Branagh the Conquerer

Time (cover story), November 13 1989
By Richard Corliss

The great doors swing open to reveal the caped figure of King Henry V, sexily backlighted. His bishops and courtiers gaze at him like apostles at the unseen Jesus in some old biblical epic. And finally the monarch of Britain--and of this robust new movie--shows his face and speaks. It is an entrance angled to register awe for Kenneth Branagh. But how much awe can a 28-year-old actor, little known outside Britain and directing his first film, expect to inspire? Branagh recalls that when Judi Dench, who plays Mistress Quickly, first saw this scene, "she laughed in my face and said, 'I've never seen an entrance like that! Who do you think you are?'" He retorted, "The film is not called Mistress Quickly the Fourth." No, but it might be called King Ken.

Little boys rock themselves to sleep with career dreams--with visions of firemen or footballers dancing in their heads. A different legend has arisen around Kenneth Branagh. His working-class parents never stepped on a stage; his future promised little more than a dead end in a drab job. Yet as a Belfast lad in the late '60's, during the first roil of the "troubles," young Ken dreamed of all the kings of Shakespeare, all the great classical roles, wrapped into a single image. Actor. Director. Impresario. Thrilling theatrical presence. Ken Branagh would be the next Olivier.

It hardly matters that this story is mainly a sweet fiction of the British press. Or that our young actor may simply hope to be the very best Kenneth Branagh. Because this stocky Irishman, with a face of intelligent ordinariness and a personality that radiates shopkeeper common sense, has made the dream come close to truth. He has sculpted himself to fit the contours of the late Baron of Brighton and worked himself numb to accomplish in a few years what it took Olivier decades to achieve; become the prince presumptive of the English stage and screen. In short, Branagh has conquered Britain.

In seven whirlwind years he has become the most accomplished, acclaimed and ambitious performer of his generation. He has dazzled playgoers with a host of Shakespearean leads: Hamlet, Romeo, Benedick and his first Henry V, which made a prodigy of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1984. He won TV fame headlining with his wife-to-be, Emma Thompson, in the mini-series Fortunes of War. With a self-confidence as large as his gifts, he created the Renaissance Theatre Company and starred in its first production, Public Enemy, a play about an Irish showman, written by...Kenneth Branagh! Last year the company's Shakespeare trio was a sold-out smash in its provincial and London runs.

"Ken is blessed with a talent for his talent," says Branagh's friend and colleague John Sessions. "Some people have the talent but not the temperament to develop it." He might be referring to Branagh's image as Mr. Do-It-All-Do-It-Myself--an icon of Thatcherite initiative, raising money through private and corporate channels rather than lining up for an Arts Council dole. Branagh seems as proud of his Tory-like entrepreneurial skills as he is of his status as a working-class actor. Only Andrew Lloyd Webber has more adroitly parlayed artistry into a thriving industry. Thus Branagh may be out of place in a national arts scene of radical distemper.

Nowadays British popular art--in theater, film and television--is largely a political art. Its creators take their cue from the Thatcher government's slashing of arts subsidies and its suffocation of the welfare state. Says screenwriter-director Bruce Robinson (Thumbnail and I): "I'm angry at the squandering of potential in this introverted, chilly little nation with its phenomenal talents. If the government can invest money in the Royal Family so that tourists can peer like bloody morons through the gates of Buckingham Palace, it can invest in the arts for the tourists who care about our culture."

British theater embraces two cultures, old and new. You will find chronicles of earlier royal families by Branagh's favorite playwright: a week of London theater may showcase up to a dozen Shakespeare plays. And in modern plays you will hear British dramatists' eloquent contempt for Thatcherite greed and jingoism. They look straight into the body politic and shout "Cancer!" David Hare, Caryl Churchill and Doug Lucie have caricatured the new breed of right-wing yuppies. Plays, TV films and even a musical have excoriated the Falklands campaign.

