Directors in Focus: Kenneth Branagh

The Yorker, 12 May 2011
By James Tynan

The Wikipedia page for 'Thor' contains a cast list with select quotes from the actors explaining why they chose the project. There is the usual PR-friendly stuff - “there's something very Shakespearean about the film” or “I wanted to add a human dimension to the character” or, my favourite, courtesy of Anthony Hopkins, “I'm a little like Odin myself.” But there's one particular reason that keeps cropping up: “I did it because Kenneth Branagh was directing.” Idris Elba said it. Stellan Skarsgård said it too. Natalie Portman pretty much says Branagh was the only reason she decided to take the role. Whatever Kenneth Branagh is doing, he must be doing something right.

Respected both as a director and an actor, Branagh has been a fixture of the stage and screen for almost thirty years. As an actor, he can play supporting, scene stealing roles in blockbusters like 'Harry Potter' and 'Valkyrie'. He can take the lead and carry an entire project, as he did in the television series 'Wallander'. As a director, he has flirted with mainstream Hollywood to varying degrees of success (the aforementioned 'Thor', his take on 'Mary Shelly's Frankenstein') but has also maintained an independent, creative streak with projects like 'The Magic Flute'. You could never accuse Kenneth Branagh of playing it safe. After all, this is the man who cast and directed Keanu Reeves in the film adaptation 'Much Ado About Nothing'. Not only that, he managed to get a half decent performance out of him. For that alone, Branagh deserves at least a knighthood.

Branagh brought his love of Shakespeare to the big screen with 'Henry V' in 1989, acting as director, writer and lead actor, bringing him several Oscar nominations in the process. His next two Shakespeare adaptations, 'Much Ado About Nothing' (1993) and 'Hamlet' (1996) fared equally as well, proving that you don’t need Leonardo DiCaprio and a modern soundtrack to make Shakespeare accessible.

Branagh’s other forays into film have been wildly erratic. He floundered most with 1994’s 'Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein', an ambitious but chaotic mess that was unfortunately a staple of my GCSE English class. It would be his last attempt at directing a big budget blockbuster until this year’s 'Thor'. Perhaps burned by 'Frankenstein'’s hostile reception, his directing efforts remained more low-key. His choice of acting roles, however, was anything but. Supporting roles in 'Wild Wild West' and 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets' led some cynics to accuse Branagh of ‘going Hollywood’. True, 'Wild Wild West' doesn’t exactly have the intellectual depth of 'Henry V'. But who cares – Branagh is deliciously campy as the main villain, and was the only good thing in what was otherwise just a vehicle for Will Smith’s ego.

He delivered a more serious role as Henning von Treskow in the vastly underrated thriller 'Valkyrie', a Bryan Singer project that retold the assassination attempt on Hitler. Yet arguably his most visible role of recent years is the title character in the BBC detective series, 'Wallander', a remake of the Swedish original. Branagh won over many of the initial doubters and managed to score himself nominations at the Emmys and the Golden Globes.

Yet he never abandoned the stage or directing. Recent forays behind the camera include the remake of the Michael Caine classic 'Sleuth' and a retelling of Mozart’s 'The Magic Flute'. His most recent project is 'Thor', based on the Marvel comic book. It’s an odd project for Branagh to take. Thor never seemed to be a character that lent itself well to a deep and complex retelling: he just seemed to smash stuff with his hammer. But Branagh makes do with what he’s got, and delivers an enjoyable and funny action romp.

At the very least, 'Thor' is a testament to Branagh’s talent as an artist. It may not be a perfect film, but it highlights just how versatile Branagh can be. More importantly, it shows that he can have fun. One moment, he will be playing Nikolai Ivanov in a small theatre on the West End. The next, he will be directing a scenery-chewing Anthony Hopkins, dressed in a ridiculous Norse outfit against a sprawling CGI backdrop. It’s slightly jarring, to be sure, but that’s what Branagh has always thrived on. Whether his next project is directing another Hollywood blockbuster, acting in the next series of 'Wallander', or adapting another Shakespeare play for the screen, you can guarantee that at the very least, it will be interesting. And remember this, because it bears repeating – he managed to get a good performance out of Keanu Reeves. I still can’t get over that.

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