Nationality: British. Born: Belfast, Northern Ireland, 10 December 1960; family moved to Reading, England, 1969. Education: Meadway Comprehensive School, Reading; Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London, graduated 1982. Family: Married actress Emma Thompson, 1989 (divorced, 1996). Career: Actor on the West End stage and on television, beginning 1982; early stage successes included Another Country , 1982, and Francis (as St. Francis of Assisi), 1984, both plays written by Julian Mitchell; joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, 1983, and at twenty-three became the youngest actor ever to play the title role in Shakespeare's Henry V ; also appeared in the RSC's Hamlet (as Laertes) and Love's Labour's Lost (as the King of Navarre), playing the three roles in repertory in Stratford and London, 1984–85; wrote and directed play Tell Me Honestly , 1985; left RSC to produce and direct Romeo and Juliet , 1986 (in which he also starred); with actor David Parfitt, created the Renaissance Theatre Company, 1987; Renaissance productions in which Branagh played a prominent role included: Public Enemy (also written by Branagh); Twelfth Night (directed by Branagh; also televised), 1987; Hamlet (as Hamlet, directed by Derek Jacobi); As You Like It (as Touchstone, directed by Geraldine McEwan); Much Ado about Nothing (as Benedick, directed by Judi Dench), 1988; John Osborne's Look Back in Anger (as Jimmy
Henry V (+ title role, adapt)
Dead Again (+ro as Mike Church/Roman Strauss)
Peter's Friends (+ ro as Andrew Benson, pr); Swan Song (d only)
Much Ado about Nothing (+ ro as Benedick, adapt, co-pr)
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (+ ro as Dr. Frankenstein, co-pr)
In the Bleak Midwinter ( A Midwinter's Tale ) (d only, + sc)
Hamlet (+ title role, adapt)
The Betty Schimmel Story
Love's Labour's Lost (+ro as Berowne, adapt)
High Season (ro); A Month in the Country (ro)
Swing Kids (ro)
Gielgud: Scenes from Nine Decades (doc for British TV) (narrator)
Othello (ro, pr); Anne Frank Remembered (narrator); Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood (doc series for British TV) (narrator)
Looking for Richard (Pacino) (as himself)
Cold War (series for TV) (as Narrator); The Gingerbread Man (Altman) (ro as Richard "Rick" Magruder); The Proposition (ro as Father Michael McKinnon); Celebrity (Allen) (ro as Lee Simon); The Theory of Flight (ro as Richard); The Dance of Shiva (ro as Colonel Evans)
Wild Wild West (ro as Dr. Arliss Loveless)
How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog (ro as Peter McGowan); The Road to El Dorado (voice of Miguel)
Public Enemy (play), 1988.
Beginning (autobiography), Norton, 1989.
Henry V (screen adaptation with introduction), Chatto & Windus, 1989.
Much Ado about Nothing (screen adaptation, introduction, and notes on the making of the film), Norton, 1993.
The Making of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein , 1994.
In the Bleak Midwinter (screenplay with introduction), Nick Hern Books, 1995.
"Formidable Force," an interview with Michael Billington, in Interview , October 1989.
Interview with Joan Lunden, broadcast on Good Morning, America , American Broadcasting Company, 23 August 1991 (program number 1355).
" Hamlet Takes to the Air," an interview with Heather Neill, in Times Educational Supplement , 24 April 1992.
Interview with Charles Gibson, broadcast on Good Morning, America , American Broadcasting Company, 21 December 1992 (program number 1701).
"Once More, onto the Screen," an interview with Peter Barnes, in Los Angeles Times , 2 May 1993.
"Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson Discuss Collaboration Much Ado about Nothing ," an interview broadcast on Showbiz Today , CNN, 11 May 1993 (program number 293).
Interview with Iain Johnstone, in Times (London), 15 August 1993.
"Branagh Talks about Mary Shelley's Frankenstein ," an interview with Charlie Rose, broadcast on the Public Broadcasting System, 26 October 1994 (program number 1234).
"It's a Monster!," an interview with Graham Fuller, in Interview , November 1994.
"Branagh Discusses His Life and Career," an interview with Charlie Rose, broadcast on the Public Broadcasting System, 30 December 1994 (program number 1281).
Interview with John Naughton, in Premiere (U.K. edition), December 1995.
"Branagh's 'Bracing' Encounter with the Bard," in Variety (Brewster), 16–22 December 1996.
"Hamlets forspill," an interview with J. Ova, in Film & Kino (Oslo), 1996.
"Idol Chatter," an interview with A. Weisel, in Premiere (Boulder), December 1996.
"My Friends Say I Need a Psychiatrist," an interview with Andrew Duncan, in Time Out (London), 15 February 1997.
"Kenneth Branagh: With Utter Clarity," an interview with Paul Meier, in TDR (Cambridge, MA), Summer 1997.
Shuttleworth, Ian, Ken & Em: A Biography of Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson , St. Martin's, 1995.
Drexler, Peter, and Lawrence Gunter, Negotiations with Hal: Multi-Media Perceptions of Henry the Fifth , Braunschweig, Germany, 1995.