The perspective is more skeptical than socialist. " A lot of our work is reactionary," says Hare, 42. "We are defending English values--the national health, the education system--against people who wish to demolish them. The Establishment, liberals and socialists have combined in an anti-Thatcher front. These are not normal bedfellows for artists. But there is a bitterness in British politics that has spilled into the arts."

In this light, Kenneth Branagh looks as anachronistic as a suit of armor in a soup kitchen. His devotion to a poet of the 16th century can be seen as a retreat from the 20th. Nor does Branagh scan Shakespeare in search of modish messages. He would not dress Henry V in guerilla garb or set Romeo and Juliet in a mixed-race London neighborhood. Like his patron Prince Charles, who crusades for the stately tradition of English architecture and against New Brutalist "brick sheds" and "carbuncles", Branagh is a cultural conservative, or least conservationist. He prizes restoration over strident relevance.

What he wants is simple and honorable. "So many actors talk of taking Shakespeare to the people," observes Richard E. Grant (How to Get Ahead in Advertising), "but Branagh does it. He could have been a stalwart star of the R.S.C. Instead, he used his own money to set up his company--to get Shakespeare away from the big companies and into the actors' power again. If you bring greater excitement, and people, into the theater, then that's what counts." This is a noble achievement for an actor, and a cautious goal for an artist in Thatcher's Britain.

Branagh's avoidance of political controversy may have helped make him a celebrity. But fashion is such a fickle groupie that it was inevitable his celebrity would make him controversial. The British press, bored with the Ken worship it invented, has lately gone in for Branagh-bashing. "By September," noted the Sunday Correspondent, "Branagh was the 'wally of the month,' his wife was E.T. They were a pair of 'spoilt brats.' " A snotty column in the Tatler referred to Branagh as Clever Ken, Confident Ken, Cocky Ken, Canny Ken, Calculating Ken and Campaigning Ken. A cartoon in the Independent depicted a teacher pointing to a blackboard and instructing his class, "OK, repeat after me...Kenneth Branagh...Kenneth Branagh..."

None of this has slowed the Branagh barrage through 1989, and nothing he did slowed further comparisons with Lord Larry. In August he revisited the London stage, playing Jimmy Porter the bilious rebel of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger; Olivier, in 1957, had revitalized his career with Osborne's The Entertainer. The same month Branagh married Thompson, his frequent co-star; Olivier wed three of his leading ladies. In September Branagh published his autobiography, Beginning; Olivier waited until he was 75 before issuing his memoirs. And last month in London Branagh made his debut as auteur: director, adapter, star. The movie, which opened to warm reviews and healthy receipts, is Henry V--Branagh's "re-make" of the landmark film version that Olivier played and directed 45 years ago. Olivier wanna-be? Olivier gonna-be? The labels are not fair to either men. At 28, even Olivier was not yet "Olivier." He had barely hit his stride on the London stage; superlatives lay a decade ahead. What he did have, in embryo, Branagh may never possess: the athletic abandon, the flaming sexuality, the audacity of interpretation that risks derision to achieve greatness. By contrast, Branagh tends to work with a net, and his net is the play text, to which he is a faithful husband, not a reckless lover. He gets admiration rather than awe. Terry Hands, the artistic director of the RSC, says of Branagh's emulation of Olivier: "I can't think of a better blueprint. But remember that Larry was a very risky actor. That's the side of Larry that I would like to see Ken pursue: the daring."

Daring or hubris, take your pick. After all , at the time of his Henry V, Olivier was 36 and had already appeared in 20 feature films. Branagh has appeared in two. After his roles in Rebecca and Wuthering Heights, Olivier was a worldwide heartthrob. Branagh is hardly known outside of Britain. Just to make things tougher, Branagh would shoot the film in seven weeks, less than a third of the time Olivier took, and on a tight budget of $7.5 million. Could the novice do it? Well, he's done it: created a Henry for a decade poised between belligerence and exhaustion. He found a camera style that illuminates the actors with torch power and Rembrandt lighting. His elite cast reads like a Burke's Peerage of British acting: stage eminences Paul Scofield, Ian Holm, Derek Jacobi, Alec McCowen and Robert Stephens; TV comedians Richard Briers and Robbie Coltrane; Brian Blessed and Christopher Ravenscroft from Branagh's RSC Henry; most of his own rep company; and his bright bride Emma. They surround a director who, like Henry, can orchestrate a magnificent sally, manipulate diverse talents and bend them to his will. And his will is to create an anti-Olivier Henry.

