Saturday 16 December 2017

Branagh: The sound, the fury, the comeback

A few weeks back Kenneth Branagh was the subject of an extraordinarily vitriolic attack by veteran American commentator Joe Queenan in The Guardian newspaper.

Mr Queenan's not very original thesis went as follows: in the late 1980s, when Branagh shot to fame on the back of acclaimed stage performances and a film version of William Shakespeare's Henry V, British critics rushed to proclaim him 'the next Olivier'.

In doing this, of course, the critics were setting Branagh up for an inevitable fall, because nobody is or will ever be the next Laurence Olivier.

According to Mr Queenan, poor Kenneth brought it all on himself with his hubris and blind ambition, and in his article he painted Branagh as a hopeless failure who'd squandered his meagre promise and as a mediocre actor who wasn't quite handsome or interesting enough to make it as a big star.

Queenan's biggest sneers were reserved for Branagh's latest project, the superhero movie Thor, which he directed and which opened here yesterday.

The writer reckoned this was a sad end for a man who'd once been famous as a Shakespearean, and concluded by bizarrely suggesting that he'd like to see Branagh play Slade frontman Noddy Holder.

Mr Queenan, though, is a little behind the times.

True, Kenneth Branagh was a big cheese on stage and screen in the late 1980s, and for a little while could do no wrong. It's also true that his career then took a fairly steep nosedive into mediocrity, the lowest point perhaps being his appearance in the dire big-budget flop Wild Wild West, in 1999. However, while Mr Queenan has been otherwise occupied, Branagh has quietly staged something of a comeback in recent years, beginning with a positively raved-about performance in Chekhov's Ivanov on the London stage in 2008 and complemented by his compelling portrayal of sourpuss Swedish detective Wallander in the acclaimed BBC TV series of the same name.

Now, after a period in the directorial wilderness, he has been asked to front a $150m (€103m) Hollywood summer blockbuster. Whatever Mr Queenan might suggest, that doesn't sound much like failure to me.

Instead, Thor could actually revive the Hollywood career of a man who's a born actor, and a born survivor too.

To Americans, Branagh is the quintessential English toff, but he's very proud of his Belfast roots and still considers himself Irish. He was born, on December 10, 1960, into a working-class family in north Belfast. Kenneth was nine when the Troubles erupted, and his parents moved to England to escape the madness.

They settled in Reading, and when Branagh began attending the Meadway School in Tilehurst, his flair for acting blossomed. He appeared in school productions of things like Toad of Toad Hall, but he also remembers developing a talent for accents by affecting an English one to avoid being bullied.

After attending RADA, Branagh received a measure of early recognition for his gritty performances in the BBC adaptations of Graham Reid's Belfast-set Billy Plays. But it was in Shakespeare that he really shone. At 23, he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and announced himself as a major new talent when he starred in Adrian Noble's acclaimed production of Henry V.

Things happened pretty quickly after that. After more success with the RSC, Branagh left to form his own company, the Renaissance Theatre Company, and wowed the critics with lively productions of Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet.

Henry V (1989) was his first ever film. He directed, adapted and starred in the movie, which was a huge success on both sides of the Atlantic: I remember being in New York at the time and seeing people queuing around the block to see it.

It was around this time that the comparisons with Laurence Oliver started. Olivier too had made an acclaimed film version of Henry V before going on to achieve stage and screen immortality. The film offers came flooding in, and little wonder that Branagh's head was slightly turned.

The problem was that whenever he strayed too far from the coattails of the Swan of Avon, he seemed to flounder. His second film, Dead Again (1991), which starred himself and then-wife Emma Thompson, was a kind of pastiche Hitchcock thriller which wasn't terrible exactly but was maybe a bit too self-regarding.

Then there was Peter's Friends (1992), a charmingly intimate or horribly smug relationship comedy depending on your point of view, which starred Kenny, Emma, Phyllida Law (the mother-in-law) and longtime buddies like Stephen Fry and Tony Slattery.

The film added grist to a rather nasty backlash in Britain that led to Branagh being lampooned on Spitting Image and elsewhere as a hopeless 'luvvy'. He had achieved too much too soon, and no one likes a smarty-pants.

Maybe he was a little too well connected. Prince Charles was a patron of his Renaissance Theatre Company, and Branagh would later get an invitation to Charles and Camilla's wedding. And maybe he shouldn't have agreed to write his autobiography at the tender age of 30.

But the film that really hurt his career in Hollywood was Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994).

Branagh played the good doctor and Robert De Niro was the monster, but it was all a bit of an overblown mess really, and the common consensus was that Branagh had drifted way out of his depth.

It was the beginning of a slide into decline, and the hangover from Frankenstein tended to obscure the good work he did after.

His 1996 film version of Hamlet, for instance, is somewhat overlooked, but is a visually spectacular production boasting a fine performance from Branagh as the procrastinating prince.

By the late 1990s, however, his Hollywood credit was all but used up, and he directed only sporadically.

It was acting that saved him. He returned to London and the stage, but also to television, where his portrayal of obsessive explorer Ernest Shackleton in a 2002 mini-series reminded British audiences of just how good he could be.

Joe Queenan maintains that Branagh can't do comedy, but obviously hasn't seen his hilarious turn as the yellow-bellied Professor Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002).

There are dark and satisfying depths to his portrayal of dour detective Kurt Wallander in the excellent BBC series Wallander, that's been running since 2008. As an actor at any rate, he's a rare talent, and later this year his comeback will continue when he plays Laurence Olivier in a major new film called My Week with Marilyn. No doubt he appreciates the irony.

Thor was released nationwide yesterday

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