid the kind of voice-over soliloquizing that Olivier used both in his 'Henry V' and 'Hamlet,' because I feel some bit of the actor is denied when you do that. I also want to go for a non-declamatory style of speaking. What one is after is an under-the-skin effect, whereby one astonishes people with how naturalistic the verse seems.''

For the moment, all of Mr. Branagh's energies are focused on the film (to be released next October on St. Crispin's Day). But already he is pondering the future of Renaissance. Next year, he plans to direct ''Hedda Gabler'' on stage with Emma Thompson (his co-star in ''Fortunes of War'' and Princess Katherine in ''Henry V''), to set up a British and world tour of ''King Lear'' and ''A Midsummer Night's Dream'' and even to create a season of as many as seven new plays.

Oddly, for someone whose schedule is so crowded, Mr. Branagh wonders if he is becoming unemployable.

''I'm not sure,'' he says, ''if people see me as a Bolshie young so-and-so, but I swear I'd be perfectly happy to work for someone else. Next year, I may have to because I am now flat broke. But if any one thing pleases me about what Renaissance has achieved, it is that we have proved that actors can direct. Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench and Geraldine McEwan all say that their directors now treat them differently because they have shown their own capacity.''

What the future holds for Kenneth Branagh is anyone's guess. But when a friend recently asked him if he would like to be running Britain's National Theater in 30 years time, he simply laughed. Given his current rate of progress, 30 years seems like a very conservative estimate.could be 40 years, right?

Back to Articles Listing
Back to the Compendium