Kenneth Branagh Plays Detective, Superbly
Established as a Shakespearean actor, and once a symbol of Cool Britannia, the director and producer is putting out his best work as a performer on PBS

The Globe & Mail, 7 August 2010
By John Doyle

Kenneth Branagh bustles through the corridors of the Beverly Hilton with a PBS publicist at his side, talking away to him. He nods, then stops to make his point. His voice is low but it carries. It’s a stage actor’s modulated voice. He’s being polite but firm about something: His schedule, the need to do the job here and be gone in an hour.

He’s just had his photo taken with several PBS staff and he smiled enthusiastically throughout, as if this photo was the most fun he’d had in years. It looked utterly plausible. Probably, it was. Anyone passing the scene by accident – that anyone was me – saw a short, slightly stocky man going about the business of show business. He’s 50-years-old and grey-haired now and there’s a day’s growth of grey stubble on his face, making him look, from a distance, a little ordinary, just a harried guy on a tight deadline. But up-close he has the presence, the voice and the charisma of the very successful artist.

The need for him to be on schedule is real. In a few hours, apparently, he’s going to have a studio-screening – a screening for executives and other big shots – of the big budget movie he’s been directing. That’s 'Thor', based on the Marvel Comics character. It will be in theatres next May, one of those summer blockbusters that will, everyone hopes, knock the socks off an audience looking for thrills, adventure and comic-book, superhero nonsense. Right now, though, he’s going to talk to the press about Kurt Wallander, the character he plays in the BBC’s adaptations of Henning Mankell’s internationally popular mystery novels, seen in North America on PBS.

In his first recurring television role, Kenneth Branagh, right, brings the scruffy Swedish sleuth Kurt Wallander to life. On the left is John McEnery as Lars Magnusson.

In truth, it’s perhaps Branagh’s finest acting work ever. The Belfast-born actor came to international attention in the late 1980s as a glamorous multi-talented actor running an acclaimed theatre company that was doing brilliant Shakespeare productions, while acting and directing. He was a Cool Britannia icon, was married to Emma Thompson and his every move was the centre of press attention.

Somewhere along the way, his stride faltered. After his film adaptation of 'Love’s Labour Lost' in 2000 was a critical and commercial disaster, he seemed to retreat.

But 'Wallander' is superb. Branagh, who also produces the series, captures the world-weary cop in rural Sweden with grave aplomb. The dramas are stunningly beautiful to watch (new episodes begin October 3rd on Masterpiece Mystery), but there is a grim quality that makes CSI look like a light and airy cop drama.

The first question he’s asked is “What does Kurt Wallander have in common with Thor besides Ken Branagh?” There’s a mischievous smile when he answers, “Both Scandinavian. Both have family problems. Frankly, Kurt Wallander could occasionally do with a hammer and a cape. I don’t think that the Norwegian, if you like, or the Viking, has the same issues with introspection as Kurt Wallander. There’s something about coming from those northern lands, you know. It’s a big country, small population, the seasons and the weather are extreme, and the possibility for looking inward into the interior life is great. So I think one of us certainly has that.”

Then comes an odd query, a very American one: “Mr. Branagh, arguably you could be called the Tom Hanks of the U.K. You do all these different things. You’re as big as they have over there, and yet here you are doing a TV show. Can you talk a little bit about that? Tom Hanks also does TV shows.”

It might be startling to Branagh, who has appeared in, or directed, five film adaptations of Shakespeare, as well as countless stage productions, to be called “the Tom Hanks of the U.K.,” but he runs with it, even if he gets a tad sidetracked and digressive. “You’re all here celebrating the fact – certainly, I’ve been working here for a while now, so my sense of American television and — indeed, my distinguished colleagues from the U.K. you’re going to talk to in a minute (he means the people from the BBC’s Sherlock who will meet TV critics later) have been producing fantastic English television. I’ve been watching tremendous American television, mainly because of the way the viewing patterns of watching movies have gone, it seems like a lot of risk-taking, a lot of imagination is regenerating in television in a way that I think makes for a pretty exciting period. I feel very, very lucky to be on the television.”

Okey-dokey. Not “TV” but, “the television.” We’ve all just watched some scenes from 'Wallander' and Branagh seemed to be intensely interested in them. Asked how he feels about watching himself on-screen, given that, often, he also directs or produces what he appears in, Branagh indicates a generosity and self-deprecation that are the hallmarks of a man in middle-age, far from the cockiness of youth and early success.

“There are a couple of elements to this that I’ve experienced. One is having directed myself in things, I was inevitably forced to look at what I did. And there are, in any given project, a few moments where there is the usual disappointment, as it were, when you look in the mirror and you realize you’re not 23 and looking like Brad Pitt. That’s never been an issue I’ve had to face, fortunately. But you just think are you right for the character, and you get past that. And then, what I found useful about directing myself earlier on in my career — I don’t do it, really, any more — was to be very robust and very objective about things, I think, that was helpful to me. I also found, in doing that, I employed other people, in one or two cases, quite brilliant people who were ruthlessly honest about my performance, so I was protected in that way in terms of not seeing the various flaws and mistakes I’d been making.

“Nowadays, when we make Wallander, I never look at the playback. You know, I never ask to see it again. I know from having been on the other side that as a director it’s very rewarding and pleasing if the actors trust you. And by the same token, when I’m acting, I’m in the director’s hands. I’m very happy to be.”

Soon, we are told he has to leave. He has “obligations.” Indeed he does and he has taken off his microphone and left the stage before his departure is fully announced. Bustling down the corridor again. Busy, older and wiser, obviously. Directing comic-book movies but doing his acting as Wallander, a great Wallander.

Back to the Wallander page | Back to Articles Listing | Back to the Compendium