Hatchuel, Sarah, A Companion to the Shakespearean Films of Kenneth Branagh , Winnipeg, 1999.
Weiss, Tanja, Shakespeare on the Screen: Kenneth Branagh's Adaptations of Henry V, Much Ado about Nothing, and Hamlet , Frankfurt and New York, 1999.
Whitebrook, Peter, "Branagh's Bugbear," in Plays and Players , March 1985.
Renton, Alex, "Renaissance Man," in Plays and Players , July 1987.
Forbes, Jill, review of Henry V , in Sight and Sound , Autumn 1989.
Nightingale, Benedict, "Henry V Returns as a Monarch for This Era," in New York Times , 5 November 1989.
Champlin, Charles, "The Wellesian Success of Citizen Branagh," in Los Angeles Times , 9 November 1989.
Fuller, Graham, "Journals: Two Kings—Kenneth," in Film Comment , November/December 1989.
Kliman, Bernice, "Branagh's Henry V : Allusion and Illusion," in Shakespeare on Film Newsletter , December 1989.
Willson, Robert F., Jr., " Henry V : Branagh's and Olivier's Choruses," in Shakespeare on Film Newsletter , April 1990.
Breight, Curtis, "Branagh and the Prince, or a 'Royal Fellowship of Death,"' in Critical Quarterly , Winter 1991.
Donaldson, Peter, "Taking on Shakespeare: Kenneth Branagh's Henry V ," in Shakespeare Quarterly , Spring 1991.
Willson, Robert F., Jr., "War and Reflection on War: The Olivier and Branagh Films of Henry V ," in Shakespeare Bulletin , Summer 1991.
Weber, Bruce, "From Shakespeare to Hollywood," in New York Times , 18 August 1991.
Booe, Martin, "Ken Again," in Premiere , September 1991.
Rafferty, Terrence, "Showoffs," in New Yorker , 9 September 1991.
Feeney, F. X., "Vaulting Ambition," in American Film , September/October 1991.
Deats, Sara Munson, "Rabbits and Ducks: Olivier, Branagh, and Henry V ," in Literature/Film Quarterly , vol. 20, no. 4, 1992.
Pursell, Michael, "Playing the Game: Branagh's Henry V ," in Literature/Film Quarterly , vol. 20, no. 4, 1992.
Tatspaugh, Patricia, "Theatrical Influences on Kenneth Branagh's Film: Henry V ," in Literature/Film Quarterly , vol. 20, no. 4, 1992.
Smith, Dinitia, "Much Ado about Branagh," in New York , 24 May 1993.
Barton, Anne, "Shakespeare in the Sun," in New York Review of Books , 27 May 1993.
Sharman, Leslie F., review of Much Ado about Nothing , in Sight and Sound (London), September 1993.
Light, Allison, "The Importance of Being Ordinary," in Sight and Sound (London), September 1993.
Ryan, Richard, "Much Ado about Branagh," in Commentary , October 1993.
Lane, Robert, "When Blood Is Their Argument: Class, Character, and Historymaking in Shakespeare's and Branagh's Henry V ," in ELH , Spring 1994.
Landy, Marcia, and Lucy Fisher, "Dead Again or Alive Again: Postmodern or Postmortem?," in Cinema Journal (Austin), Summer 1994.
Shaw, William P., "Textual Ambiguities and Cinematic Certainties in Henry V ," in Literature/Film Quarterly , vol. 22, no. 2, 1994.
Parker, Daniel, Mark Kermode, and Pat Kirkham, "Making Frankenstein and the Monster," in Sight and Sound (London), November 1994.
Thomson, David, "Really a Part of Me," in Film Comment (New York), January/February 1995.
Gritten, David, "Kenneth Branagh on the Rebound," in Los Angeles Times , 3 June 1995.
Lavoie, A., "Les Shakespeare se ramassent a la pelle a " in Cine-Bulles (Montreal), vol. 16, no. 1, 1997.
Lundeen, Kathleen, "Pumping up the Word with Cinematic Supplements," in Film Criticism (Edinboro, PA), Fall 1999.
* * *
It is impossible to consider Kenneth Branagh's meteoric rise as a film director and actor without taking into account the career in the British theatre which shaped it—and to which Branagh still periodically returns. Classically trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, where he was awarded the prestigious Bancroft Gold Medal as outstanding student of the year, Branagh completed his course of study in 1982, then moved rapidly into a series of attention-getting roles on the West End and on television. His early association with Shakespeare's plays began with an invitation to join the Royal Shakespeare Company at the age of twenty-three, and he became the youngest actor ever to perform the title role in an RSC production of Henry V. Important parts in other Shakespeare productions in that 1984–85 season contributed to Branagh's emergence as a stage director soon thereafter.
He left the RSC to direct an independent production of Romeo and Juliet (in which he also starred) and, primarily, to form (with actor David Parfitt) his own production group, which became a reality in 1987 as the Renaissance Theatre Company. Renaissance acquired a high profile in rapid time, with Branagh and other major British actors directing a variety of productions in which they also appeared, in London and on national and international tours. Hamlet (with Branagh in the title role, directed by Derek Jacobi)—which, like Henry V , would become a play with which Branagh would be permanently linked—and Twelfth Night (directed by Branagh and later remounted for television) were among Renaissance's most successful late-1980s productions. The company's success enabled Branagh to make his first film, now financed through the production company he called Renaissance Films PLC.
