'In the Civlized World We're Obliged to Wear Masks'
Kenneth Branagh Has Something to Hide

Shakespeare specialist has built a career on tales of deceit; now he's gone modern with a remake of "Sleuth"

The Charlotte Observer, 11 November 2007
By Lawrence Toppman

Kenneth Branagh has been one of cinema's most successful liars for two decades.

From the twisting murder mystery "Dead Again" to "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," he's built his acting career on characters with something to hide. He's written, starred in and/or directed six adaptations of Shakespeare's plays, and every one is about people pretending to be something they're not.

Now he's directed Harold Pinter's revision of the classic "Sleuth," about two guys who conceal the truth from each other in a deadly mind game.

So what's all this about?

"The most constant Shakespearean theme (is) the nature of acting and reality," he says in a hotel suite in September at the Toronto International Film Festival. "In the civilized world, we're required to wear masks from the moment we get up in the morning. If we were true to what we feel at any given moment" -- he looks down at bustling Avenue Road -- "Toronto might be populated by raging psychotics.

"So maybe it's being fascinated by the tension between what people feel themselves to be and the way they have to be. People say, `Be yourself. Be happy with who you are.' But first you have to find out who you are, don't you? And sometimes circumstances, personality, family-genetic-environmental programming hide the real you from you."

Yes, he's an Irishman, the kind who loves words and often finds out what he thinks by speaking aloud. Unlike many actors, he seems bigger in person: nearly 5-foot-10, pink-complected, broad-chested but not stout, approaching age 47 with a smile that can perennially be called boyish. He wears casual black: open jacket with no tie, workaday black trousers and shoes.

He's come to the festival to promote "Sleuth." Remaking the classics doesn't daunt him -- he specializes in Shakespeare -- but he knew he was going to annoy purists who liked the byzantine, cozy stylings of the 1972 original.

This one stars Michael Caine as the rich novelist whose trophy wife is deserting him for a younger man. Jude Law plays his rival -- Caine's role last time, opposite Laurence Olivier -- and the whole thing takes place in Caine's cold, somber, techno-ridden house.

"Six months before we shot, we had a reading. As Shakespeare would say, we started to `hear the play.' One thing that struck me was that it was much funnier than when I first read it, where I'd thought it was sinister.

"I started to work with the boys individually every two or three weeks, to know how much they thought the things being said were genuine. Does Andrew love his wife, or does he just love his money? Is he hurt by the idea of losing (her), or just the idea of losing? We decided this chilling psychological condition, morbid jealousy, was (affecting) him. Eventually we saw both men as damaged, wounded individuals."

There's Shakespeare again, creeping in. I remind him that when I interviewed Bryce Dallas Howard two years ago, she was excited about starring in the film "As You Like It" for HBO. "Ken Branagh will direct, and he's in charge of Shakespeare for the world now," she'd said, laughing.

"That slightly presupposes there's any kind of need for (him)," says Branagh wryly. "I was in Stratford, Ontario, watching `King Lear' last night, and you might say `The way the world is going, who wants that? We want nuggety pieces on our computer.' You won't get that from me!

"I retain enormous passion for how you can make Shakespeare work legitimately onscreen. But who knows? One may never be able to do another, because one can't assume anything (in show business). But I would like to."

Does he feel typecast?

"No, things have come my way that have involved less period drama. I get a sense that if I definitively made a move away from the classical stuff, I'd be encouraged to do so. I go to contemporary movies regularly, but I find myself drawn to Shakespeare."

When he wrote, directed and starred in the Oscar-winning "Hamlet" in 1996, he told Kate Winslet (who played Ophelia) that the trick to mastering the Bard is getting over the fear that paralyzes people who think he's too difficult or high-flown.

Branagh conquered his fear at 28, making his acting-directing debut in "Henry V" and earning Oscar nominations for both. Does anything daunt him now?

"Oh, yes, more or less permanently! At my age, your standards are (raised) by more life experiences, seeing more things that you think are marvelous, and you know the difficulty of producing circumstances under which great work can be done.

"You're sensitized to how precious time is, that you must say the right thing to an actor at the right time, that you've given yourself enough time to shoot a scene, that you recognize how to work with the writer. But it's never led to paralysis for me: My mind's too reckless for that!"

Essential Branagh If you want to get to know this hyphenated talent, who's been nominated four times for Academy Awards, here are six crucial films. He's actor, writer or director (listed as A, W and D): "Henry V" (1989) -- His breakthrough, playing the bulldog of an English king who conquered France with a tiny force (A, W, D). "Dead Again" (1991) -- He's an L.A. private detective who looks for a missing woman in a smart thriller with many strong surprises (A, D). "Hamlet" (1996) -- The definitive, utterly uncut version of the play, magnificently mounted and cleverly cast; Branagh's masterwork (A, W, D). "Celebrity" (1998) -- KB stands in for Woody Allen as a journalist obsessed with fame, both others' and the acclaim he wants. Uneven film, but a departure (A). "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" (2002) -- Branagh plays vain Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Gilderoy Lockhart, a mouse in lion's clothing (A). "The Magic Flute" (2006) -- An adaptation of Mozart's opera set during World War I, with fine vocalists and Branagh in a nonsinging cameo (A, W, D).

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