Olivier's Henry V might have been the sequel to Rocky IV. To perk morale, the British government wanted an inspirational fairy tale of international combat, and Olivier was glad to oblige with a captivating entertainment that was part Shakespeare and all movie. Conceived as a performance of Henry V played in the Globe theater of Shakespeare's time, the movie argues that all the war's a stage. And on this stage a tiny band of English heroes, against all odds and without much sweat, defeats the weak, evil French (read:German) army at Agincourt. IT's Robin Hood vs. the Nazis. Olivier's pageant is sunny and sumptuous, and so is his Henry: resourceful in battle, generous in victory, ever cheery and brimful of confidence. Why, he might be Kenneth Branagh!

But not Branagh's new Henry. Now that the actor is the age Henry was at Agincourt, he can show a headstrong young man evolving into a strong king. "Uniquely for a young person," Branagh says. "Henry can look at actions and see their consequences--practical, spiritual and emotional. That is why those decisions take an enormous toll." So this Henry can betray as well as be kind. He will renounce old friends like Bardolph and Falstaff, and see them dead. He will threaten rape and murder of the innocents, then summon God to provide divine artillery for his invasion. His Agincourt, which Olivier staged as a fantasy joust, will be a muddy, clumsy, brutal fellowship of death. It has the acrid tang of World War I carnage and yes, even the guilty aftertaste of victory in the Falklands.

Stephen Evans, the film's executive producer, recalls Branagh's sales pitch to investors: "He explained that the film would show war's cruelty and ruthlessness. After Agincourt, it would depict not just the glory, but Henry asking, 'What have I done?' " What he as done is win: a great upset, with all of France as his booty. Yet Branagh has to show the awful cost. In an elaborate tracking shot that lasts nearly four minutes, the exhausted king staggers across the battlefield, the dead weight of Falstaff's boy page across his shoulders, the casualties of two nations strewn like rubble in his path. A grieving Frenchwoman flares her hatred toward him and is dragged away. Finally Henry places the dead boy in a cart and kisses him. Instead of a triumph, then, a requiem--for youthful ideals tested in war, and found lacking.

Branagh knows that Henry V is a kind of trilogy: first, a political drama, then a war movie, finally a love story. His star presence, heroic but human size, mutates to fit all three. As master politician, Branagh is in subdued control. As field general, he wrestles with a conscience almost as strong as his will to conquer. Only at the end, when Henry plays the soldier unsuited to seduction, does the sly dazzle of Branagh's charm break through the heavy clouds of Henry's majesty. He is an earthbound Olivier and his worthy avatar.

Until he was ten, Kenneth Charles Branagh did not perform on stage. He wrote no plays or autobiographies; he directed not a single movie. These were not options or even dreams for a Protestant carpenter's son in Belfast. In 1967 Ken's father Bill took a better paying job in England and commuted to Ulster every third Friday to spend the weekend with his wife and two sons. Ken was nine when a Protestant gang rioted outside his house and the family promptly immigrated to England.

"After a year or so" in the London suburb of Reading, Ken recalls in Beginning, "I'd manage to become English at school and remain Irish at home." It was his first tough role, and it fueled his resolve to perform. In his first year at the Whiteknights County primary school--with, as he notes, "a willful precocity which has been annoying people ever since"--Ken staged his first play. A few years later, when he announced his plan to be an actor, Mum and Dad were vexed; they wanted Ken to join his father fitting dropped ceilings. "My parents were very worried about me," he told a Liverpool audience recently. "They thought all actors were unemployed homosexuals."

