The Maguffin: How to Screw Up Greatness Without Even Trying, 11 September 2007
By Kathy Hofmeyr

Remember Ken and Em? OK, so we didn’t call them that over here, but for nearly a decade Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson were in and out of the UK tabloids under precisely those monikers. Having met on the set of the miniseries ‘Fortunes of War’, they were the darlings of the British film world during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, feted as the new Taylor and Burton, the next generation’s Olivier and Leigh.

Branagh certainly fancied himself something of an Olivier. In 1989, at the exceedingly young age of 29, he both directed and starred in Shakespeare’s ‘Henry V’ — his debut as a director and his first foray into major film roles. This naturally invited comparison with the great Sir Laurence, who in 1948 had directed himself to an Oscar playing the title role in ‘Hamlet’ (at the considerably riper age of 37).

‘Henry V’, with a stunning performance by Branagh himself (who’d been the youngest actor ever to play the role on stage under the auspices of the RSC seven years earlier) burst on to the international scene and made young Ken a household name even as far afield as Hollywood. (If that sounds odd, bear in mind the Beckhams needed their own reality TV show to let their new American neighbours know who they were.)


In the same year he married Thompson, who was already a well-known actress in her own right, particularly in the realm of comedy. In ‘Henry’ Branagh had cast her as the French Princess Katherine and while he was nominated for both directing and acting Oscars, her role was sufficiently small and demure to ensure that she wouldn’t outshine him. Over the course of their next three films together, however, her star rose steadily.

'Dead Again', first time around

Ken’s next movie was the rather ambitious ‘Dead Again’, a Hitchcockian past-life thriller. Although his American accent was more accomplished than Emma’s in this film, his performance was stilted and unnatural beside hers. It seemed that, while adept at translating Shakespeare to the screen, he wasn’t much of a jobbing actor. Despite a clever script and beautiful cinematography, the film was somewhat ruined by the hammy performances and the suffocating Wagnerian score.

Their next project, ‘Peter’s Friends’, was more popular in the States than in the UK. A kind of English ‘Big Chill’, it was a sweet film about a group of old friends who reunite ten years after leaving the university where they’d studied drama. Again, despite solid and entertaining performances from the rest of the cast (Imelda Staunton, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Rita Rudner, Emma herself), Branagh once again demonstrated that the best place for him was behind the camera. His embarrassingly overplayed drunk scene smothered all poignancy from the final sequence. Once again, his subtly comic wife acted circles around him.

The film was partly rescued by its dialogue and one particular exchange, about the transient nature of marriage between famous people, would ring particularly ironic less than two years later.


The world seemed to be holding its breath for Ken’s next masterpiece, for him to break out of the rut of so-so films. In the meantime, Emma had gone from strength to strength, winning an Oscar for her performance as Margaret Schlegel in ‘Howard’s End’ and working on a screenplay adaptation of Jane Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’.

The couple’s next (and last) project together was ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, a charming adaptation of the Shakespeare comedy. Once again, Ken and Em shone as bard-crossed lovers (he back in his element with Shakespearean dialogue); again supported by a splendid cast including Denzel Washington Keanu Reeves (to help the film sell in America), the young Kate Beckinsale, Robert Sean Leonard, and Michael Keaton who very nearly stole the film.

It is not sufficient to succeed…

In his autobiography, written (rather prematurely and perhaps a wee tad arrogantly) at thirty, Branagh waxes bitter at having lost the title role in Milos Forman and Peter Schaffer’s lavish masterpiece ‘Amadeus’ to Tom Hulce six years previously. Had he a tendency toward Schadenfreude, Kenneth might have been secretly delighted that, following his vertical rise to fame and Oscar nomination as the deranged enfant terrible, Hulce’s career had gone virtually nowhere. Perhaps he relished making his former rival the magnanimous offer of the role of Henry Clerval, a sort of Boy [in] Wonder to his own mad scientist Frankenstein in his next big venture. This time, Ken Branagh would be the Victor...

Or perhaps I’m being deeply unfair to Branagh. All I know is, he chose as his next project a version of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ intended, like Coppola’s ‘Dracula’ two years before, to undo the damage done to the texts by the RKO and Hammer horror films of Classic Hollywood and return to the tragic, Gothic romance of the original texts. It was a melodramatic shambles and a shameful waste of a rare dramatic performance by John Cleese.

Branagh began an affair with his co-star, the somewhat spidery, heroin-faced Helena Bonham Carter, and he and Emma subsequently divorced.

Thompson since has continued to thrive. She has taken on a widely varied string of roles — from a housekeeper in ‘Remains of the Day’ to a Hillary Clinton-alike opposite John Travolta in ‘Primary Colours’ (this time armed with impeccable American accent) to the sour-faced, magical Nanny McPhee. She won an Oscar for her adapted screenplay for ‘Sense and Sensibility’ and has been nominated a further three times for her acting performances. She continues to excel on both large and small screen – winning wide acclaim for her role in the HBO (surprise, surprise) movie ‘Wit’ (whose adapted screenplay she also penned).

'Dead Again', again

Branagh’s career, meanwhile, has been less than impressive. After ‘Frankenstein’ he wrote and directed a tender, determinedly British and hilarious comedy, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’, which for some reason sank without trace. Perhaps because it was filmed in black-and-white, was about a raging egomaniac determined to play Hamlet and had an anything but famous cast. That said, it is perhaps his best film and certainly worth watching if you still own a working video player (it has yet to be released on DVD).

Thereafter he went from weakness to weakness, first serving up a lukewarm Iago opposite Laurence Fishburne's Othello and following it up with ‘The Theory of Flight’ (God, what was he thinking?) and roles in such dross as ‘Wild Wild West’ and ‘Rabbit Proof Fence’.

But I get ahead of myself… did I say something about an egomaniac and Hamlet? In 1996 Branagh more or less eroded the last of his audience’s patience with his interminable ‘Hamlet’. There’s a delightful scene in the millennium special ‘Blackadder: Back and Forth’, in which Blackadder, having travelled back to Elizabethan times, punches Shakespeare in the mouth as payback “for Ken Branagh’s four-hour version of Hamlet”. When the Bard (played by Colin Firth) asks who Branagh is, Blackadder responds: “I’m going to tell him you said that, and I think he’ll be very hurt.”

Anyone who sat through Branagh’s bleached-blonde homage to himself felt, by the end of Act I, much as Blackadder did. Despite a star-studded cast, the film was unsalvageably, masturbatorially self-indulgent — so much so that it was almost embarrassing to watch.

Things are looking up, though. With his role as Gilderoy Lockhart in ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’, Branagh has showed that he may at last have developed a sense of humour about himself.

Additionally, he seems to have found a good directing project in the remake of Peter Schaffer’s brilliant ‘Sleuth’. Not that the film needed remaking, of course, but it’s a decent bet that Branagh the director can do something pretty damned good with it. It can only be better than most of the ghastly films with which he has littered the past decade.

Besides, the script calls for only two characters and with those filled by Michael Caine and Jude Law, there’s no space for Branagh to cast himself and fuck it up.

KATHY HOFMEYR Kathy would like to be remembered as a best-selling author, a little-known blues singer and perhaps someone’s favourite aunt. She is the Senior Copy Editor for FHM and lives in Jo’burg with her dogs, three pure-bred mongrels named Harpo, Buffy and Guinness.
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