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, mate!'"

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