As a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Branagh demonstrated that he had the salesman's knack of charm and fearlessness--the seductive intelligence, so crucial to performing, managing and directing. He wrote to Lord Oliver for advice on playing Chebutykin in Three Sisters. He took notes on the role of Hamlet--and then praise for his performance--from John Gielgud. He determined to play the Dane at a performance attended by the Queen and Prince Phillip. (Later, preparing for his RSC Henry, he won an audience with Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace to discuss the isolation felt by a national leader. Wooed and won by the young actor, Charles would become patron of Renaissance.) For his RADA Hamlet, Branagh won the school's top prize.

There was more to the Branagh steamroller than blond ambition. "He had all the talent and initiative you can see in full flood now," says Hugh Crutwell, who was then RADA's principal and has since tutored Branagh on many projects. Even before the star student's graduation, RSC scouts begged him to join. Branagh turned them down.

For instead of going into the world's most revered rep company, he did television and the West End. He won the title role as a flimsy Belfast lad in a BBC production of Graham Reid's Too Late to Talk to Billy and, a month out of RADA, grabbed the plum part of Judd, the cynical Marxist student in Julian Mitchell's Another Country. Anyone visiting the Queen's Theatre in the spring of 1982 had to be astonished by Branagh's unforced maturity and subversive blaze. He won the SWET award (later the, ahem, Laurence Olivier Award) for Most Promising Newcomer and, ever restless, left the play at his first opportunity.

Busy boy. The title role in Mitchell's next play, about Francis of Assisi; that taught Branagh to recognize the sinew of sanctity. Another of the (four) Billy plays; that underlined the value of repertory and continuity. And his own solo evening, The Madness, a reading of Tennyson's poem The Maud; that taught him how to hold an audience rapt in the palm of one strong hand. All three jobs were superb training for Branagh's first great role, and when the RSC called again, he was ready to join. On one condition: he must play Henry V.

Adrian Noble thought so too. The director found in Branagh, then 23, the stout, keen instrument he needed for a Henry whose military fervor could evoke both the glory and tragedy of warmaking. And in Henry, Branagh found the young role of a lifetime. But the RSC could not hold him. He was determined to make his own way--especially given the frustration he and other youthful members of the company felt there. While his friends fumed and sulked, Branagh fumed and produced a one-act satire of the RSC, Tell Me Honestly. For Branagh, revenge is a dish best eaten in public.

His first film assignment, High Season, was one of those let's-all-go-to-a-beautiful-resort-and-make-a-silly-movie movies inspired by Beat the Devil. Branagh got to spend seven weeks in Rhodes and make naked onscreen love to Jacqueline Bisset on a moonlit Aegean shore. Some actor might have enjoyed the job, but for our workaholic pup it was vacation at gunpoint: "The leisure nearly drove me mad." So he pulled out his copy of Romeo and Juliet, figured out how more than two dozen roles could be covered by just eleven actors, roughed out a rehearsal schedule and budget, and set up a production that he would direct and star in.

Romeo and Juliet was rehearsed and performed in another breathless seven weeks. Presumably, the leisure nearly drove him mad, for he spent some of his Romeo days appearing in a second film--though for Branagh A Month in the Country lasted only two weeks. As an archaeologist haunted by the demons of trench warfare, he was all bluff ironic charm painted over a festering soul, nicely complementing Colin Firth's twitchy performance. But Branagh wasn't in this movie for the art. He need to support his troupe. He has often justified stretching himself thin for his company's sake. In the introduction to Beginning, he asks, "So why write this? Money."

Fortunes of War brought him both money and stardom. "Kenneth Branagh is melting hearts all over the place," said the national daily Today. He surely thawed Emma Thompson's. She is the daughter of show people: her father Eric produced the original version of Ken's first school play; her mother Phyllida Law did the drawings for Beginning. A graduate of Cambridge, Emma would for a time eclipse Ken in popularity with her miniseries Tutti Frutti and her show Thompson, for which she wrote the scripts.

