The Observer Profile: Kenneth Branagh

The Observer, 11 November 2001,
By Jay Rayner

Is Nothing Beyond Our Ken?
Apparently not. Just as our greatest living Shakespearian actor seems to have lost his way, he comes back with an Emmy, a West End hit and a stage return with Richard III

Anybody who had won both a major acting award and been credited with a West End directing triumph within one 24-hour period might have been expected, publicly, to celebrate the fact. Not Kenneth Branagh. He didn't even travel to Los Angeles to collect the best actor Emmy award he received for his performance in the World War II television movie Conspiracy. Instead he chose to stay in London to oversee the first night of The Play Wot I Wrote, a new comedy tangentially about the work and relationship of Morecambe and Wise, which he has directed.

While the opening was received with whoops of delight from the critics, Branagh has declined to say a single word. 'Right from the beginning he said he didn't want to do any press,' says David Pugh, the play's producer, which was written and is performed by Sean Foley and Hamish McColl, a long-standing double-act known as the Right Size. 'He didn't want to do questions about his private life. He didn't want the focus to be on him. He wanted it to be clear it is the boys' work.'

Branagh's desire to keep his head down is understandable. For every high in his career - a masterful Henry V, aged just 23, a hugely successful screen adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, a fiercely dramatic and uncut Hamlet - there has been an equal low, be it the public break-up of his marriage to Emma Thompson or the critical (though not financial) failure of his epic Frankenstein. Rarely has any actor or director been on the receiving end of press so terribly good and so terribly bad.

Until last week it seemed the volume of bad was destined now to outweigh the good; that a recent Gielgud Award for services to Shakespeare was for triumphs past. Although his friends and colleagues credit him with great resilience - 'he has immense reserves of optimism' said one - the coverage has clearly been getting to him.

When Pugh first approached Branagh to work with the Right Size on the Morecambe and Wise project his film of Love's Labour's Lost, played as a Thirties musical with songs by Gershwin and Cole Porter, had just opened in the US to acerbic reviews.

'He was clearly having a bad time,' Pugh says. 'One of the reasons he said he didn't want to get involved with us at first was that he believed the production could get unfairly lampooned by the media simply because he was part of it. I said "bollocks". I told him to roll his sleeves up and get down to it.'

Pugh had worked alongside Branagh during his first stage role in Julian Mitchell's play Another Country, almost 20 years ago. He remembered Branagh's razor-sharp impersonations of Eric Morecambe while he waited in the wings for his cue. He knew about his love of light entertainment. He thought he would be perfect for the job and he has been proved absolutely right. 'I think he had a ball. He'd been stuck in film for a bit and this got him back to his roots.'

Toby Jones, who appears alongside the Right Size in The Play Wot I Wrote, agrees. 'There was a great humility to Branagh,' he says. 'I think the scale of this appealed to him. It was just the four of us working together in a room.' For now Branagh has turned his back on the Machiavellian power games of Hollywood, which clearly intoxicated him for much of the Nineties, and returned to first principles. It has served him well.

Kenneth Branagh was born 40 years ago in Belfast and, though he moved as a child to Reading, has always proclaimed a certain Irishness. 'I don't think you can take Belfast out of the boy,' he once said. His ability as an actor was recognised by a teacher and, with a grant from Berkshire County Council, he made it to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Only six weeks after graduating he had his first West End part in Mitchell's Another Country. Soon after he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company to play Henry V and at 25 he formed the Renaissance Theatre Company with his friend David Parfitt.

Already he had a fearsome reputation, which attracted the great and the very good of British theatre; his small touring company could boast among its number the likes of Derek Jacobi and Judi Dench. He was also credited with resuscitating the careers of actors such as Richard Briers.

In 1988 he proved the depth of his ambition by making his directorial debut with a film of Shakespeare's Henry V, in which he starred. It was an audacious move. Lawrence Olivier, with whom he had already been compared, had made his name as a film director with a screen version of the same play. It looked as if Branagh was challenging the Olivier legend. He was saved from derision by sheer talent. The film was a massive critical and commercial success and was nominated for a clutch of Oscars.

The response to his decision to write his autobiography, aged just 28, was less sympathetic. Branagh stated that Beginnings was written simply to raise cash for his theatre company. To his critics - and in a British media quick to knock down its own heroes, their numbers were now increasing - it looked like an act of gross hubris. When his marriage to the equally accomplished actress, Emma Thompson, hit the rocks a few years later, the press was swift to pounce. The experience, and the way his subsequent relationship with Helena Bonham Carter was covered, has fostered a distinct wariness of the press. 'I do not talk about my private life,' he says now, simply.

Throughout he has always tried to answer his critics with the breadth of his work, though sometimes he has fallen victim to the depth of his own ambition. His 1994 film adaptation of Frankenstein, which was reported to have cost 35 million, was praised for its scale and gloss but derided by critics for its lack of light and shade. The film 'lacks internal momentum', wrote one critic, 'as if it's getting shorter and shorter of breath.' The acting style was 'verging on an enervating hysteria', wrote another.

But other works, most notably his Shakespeare adaptations, have been better received. 'He's an extraordinary man, particularly when he's talking about Shakespeare,' says Philip Rose of the film company Intermedia, to whom he is contracted to make three Shakespeares, of which Love's Labour's Lost was the first. 'When he pitched the Shakespeare films to us it was clear we were dealing with a film maker of real vision.' He is currently developing a version of Macbeth set on Wall Street, and an As You Like It set in Japan, though neither has been scheduled as yet.

At the same time he has returned with vigour to acting. Some of the parts, such as the journalist in Woody Allen's Celebrity, in which he seemed to play it as Allen himself, were a little odd. Others, such as his performance as Heydrich, one of the architects of the Nazi genocide of the Jews, for which he won last week's Emmy, have been more successful. He has also finished playing the lead in a mini series about the arctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, which will be shown on Channel 4 in January.

'I approached him about the part even before I had written the script,' says Shackleton 's director, Charles Sturridge. 'He committed immediately and absolutely. The first thing he wanted to know was, are you going to the Antarctic?' Again, it arrived as the reviews for Love's Labours Lost were coming in. 'It came in a point in his life when the idea of immersing himself in something was very, very attractive.' The result, Sturridge says, is 'a performance of huge depth and power'.

His diary is also nice and full for the forseeable future. In the New Year he will be at the Sheffield Crucible playing Richard III, his first stage acting work in nearly a decade. And then, last week, came the news that he has landed the plum role of Gilderoy Lockhart in the second Harry Potter movie. After the tough times of recent years it must have felt last week as if the boy wizard's magic was already working.

Kenneth Branagh
Born: 10 December 1960, Belfast
Married to:Emma Thompson (marriage dissolved in 1997)
Girfriends: Helena Bonham Carter (ex), Lindsey Brunnock
(current) Films: Henry V, Dead Again, Frankenstein, Much Ado About Nothing, Celebrity

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