Branagh Undaunted As The 'Next Olivier'

San Diego Union-Tribune, November 10 1989
by Bill Hagen

Blessing or curse, for better or worse, Kenneth Branagh has been anointed the reigning "next Olivier."

Branagh smiled thinly, perhaps a mite painfully, when reminded of the honor, however fleeting.

"I'm the new next Olivier,' " he said. "This week's or this month's next Olivier.' Every young British actor, if he's any good at all, at some time in his career will be called, by someone, the next Olivier.' It could be a burden if it were taken seriously, but no one takes it seriously. Not Paul Scofield, not Derek Jacobi, not Peter O'Toole, not Richard Burton, not Ian McKellen. Certainly not by me. They were all next Olivers,' too. And others.

"That dubious title doesn't mean anything, except, perhaps, to the already-larger-than-life reputation of Laurence Olivier. It reinforces his position as the greatest actor of this century, perhaps the greatest actor ever. There'll never be a next Olivier.' It's a sport in England, passing on the mythical mantle."

So Branagh is flattered but underwhelmed by the accolade. But he has furnished additional ammunition for those who would so regard him with his directorial debut in feature movies, which is Branagh's adaptation of Shakespeare's "Henry V." Branagh, of course, plays Henry. So did Olivier, on screen, in 1944. Comparisons, then, are inevitable.

To Branagh's thinking, it's like comparing apples and oranges.

"The two films are completely different," Branagh said. "Olivier made a wonderful film that captured another time, another era."

Olivier was also at least partially motivated, Branagh said, by patriotism at a time when England yearned for heroes.

Branagh was motivated, again partially, by something less rousing than nationalism but admirable, which is to make Shakespeare accessible and interesting to the masses. Or, as he said, to make a movie that would appeal to Shakespearean scholars and to fans of "Crocodile Dundee."

"To attract high school kids," he said, "you have to have something that moves pretty swiftly. You have to get them to relax and convince them they can understand it. So getting across the image of the film as something that, just on the crudest level, is a great adventure story is important. And beyond that, there's what Shakespeare has to say about war and leadership and other things.

"We've tried to present Henry V' as naturalistically as possible. We've taken a lot of license with period. We've tried to make it for today, to make it look and feel like a movie, not a filmed play. We want them to respond to it as a film, not as some kind of cultural pill they're being forced to swallow.

"The demystification process works slowly but surely, at least that seems to be the case in England. The crossover has been great, and I'm cautiously optimistic that word-of-mouth will break down the Shakespearean barrier, if that's the word.

"The thing about Shakespeare is, we're stuck with this guy. The world's stuck with him. He's the planet's playwright. We have to study him throughout school. And he's either done well, utterly real and understandable and still makes perfect sense and is relevant, or he's done badly and is the most arse-paralyzing experience you could wish to have. It's funny that Shakespeare exists in those extremes, but he does."

Branagh, 28, was born in Belfast, moved to England at age 9 and later enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, winning several major awards over the course of seven seasons there. His credits also include two years with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He has hardly limited himself to the classics, however, including among his credits "The Fortunes of War" for British television.

Nor has he limited himself to acting. He's a writer, a director and a producer. Two years ago he was instrumental in the formation of the Renaissance Theater Company, which will stage "King Lear" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles from Jan. 21 to March 4. Branagh will direct "Lear."

But for the time, Branagh's focus was on "Henry V," on behalf of which he had subjected himself to an exhausting promotional tour that was winding down at sunset in San Diego. The movie opened this week in Los Angeles and New York, will open here Dec. 15 in the Park Theatre.

Branagh worked for three years to get backing for the project, and if he wasn't daunted by the prospect of following Olivier, potential backers were.

"There was," he said, "a lot of how dare you, who do you think you are?' and how can you do it, you haven't directed before?' Eventually the BBC put a half-million pounds into what was an $8-million budget, and that gave the project a kind of solidity."

As part of his research into the character of Henry V, Branagh sought and was granted time with Prince Charles. The allotted 15 minutes turned into three hours.

"It was very helpful, and very gracious of him," Branagh said. "He gave me insights. I met somebody I thought was combining the same things I wanted to incorporate into Henry V. He was compassionate, a deeply honorable man in a non-priggy way. He's continually questioning and open. I felt that about Henry V. He's a man trying to lead an honorable life. I feel Prince Charles to be a tremendously genuine man.

"So I took away from there the sense of a man who takes his job very seriously, a man who has a real melancholy about him. Not sadness, but a melancholy. As if wisdom has been achieved at some personal cost. And Henry certainly has that. I think Prince Charles, like Henry, feels as though he's always going to be lonely, always going to be isolated. I think he's accepted that, and it informs his own being. It was rare to see that kind of quiet courage face to face."

Now Branagh will await reaction to "Henry V," but he has already received one great accolade, this from a teen-ager in London who approached him on the street and said, "Hey, I know you. You're Henry. Our teacher made us go see your film. Bloody brilliant, it is. You're good, too."

"I treasure that review," Branagh said.

Back to Articles Listing
Back to the Compendium