Hail the New King on the Block
Rolling Stone, February 8, 1990
By Anthony DeCurtis
Seated somewhat restlessly on
a small couch in a hotel room in New York City, Kenneth Branagh
hardly looked like the current rage of the British theater and
film scene--much less a Shakespearean king. His thick blond hair
was swept back from his broad, sturdy face, which looked pale
and puffy, the result of a frantic travel schedule and too much
time spent indoors discussing the controversial film version
of Shakespeare's Henry V he both starred in and directed.
At the same time, Henry V was set to premiere in New York
and Los Angeles before filtering out to other cities around the
country, and Branagh was insisting that the Bard could be far
more than a centuries-old cult favorite.
"However unrealistic I may
be about the possibilities of a crossover audience, however people
are dragged in, even if it's by schools or parents, once they're
in, there is something to enjoy," said Branagh, who is twenty-nine.
"Visually, it will feel like a film of today." Branagh's
work on Henry V seemed sufficiently contemporary to the
New York Film Critics Circle to win him that group's prestigious
award for Best New Director--only the latest of many distinctions
to come to him in his relatively brief career.
Branagh's "film of today"
first began to attract significant attention because it begged
comparison with a certain film of yesterday: Laurence Olivier's
classic 1944 rendering of Henry V. But while Olivier's
interpretation was designed to rouse the spirit of an England
wearied and torn by war--Winston Churchill advised Olivier about
which aspects of the play to emphasize--Branagh's speaks to an
age that, after the Vietnam debacle and, for the British, the
Falkland Islands War, is far more suspicious about the glory
of militaristic adventures.
By now tired of the comparisons
with his fabled predecessor, Branagh complained that many people
"have a half-remembered image of the Olivier version and
have Henry V down as simply a nationalistic or jingoistic
play. For me, they underestimate all the evidence elsewhere that
Shakespeare is never that one-dimensional. There's much more
to it. Maybe if my version reflects our time, it's my search
for that 'play within the play.'"
The reference to a key plot element
in Hamlet is apt. Branagh plays Henry as more of a complex,
introspective emotionally troubled figure than as a conquering
hero. In his performance, the youthful king is haunted both by
a frivolous playboy past that shadows his ability to lead his
people in a brutal war against the French and by his father's
seditious ascent to the throne. With deft psychological insight,
Branagh reads Henry's self-doubt as the compensatory source of
his ferocity on the battlefield and in the court--an element
of the king's character that is not present in Olivier's film.
Branagh sees such an internal
tensions as crucial to understanding Henry. "There's a psychopathic
streak in there somewhere," he said. "He's very unbalanced
at times. His reactions are very extreme--those are the things
we restored which Olivier didn't put in. Things like the speech
to the governor of Harfleur, all that 'children on spikes,' 'old
men's heads against the walls.' I wanted to suggest, 'Do you
feel this guy's going out of control?'"
Branagh, whose youth and hurried
ascent to prominence suggest parallels to Henry, has little trouble
maintaining control and perspective in his own life. Part of
the reason for that is the unpretentiousness of his origins.
He was born in Belfast to working-class Protestant parents--his
father was a carpenter--and his family moved to Reading, England,
fifty miles outside London, in 1970 after the fighting in Northern
Ireland came dangerously close to home.
Branagh was nine at the time,
and the move shocked him. Despite the horror of the civil war
in Belfast, it was the only world he knew. "Life was there,"
he said. Besides, the relocation to England created difficulties
of another sort--not least of which were the problems of language,
politics and identity presented by his brogue.
"People couldn't understand
what I was talking about at school," Branagh said. "The
news was on--Belfast was kind of a nightmare. People had brothers
in the army. The accent started to change--one felt guilty about
that. You'd go back to Belfast on holidays, and people would
say, 'What's happened to your accent?' A lot of guilt and trouble
mixed up in that kind of displacement. It made me go very quiet.
I really didn't know who the fuck I was."
Branagh signed up for a school
production of Oh! What A Lovely War when he was sixteen
and discovered his "purpose." He immersed himself in
theater history, devouring magazines on the subject night after
night, and determined to be an actor. "It absolutely met
me in the center of myself," he said of his chosen career.
"Even when I felt blessed that, whatever happened, I knew
that I had found what I wanted to do. It wasn't a question of
'I'll be famous.' It was just 'Yeah, acting.'"
He was admitted to the Royal
Academy of Dramatic Art and in 1983 was invited to join the Royal
Shakespeare Company, where he made his mark, appropriately enough,
in a brooding production of Henry V. In another move that
inspired comparisons with Olivier, he left the RSC and started
his own company, the Renaissance Theater Company, in 1987. He
also starred in the BBC drama Fortunes of War and appeared
in the movies A Month in the Country and High Season.
Now Branagh is staging a round
of Shakespeare plays in Los Angeles with Renaissance that he
hopes will eventually tour other cities in the U.S. Beyond that,
though he's been offered a number of film-directing jobs, he
plans to concentrate on film acting. A book of his memoirs, Beginning,
was published in England last year and is set to appear in the
U.S. sometime this year. As if that weren't enough, Branagh has
also been active on the personal front. Last August he married
Emma Thompson, his costar in Henry V.
Branagh's efforts to help create
a broader popular audience for Shakespeare also continue unabated.
"There are wonderful rewards. I was walking down the street
in London the other day and a twelve-year-old came up,"
he said, beaming with genuine delight as he broke into a cockney
accent. "She said, 'You're 'Enry the Fifth, aren't you?
Our teacher took us to see it the other day. Fuckin' brilliant,
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