Branagh Keeps It a Family Affair

San Francisco Chronicle, December 20 1992
by David Gritten

KENNETH BRANAGH'S first major film released in America, an adaptation of Shakespeare's ''Henry V,'' won two Oscar nominations for best actor and best director and drew comparisons between Branagh and Laurence Olivier.

His next film, the romantic thriller ''Dead Again,'' became a surprise hit and established Branagh as top actor/director with the American public as well.

But instead of moving to Los Angeles to capitalize on his new fame, Branagh, playing the career game strictly on his own terms, returned to Britain to direct a modest film in which he also acts in an ensemble cast of nine, sharing equal billing with all of them.

Branagh is more than happy with the resulting movie, ''Peter's Friends.'' (It opens at the Clay Theater in San Francisco on Christmas Day.) ''It's quite a personal little film,'' Branagh says. ''It's about something I feel is important: the value of friendship, and the power of it.''

''Peter's Friends,'' which already has been described as a British ''Big Chill,'' is a low-key, serio-comic film about a group of English buddies who devised musical revues together during their university days and who reunite a decade later over a New Year's holiday.

Branagh's has a supportive role as Andrew, a director who sold out to Hollywood and has returned with his wife (Rita Rudner), a pampered American TV-sitcom actress.

Prone to drunken bouts of melancholic self-loathing, Andrew is not the central character: Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie (known to public television audiences as Jeeves and Wooster) are more prominent as, respectively, Peter, a wealthy bachelor aristocrat hosting the reunion in his late father's mansion, and Roger, the husband of a couple whose lives have been blighted by their baby's death. Branagh's wife Emma Thompson (''Howards End'') also shines as a mousy, solitary book editor who shares her domestic life with her cat.

When Peter's friends get together, they each come to realize how much more difficult life is in adulthood than during the carefree days of college, and how comforting one another's company can be.

''Friendship gives you illuminating moments of great companionship in a difficult time,'' Branagh reflects. ''I notice that it's very nice to have friends -- simple as that. Yes, they can be trouble, but what else have we got?''

In fact, art mirrors life in ''Peter's Friends,'' because the cast list is littered with friendships. Fry and Laurie were at Cambridge University with Thompson, as was Tony Slattery, another cast member. Comedian Rudner co-wrote the script with her husband Martin Bergman, who also was in the Cambridge set and is a close friend of the Branaghs. And Phyllida Law, who plays Peter's stern middle-aged housekeeper, is Branagh's mother-in-law. All in all, it's quite a clique.

But why would Branagh, who receives many lucrative offers from Hollywood, embark on a low-budget project such as ''Peter's Friends?'' He says it's a statement about the kind of movies he wants to make.

''It's not at all a cynical film,'' he says. ''I was determined, without being sanctimonious, to send out a positive message . . . Films can shed some light. I mean, I just got offered a script about a serial killer. And while I don't want to put my head in the sand and pretend awful things don't happen in the world, I do not wish to make a movie about a serial killer.''

Branagh already has completed the film that will follow ''Peter's Friends,'' an adaptation of Shakespeare's ''Much Ado About Nothing.'' ''Essentially,'' he says, ''it's about human relationships and the importance of tolerance and generosity of spirit. It's not limp or wimpy, but grown-up and wise.''

As far as Hollywood goes, Branagh happily accepts roles in studio pictures to finance his own movies (as he did earlier this year in a Disney film called ''Swing Kids''), but his heart is in his own company, Renaissance, which makes films and stages theatrical productions.

''They've got me down as an actors' director, and they know I'm my own man,'' he says of the big studios. ''Beyond that, they don't know me. Which is fine: Keep them guessing.''

At 31, Branagh is something of a phenomenon. He is one of the leading British stage actors of his generation; he recently played Hamlet in a Royal Shakespeare Company production. He toured the world with his own theater group. He can now call the shots in the movie business. And he has even published the first volume of his autobiography -- an act which caused some British critics to attack his lack of modesty.

But even if he is more admired in the United States than in his own country, Branagh aims to stay in London. ''I would like to make British films,'' he says. ''By which I mean, films made here for a world audience.'' Will ''Peter's Friends'' be such a film? ''I hope so,'' he says. ''It is very British in a way. In 'The Big Chill,' characters were saying 'I love you' across the kitchen table from reel one. Whereas here in Britain, of course, we're much more held in.

''But the film shines a real light on the need to communicate more. I think people anywhere can appreciate that.''

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