Love Him, Loathe Him: Ken Divides Us All

Sunday Times, January 19 1997
by Christopher Goodwin

In America he's adored for taking Shakespeare to the masses. At home he's derided for doing just that. Christopher Goodwin dissects a cultural divide

Anywhere else, he would be a national treasure. At the age of just 36, he has directed seven films that have taken more than $250m at the international box office. He has picked up Academy Award nominations for best director and best actor. He has won the Bafta Award for best director. Three years ago he was awarded the Michael Balcon Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Cinema, normally given to august personages at the end of their illustrious careers.

His range, as an actor, director, writer and producer, is remarkable. He has made cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare that have been favourably compared to those of Welles and Olivier, and which have had a wider audience than either. He has made big-budget Hollywood genre pictures and low-budget British comedies. And, starting in the depths of the recession, he ran his own theatre company, Renaissance.

Kenneth Branagh, by any objective criteria, and certainly from the perspective of Hollywood, is the great British cultural success story of the past decade. Yet even now, he is probably braced for a new wave of barbs as the British press gears up for the opening of his latest film, Hamlet, on February 14.

People in Hollywood, where the film opened successfully earlier this month, are astonished to learn that in his own land, Branagh is a prophet without honour.

"My God," said one studio executive when I read him some of the more fetid quotes about Branagh from the British papers. "Not even O J Simpson gets that bad a press."

From the moment when, in 1988, the 28-year-old Branagh, against the specific advice of such a luminary of British cinema as David Puttnam, undertook his film version of Henry V, every step he has taken, professional and personal, has been dogged by vicious and insistent attacks in Britain. You would have thought that the working-class Ulster boy had been despatched to England from the slums of Belfast - where he spent the first years of his life - as a sleeper by a group of fanatical barbarians bent on tearing out the heart of all that was best and true within British culture. Branagh's terrible mission? Sneak into Rada. Infiltrate the British theatre. Find Shakespeare and destroy his proud legacy.

Listen to Branagh's legion of critics and you would think he had succeeded magnificently. In the beginning, they inveighed against his effrontery in daring to supplant Olivier with his version of Henry V. "The greatest act of hubris since Prometheus absconded with the rights to divine fire," wrote a British reviewer. Joan Plowright, Olivier's widow, was miffed enough to say that in comparison, Branagh "doesn't have grandeur". Sir John Gielgud also pitched in. "You can't call him great," he sniffed. "In a way he's a better organiser and director than actor."

In Britain the loathing for Branagh grew as the press pored over his autobiography, Beginning, written when he was 28, apparently to help finance Renaissance. Branagh, said The Guardian, was "overdosing on hubris. Is that nemesis waiting in the wings?"

"Now that Part One (of the biography) is out of his system, perhaps the extraordinary and genuine humility which he attributes to the Prince of Wales will be a quality he can find in himself," said Trevor Nunn, with whom Branagh famously tangled at the Royal Shakespeare Company in the mid-1980s before leaving to set up on his own.

The groaning grew louder at the antics of the Ken'n'Em show, and was positively exultant when Frankenstein was deemed a flop. But, in fact, that film, which cost $ 44m to make, has taken $ 100m. Outwardly, Branagh has been game about the intensity of the antagonism towards him. It is, he believes, "part of the British experience. I just don't think about it any more. I've gone through the stage of getting upset or wounded". But friends say he was stunned by the delight the British press took in the failure of his marriage.

"The British press was always very petty to us," he told an American reporter. "It was like people were rooting for a break-up. Now I'm sure a lot of people are glad that we're apart."

Yet in inverse proportion to the plummeting of Branagh's stock in Britain, it has risen in America, and in Hollywood especially. What have been disparaged as faults in Britain - his hubris, his presumption - are touted as desirable qualities in America. There, the critics admired his refusal to be awed by the stifling grandeur of Olivier's reputation or stunted by the overweening weight of British theatrical tradition. "Branagh has made a Henry V for his time, and a masterful one. The king is dead, long live the king," wrote Hal Hinson in the Washington Post.

Americans loved his brazen chutzpah and showmanship as much as the British disliked it. "Kenneth Branagh is brash to the very centre of his being, but his vaunting ambition proves endearing," wrote the reviewer of Beginning in the Los Angeles Times. "Branagh has a way of making these triumphs seem the only possible result of his vast enthusiasm for the acting profession. That may sound boastful, but it isn't."

In an America that bemoans the dumbing-down of culture, Branagh is now being praised rather than chastised, having been able to persuade a major Hollywood studio to part with $18m, plus half as much again for marketing, for his four- hour version of Hamlet. Hollywood people are well aware of the magnitude of Branagh's achievement in popularising Shakespeare, and they have praised his audacity in tackling the complete Hamlet. They know nobody else could have pulled it off. And they know that without the commercial success of Branagh's Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare would never have become, in films such as Baz Luhrman's Romeo and Juliet, one of the hippest names in town. Much Ado, made for $ 8m, took $22m at the American box office and as much again elsewhere.

"With his handsome and compelling Hamlet, Kenneth Branagh brings the Bard's greatest tragedy passionately alive on the screen," wrote Kevin Thomas in the Los Angeles Times, in a review typical of the American reaction.

"It's difficult to understand why people should be unsympathetic to what he's trying to do, which is to bring Shakespeare to a wider audience," said Henry Sheehan, film critic for the Orange County Register. "He seems to be a natural-born citizen of Hollywood."

Indeed, Branagh's next two appearances on screen will be in big-budget Hollywood films. He has just finished the period thriller Shakespeare's Sister (which has nothing to do with Shakespeare), in which he plays a priest, and he is about to start shooting The Gingerbread Man, from a script by John Grisham, which Robert Altman is directing. "He has a lot of the qualities that the British hate in Americans - his naked ambition, his relentless chirpiness, his optimism," concluded the Hollywood studio executive. "And people in Britain loathe him even more because he found commercial and critical success in Hollywood with Shakespeare; critical success on its own would have been okay.

"Still, the fact they hate him says more about Britain than it does about Branagh, doesn't it?"

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