Branagh A Rising Maestro of Film and Theater

San Diego Union-Tribune, August 18 1991
by David Elliott

Great Britain no longer has the world's greatest empire. But -- such is historical compensation -- the British give great interviews.

It's resonantly, ar-tic-u-late-ly true.

Were I magically able to summon like Merlin a round table of my favorite interview subjects, those who put conversation above promotion and knew how to tell a good story, more than half of those invited would be British: Cary Grant, Michael Caine, Alfred Hitchcock, Glenda Jackson, Peter Ustinov, David Hemmings, John Cleese, Julie Walters and Terry Gilliam (American by birth and humor, yet English by adoption and fluency).

And now Kenneth Branagh, actor and director. Born in Northern Ireland, he is at 30 one of the United Kingdom's rising maestros of theater, and his sway extends to film. His "Henry V" won Oscar nominations, excited comparisons to Olivier, and gathered more box-office coin than Olivier's 1943 filming of the play.

Branagh recently returned to Hollywood, tying the ribbon on his first American movie. Opening Friday, it's called "Dead Again" and is a work of creative nerve: A talky, tricky noir mystery inlaid with comedy, set in Los Angeles, fed by American money, with Sydney Pollack as executive director, but a largely English cast and crew directed by Branagh.

The stars include Branagh and Emma Thompson in double roles that alternate ornate English and plain American accents. Scott Frank's plot, involving reincarnation and melodramatic motives, cuts between modern L.A., shot in color, and the city of the '40s, filmed in silvery black-and-white.

"I never came here thinking I've just got to make an American film," remarks Branagh, a figure of welcoming amiability in his hotel suite. In height about 5 feet 10 inches, he has a sturdy build, a doughy complexion, thin lips and eyes that light on alternating current: merry or canny. He did not employ his credible American accent when he first shopped among the studios for support:

"I did have some trepidation. I had arrived in January of '90 with two plays, King Lear' and A Midsummer Night's Dream,' at the Mark Taper Forum. Henry V' had just opened and was doing well. I wanted to make a film of Thomas Hardy's Return of the Native.' So I showed that script around.

"And the feeling I got back was, Oh God, he only does Shakespeare and Hardy. Well, Hardy practically is Shakespeare, isn't he? We can't do that again!' Even when I explained that I had shaped Henry V' as a popular piece, and I was prepared to do so again with the Hardy story, which cries out for the big screen, that just didn't cut much ice."

Still, there was a fluttering of courtship. Branagh was young, bright, praised and on-budget, and almost Oscared. Frank's "Dead Again" script was pitched to Branagh, and he was "bowled over, though it needed changes. Really, you have to go on that gut enthusiasm, or how could you ever find the energy to go the distance on a film?

"I couldn't put it down. It appealed to my love of mystery and ingenious plots, even preposterous ones dealing in reincarnation. God knows how far down the line of possible directors I was. I must say it was being offered around before Ghost' came out. I liked all the words -- never had any interest in a generic thriller with car chases -- and I liked it that the hero gets into a fight and doesn't come off very well. It's refreshing: a human hero."

Hitchcock was abundantly a style source. Branagh burbles with pleasure in drawing upon the master, from his own pool of memory:

"Those were among the first films I saw on television, in Belfast, where I lived 'til I was 9. Every Saturday afternoon the BBC-2 had matinees, with Hitchcocks like Notorious,' Rebecca' and Dial M for Murder,' and also strange B pictures with stars like Dana Andrews and Victor Mature, and I'd always study the credits because I wanted to know who these makers of magic were.

Vocabulary of images

"The dark power of those American images was so intense, and they felt curiously like home ground to me. It gave me a vocabulary of images, and remembered lines, that are irretrievably there, deep inside me. I didn't go to theater 'til I was 16, and then sort of transferred my love from film to stage. Even in doing theater I will often tap into that vocabulary of film images to create atmospheres or effects. Now, luckily, I can serve both loves."

Did he restudy the classics, before embarking on "Dead Again"?

"Oh, boy, I went through a bundle of pictures. Most of Hitchcock, and Welles, also. And The Third Man' and some more modern films. The noir keeps going, doesn't it? Unlike westerns and musicals it still seems relevant to our lives, and it's fun to work them out on both the heart and head levels.

"It was a very tough shoot. The script went through many drafts. We had to have rehearsal time to straighten out how we'd do the multiple story stuff; if any red lights went off, I wanted it to be before shooting. I had to storyboard many sequences."

