'Fortunes of War' Strikes Gold with Branagh

St. Petersburg Times, January 17 1988
by Janis D. Froelich

English actor Kenneth Branagh looks apprehensive as he stands by himself in the corner of a reception room at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

After all, he's not really known in the States and the TV critics attending this informal interview session have just seen the first episode of his starring role in Mobil Masterpiece Theatre's Fortunes of War.

So Branagh looks as if he's taking a deep breath before sacrificing his psyche for dissection by a bunch of American TV critics.

He needn't look so worried. Branagh is a smash in a PBS series that looks as if it will wear more comfortably as a pullover than a stuffed shirt.

Fortunes of War is an odd war movie - not really about the battlefield, but about an unconventional young couple. They're struggling more to keep their togetherness out of troubled water than to escape the ravages of World War II.

And as Branagh confesses after I walk over to chat with him, the character he portrays, Guy Pringle, a university lecturer, is "a bit of an insensitive bloke." In fact, Branagh questions Guy's personality as if he's miffed by the actions of a close friend whom he's trying very much to help.

Branagh, a mere 27, is on the screen almost continuously during the seven-part BBC-WGBH Boston co-production, which is quite a costly one by British standards. As director James Cellan Jones says later at a press conference, "People in England, thought it (the $ 12-million cost of production) was shameful, but we just scraped along." The film, based on the work of novelist Olivia Manning, was shot entirely in Bucharest, Athens and Cairo.

Even though the opening episode begins in September 1939, right before the Romanian prime minister is killed, the relationships brought to life by the Fortunes of War cast are very contemporary. For example, there are several scenes about journalists assigned to Bucharest, which are reminiscent of Broadcast News.

Branagh gives such a fresh, lively performance as he plays this young fuddy-duddy: On one hand, he's often thoughtless of his wife, Harriet (played by plucky English comedian Emma Thompson), but he still manages a sparkling charm as the newly married couple gets caught behind enemy lines in the Balkans and Middle East.

Branagh relaxes a bit as more reporters circle around him, asking questions about his role. He doesn't resemble the movie-star type. He's stocky, has messy eyebrows and has that English ruddy complexion. In the film his hair is slicked back and he wears glasses. But in person, his light hair is somewhat tousled, making him look very young and impish.

In Fortunes of War when his character, Guy, tells his wife, "Wherever we are, that will be the center of things," I found myself wanting to watch more and more of Branagh's magnetic work.

Branagh has been busy in the theater in England and has done some "telly," he says. He had the title role in Henry V for the Royal Shakespeare Company and recently starred in the BBC's Ghosts. He's made a movie with Jacqueline Bisset called High Season to be released soon.

So he's definitely poised for stardom. He says his goal is to work in America, yet he tells a very forthright story about how he is struggling with commercialism. After finishing the nine-month shooting schedule for Fortunes of War, Branagh decided to spend a year as actor/manager of his own small London theater company, partly financed by his own savings.

When a British bank asked him to do a commercial, he admits he was tempted. "I wondered how much they were willing to pay and if it matched how much I value my integrity," he says tongue-in-cheek.

Branagh adds that he didn't pursue the deal, however, and therefore doesn't know the price tag for his advertising endorsement. Obviously, bank commercials are not the future for Kenneth Branagh.

Back to Articles Listing
Back to the Compendium