On stage or screen, the Branagh's make an expert match. In Look Back in Anger, he prowled about, spouting Osborne's deliciously mean wit, while she simmered, pregnant with love-hate. In Henry V, Branagh plies her in fractured French; Thompson puts up a stouter defense than the French army. In real life, of course, Thompson is not courtesan to Lord Ken. She has a solid career to pursue while he keeps busy as Britain's most successful actor-manager in living memory.

Branagh founded Renaissance in 1987. It was to be an actors' company: players in classical works directed by famous actors (Dench, Jacobi, McEwan) lured there by Confident Ken. Voila! After a yearlong provincial tour, Branagh's company was an artistic and financial phenomenon.

Even Calculating Ken may not see the potholes in the fast lane. "Quite soon," says Terry Hands, the RSC's artistic director. "Ken must decide whether he will be an admin man or a great actor. If a leading actor is running the whole show, he's worried about the box office, the creaking floorboard, the divorce of his cast member. All these can sap that tunnel vision, and the performance can be too controlled."

The strain showed in his 1988 Renaissance season. Branagh's Benedick, in Much Ado About Nothing, displayed his quick acerbic grace. But his Hamlet was too rigorous, careful, with little fire, and in As You Like It his Touchstone was a broad, but not bold, music-hall turn based on Olivier's Archie Rice. ("Forgive me, father," Branagh says in his book.) His work was suddenly more impressive for how much he was doing, not how well. Clearly, he was preoccupied by the giant task ahead: directing his Henry film.

Bravado was called for, and Branagh had it. He would be daunted neither by the rigors of raising funds nor by his ignorance of directing. On the set the first day, he didn't know to shout "action" until someone poked him in the ribs. He may not have known what to do, but he knew what he wanted. Says Richard Briers, who plays Bardolph: "Ken's got the general's gift of being the man you automatically follow. His instructions are clear, and he's positive he's right." Branagh was efficient too: he completed the shooting ahead of schedule and under budget.

In Beginning Branagh writes, "The final cathartic thrust of finishing the movie has quenched the roaring ambition of a young man in a hurry." If so, it has not slowed his pace. In January he will take the Renaissance to the US; it begins in Los Angeles with King Lear, starring Briers, and A Midsummer Night's Dream. He hopes to direct two films in 1991: a modern comedy-drama set in Chicago and a Shakespeare comedy, perhaps Much Ado.

He will remain true to his Bard. "I don't want to bring special distinction to Shakespeare," he says. "I simply like coming back to good writing that involves the head and the heart. I like emotional punch, and Shakespeare is particularly powerful. I feel enriched and enhanced. Done well, it seems limitless in a way that modern material is not."

It attracts him more than the international celebrity that seems likely to embrace him after Henry V opens in the US and Canada this week: "I'm not interested in being rich and famous. I'm not interested in smoking a big cigar and driving a big car. I want to stay human size, just as I wanted to make Henry V as manlike as possible." Meanwhile, he may write a novel and a book of Shakespeare tales for children. But what about Hands' gentle caveat about diluting his destiny as a great actor? "I'm not sure I love acting anymore," he admits. "I used to smash myself against parts. I loved to show off and perform. Being somebody else--it was as natural to me as eggs are eggs. Now I find it gets harder. Now I'm sort of wary."

Is wariness the last step before burnout? Could he go from Cocky Ken to Ken Who? in the wink of a whim? Will Ken and Emma, who is now shooting a film in France, ever see each other again, except in the papers? Will he shake off, or refurbish, the mantle of Olivier?

An American Anglophile is pleased to hear soap-opera questions posed about an actor whose life and fine times have been made in the classics. He is also happy to see that the mature Ken Branagh is rejecting dreams of Hollywood fame, and instead reading himself to sleep with a good book. So: What are you reading these days, Ken? "Wuthering Heights", he replies. Ah, yes. Hollywood made a movie from the Emily Bronte novel 50 years ago, and made a big star of the actor who played Heathcliff. Larry something. What ever happened to him?

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