How I Learnt To Love Kenneth Branagh
Kenneth Branagh has done some cinematic hogwash over the years. But in spite of herself, Anne Billson has become a closet fan

The Telegraph, 24 January 2014
By Anne Billson
Thanks, Emma

"You think this is game, Jack?" I'm looking forward to 'Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit', but not because of Chris Pine and Keira Knightley. I'm looking forward to it because Kenneth Branagh is playing Victor Cherevin, a villain with a foreign accent and (as per that opening quote) the occasional dropped article. Oh yes, this is game!

Branagh is also the director, having proved – with 'Thor' – that he's better at helming effects-heavy action pics than he ever was at directing Shakespeare, or such goosepimples on the pale posterior of British cinema as 'Peter's Friends' (1992), in which he gave us one of the worst drunk scenes in cinema history, culminating in the declaration, "I am an absolute dribbling a---hole."

Few filmgoers subjected to this painful game of Party Quirks performed by the Boy Wonder and his Cambridge Footlights chums would have disagreed.

For a brief period in the Eighties, it was a national sport to hail young Branagh and his then consort, Emma Thompson, as the Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh of our times (though Bryan Forbes and Nanette Newman might have been more fitting). "The comparison is ludicrous to me," he told People magazine in 1990, though honestly, if he'd wanted to avoid comparisons with Olivier, there were 34 Shakespeare plays he could have filmed that Olivier hadn't.

But he opted to follow in Larry's footsteps by making his directing debut with 'Henry V'. The Battle of Agincourt was ably rendered in mud, blood and pointed sticks, but while everyone assured me Branagh cut a dash on stage, his screen presence just made me think of a line from Down with Skool: "And thou molesworth 1 thou canst not call thyself prince charming when thou hast a face like a mad baboon."

Not that Branagh's face was horrible (I once wrote that he had a face like a boiled potato, for which I would now like to apologise) – it's just that he and Thompson were forever gurning madly, as though imagining their every expression had to be seen from the back of the stalls. Thompson calmed down after working with Ang Lee on 'Sense and Sensibility', but it took Branagh longer to find his groove.

In the preposterous thriller 'Dead Again', he played a Los Angeles private dick who happened to be the reincarnation of a German composer who'd been sent to the electric chair in the 1940s for the murder of his wife; the dual role enabled Branagh the actor to offset the world's worst American accent with a hammy German one. Meanwhile Branagh the director loses the plot in a hysterical finale (beware spoilers in that clip) incorporating flashbacks, slo-mo, the guy who played Newman in Seinfeld, and everybody galloping around like drunken donkeys.

As the director of 'Much Ado About Nothing', Branagh seemed to be responding to a common complaint of British films not being visual with the assumption that nice Tuscan landscapes in the background of every scene would provide instant eye appeal. It duly ended up looking like a shoddily directed film shot against a backdrop of nice Tuscan landscapes.

Meanwhile, as Benedick and Beatrice, Ken and Em had about as much sexual electricity as John and Norma Major. (To see how it should be done, watch Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker shooting sparks off each other in Joss Whedon's 2012 film of the play.)

When it came to 'Hamlet' (once again with the Larry!) Branagh ignored his character's advice to the Players, and sawed the air, split the ears of the groundlings and generally tore passion to tatters. Had it been a live performance, the front rows would have been drenched in spittle.

The decision to film the play unabridged merely showed the wisdom of those who had trimmed it in the past, while Branagh the director had apparently decided that since film was a visual medium, this meant that whenever anyone mentioned Fortinbras or Priam or Yorick, he had to cut away to show us – yes! – Fortinbras or Priam or Yorick. Just so there was no confusion.

Thanks to 'Peter's Friends', the national sport of comparing Branagh to Olivier gave way to the national sport of taking critical potshots at him, notably with his misguided version of 'Frankenstein' (1994), in which he stripped off his shirt to expose abs more appropriate to an habituι of a 20th century gym than to a 18th century mittel-Europe medical student marinading his disappointingly normal-looking monster in a giant fish kettle. Meanwhile, Branagh the director's camera hurled itself into ever more dizzying parabolas of meaningless movement.

It was a string of odd performances in the late Nineties that turned me into a closet Branagh fan, despite the films in question being flops. His unconvincing Southern drawl as a Savannah attorney was the only thing that stopped him being upstaged by Robert Downey Jr and Robert Duvall in Robert Altman's 'The Gingerbread Man' (1998), while Woody Allen's weird decision to cast him as the Woody surrogate in 'Celebrity' makes the film a lot spikier than most give it credit for being.

And aficionados of cinematic hogwash shouldn't miss 'The Proposition' (1998 – not to be confused with John Hillcoat's 2005 film of the same name) in which Branagh plays a Catholic priest in 1930s Boston who gets embroiled in a plot involving miscarriage and murder, the writings of Virginia Woolf, and Neil Patrick Harris as a hired stud.

This period climaxed with the critically reviled 'Wild Wild West', in which Branagh's steampunk villain compensated for missing manparts with a dodgy Dixie accent, diabolically trimmed beard and an 80 foot mechanical spider. It was here, at the turn of the century, that I decided he was fun.

Though he was no fun at all – but obliged me to take back everything rude I'd ever written about him – in the superb 2011 telefilm 'Conspiracy', based on transcripts of the 1942 Wannsee Conference, in which 15 Nazis (speaking not with cod German accents but in preternaturally correct English) enjoy fine wine and a buffet lunch while discussing details of the Final Solution. Branagh's chilling performance as Reinhard Heydrich was awarded an Emmy, and rightly so.'

He was very amusing as preening Gilderoy Lockhart in the second Harry Potter movie, heroic as Shackleton in the 2002 mini-series, nasty in 'Rabbit-Proof Fence', and played a nicer kind of Nazi in 'Valkyrie', in which he and the rest of the British supporting cast only emphasised how miscast Tom Cruise was in the central role.

Branagh's remake of 'Sleuth' (yet another Olivier link) was a disaster, and we will draw a polite veil over 'The Boat That Rocked', but the BBC's 'Wallander' was proof he had learnt at last to command attention by keeping his face still.

And after a careerful of comparisons, it was only fitting he should finally be cast as Olivier himself, exasperated beyond measure by the visiting American movie star in 'My Week with Marilyn'. He seems to have found his niche as a character actor, often (like Larry again) specialising in villainy with an accent. "Is it safe?" Maybe the comparisons are no longer so ludicrous.

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