As for the accents, "We worked very hard -- or I should say, real hard -- to get it down. I would go off on weekends and just be' an American guy. No problem of my being recognized, over here. It was funny, though, because I kept running into people from Japan or Mexico or the Philippines, and they wouldn't have noticed if my accent was terrible!

"Both Emma Thompson and I have Celtic roots, and I think that helps us with voices. I once had a very hard Belfast accent, and had to learn that softer English speech, where dear' becomes deah' and near' becomes neah.' You either have an ear for it, or you don't. I never wanted a very specific American voice, where someone would listen and then say, Oh, you're from that part of Milwaukee.' "

The filming did not make Branagh's head swell, for all the laurels heaped on it when he wore Henry V's crown. He modestly avows, "I needed tons of help. This was only my second film as director, and as a stranger in a strange land I needed people to pull with me, fill in all my blanks of technical ignorance. I had to set up base camp for our effort, and then edit our choices, but without the team, largely the same I used for Henry,' I would have been lost."

Walking Welles' floor

Instead, he had the joy of finding himself on the most hallowed ground of movie history. With a warm smile Branagh recalls the day when "we were shooting on the lot and I was told that part of the set had been used for the house in Rebecca.' And on another stage, at the old RKO lot, Orson Welles had filmed part of Xanadu for Citizen Kane.' And I thought, however this thing goes, it's an enormous thrill to walk the same floor 50 years after Welles did."

Noir buffs also note a modern homage, for the Art Deco apartment with an elevator tower used in "Dead Again" was that of Phillip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) in Robert Altman's great 1973 revision of Raymond Chandler's "The Long Goodbye."

"The texture of that place was so wonderful," says Branagh. "The city had to be used with love, as it was in the old films. I felt a very strong pull from Los Angeles. Filming there was a fantasy dream come true. Though not without its agonies."

And laughs. Playing an antiques dealer who dabbles in seances and crime, Derek Jacobi has a plummy burst of stuttering that echoes his famous vocal fumbling as Claudius on TV's "I, Claudius." Yet according to Branagh, "that bit was in the script before we hired Derek. Still, it's a delicious thing for him to do, and I'm sure it will cause comment back in Britain."

Meanwhile, back in Britain, Branagh has co-directed an "Uncle Vanya" now on tour. He'd like to take some months off, perhaps not in his London flat but "a little place we have up in Scotland. I love the rough weather and wildness. Just to be reading in a warm room surrounded by cold -- delightful!"

And next year, "I'd like to direct another picture, perhaps Shakespeare, after I do a Shakespearean play in the spring, perhaps Richard III.' I'd like to film one of his comedies. Henry V' did so well all over the world, and now it is big in schools, so I shall return to film more of his work, assuming this crazy lottery of a game allows me to."

But it is Hardy's "Return of the Native" that really churns his soul, and he places hope in the guess that "every decade there's room for another Hardy picture. Like Far From the Madding Crowd' in the '60s, Tess' in the '80s. And this is just such a great story! Sex, romance, power!

"It takes place over a year and had a classic combination of couples, in a rural society, very primitive, with witchcraft and passionate, independent women. And sex and romance and power! It could be pure cinema, a big-scale job, almost a David Lean sort of picture."

Inevitably we talk about Lean's last project, an epic based on Conrad's "Nostromo," aborted by his death last spring. Branagh doubts that the already famed script will ever make it to screen:

"Who could possibly do it, who would have the nerve? I feel so sad about all the people who worked for it to happen. I have an actor friend who went to several auditions over two years and then got a part in the film. But now, what director would want to measure himself in Lean's shadow? It would require another great director, but they all have their own dreams, not his. It will probably become one of those greatest films never made."

Asked if he feels the mantle of another dead giant, Olivier, falling on him -- as many critics rushed to proclaim when "Henry V" opened -- Branagh shrugs off the comparison, but thoughtfully:

"In a strange way the idea has become passe. The world of that theater led by Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson, Guinness and Scofield is gone. It was a theater of shorter rehearsal times, shorter runs, a different way of viewing actors as royalty. That sort of dignity is not quite accorded us anymore. Today there's more of a jeering tone, perhaps even an affectation of cynicism in the press, though they still find the new Olivier' or new Gielgud' frequently.

"Perhaps I was born out of my time. I would love to have been in Edmund Kean's company, that brothy, whoring 18th century theatrical world of taverns and renegades, of swords and soliloquies.

"But to answer your question, I feel no pressure to live up to an inheritance of greatness, to rival anyone. I just want to take my work seriously, while also enjoying it.'

Not a bad way to become, in time, Sir Kenneth Branagh.

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