Most actors who turn to film directing do so in mid-career, ordinarily after they have obtained considerable experience in front of the camera. Even Laurence Olivier, whose professional path Branagh's career so frequently appears to emulate, did not direct his first film until he was in his late thirties, and by then, after twenty-two screen appearances, he was a major star. In 1989, when Branagh directed his first film at the age of twenty-nine, his scant movie experience included just two feature films. By that time, however, he had achieved remarkable success as an actor, director, and producer on the British stage and in a variety of important television roles. And, as it happened, he had already written several plays of his own, one of them ( Tell Me Honestly ) produced by the RSC, another ( Public Enemy ) produced to launch the first Renaissance season. In this unusual, multitalented respect, Branagh's formative years most resemble the early career of Orson Welles—who made Citizen Kane , his first film, when he was twenty-six, after establishing a formidable theatre and radio presence in the late 1930s. Welles had the Mercury Theatre as his special training ground; Branagh had the Renaissance.
It is surely no accident, however, that the first film Branagh directed (and adapted and starred in) was the same first film which Laurence Olivier directed (and adapted and starred in): Henry V , the final history play in Shakespeare's tetralogy on kingship, which begins with Richard II and also includes King Henry IV , Parts One and Two. The comparisons and contrasts between the two films are genuinely striking, reflective of the periods in which they were made and of the imposing talents of the men who made them.
Olivier, responding to Winston Churchill's plea for a film to rally Britain in the final days of World War II, creates a ringingly, unambiguously heroic Henry for the ages, an idealized monarch who leads England to victory against France with commanding force tempered by humanity. Olivier's Henry V ensures that English history is represented as comedy. The excision of lines spoken by the Chorus in the play's final scene makes the romantic pairing of Henry and Katherine appear deceptively permanent, thereby assuring the wartime spectator of a stable English future in fact contradicted by Shakespeare's text and by English history. This interpretation is visually reinforced: Olivier's Henry V is artfully shot to highlight a deliberate sense of artificial cinema space; a Disneyesque mise-en-scene, with its heightened technicolored landscapes, illustrates a fairy-tale universe in which battles are won with little serious injury.
Olivier's and Branagh's versions of Henry V have virtually identical running times (136 and 138 minutes, respectively). Like Olivier's version, Branagh's attempts to create a reflexive illusion of theatre itself in the film's opening section, though Branagh alters and reduces Olivier's reconstruction of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre to insinuations of a movie sound stage. Like Olivier's version, Branagh's includes explicit references to Henry's earlier relationship with Falstaff in the two Henry IV plays. And, like Olivier's actors, Branagh's dazzling cast (many of them associated with Renaissance) includes some of the finest Shakespearean verse speakers available.
In virtually every other respect, Branagh's film diverges from Olivier's. His Henry V represents history as tragedy. Significant passages omitted by Olivier, because they reflect flaws in Henry's character or guilt at his father's usurpation of the crown from Richard II, are restored by Branagh. Although he properly retains the heroic elements required by such set speeches as the Saint Crispian's Day call to arms, his portrayal of the king emphasizes the dark and complex elements within Henry's character. Unlike Olivier's version, Branagh's film includes the conspiracy against Henry. This portion of the film is dimly lit, heavily shadowed. Henry behaves in Machiavellian fashion and appears unsympathetic in his own conspiratorial behavior. In text restored to the Harfleur sequence, Henry looks and sounds downright pathological. War scenes feature death marches; soldiers die in mud and muck. Quick cuts, slow-motion photography, extended tracking shots, and unusual framing perspectives are employed to heighten the inescapable anti-war ideology vital to Branagh's approach. A few more liberties are taken with the text than in Olivier's version, including the placement of the king at the hanging of Bardolph. The inclusion of liturgical music in Patrick Doyle's wonderfully evocative score contributes movingly to the film's power. Most notable of all, perhaps, Branagh restores the lines Olivier cut from the Chorus's speech which conclude the play on such a dark note. Henry V may, indeed, have created the world's "best garden," but the peaceful idyll he achieved was short-lived once his infant son inherited the throne: "Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crowned King/Of France and England, did this King succeed,/Whose state so many had the managing/That they lost France, and made his England bleed."
By any measure, Branagh's Henry V is a stunning film. That it succeeded so powerfully in duplicating, perhaps surpassing, Olivier's achievement is all the more striking in the context of its director's youthful audacity. Branagh's other Shakespeare films include the superb Much Ado about Nothing , Hamlet , and Othello (with Branagh cast as a vividly slimy Iago), which Branagh unfortunately did not direct. Othello is visually tame, the Shakespeare text excessively cut.
But Much Ado about Nothing proved that Branagh's success with Henry V was no fluke. Co-starring Emma Thompson as Beatrice opposite Branagh's Benedick, Much Ado certified his nimble approach in making Shakespeare accessible and entertaining , while preserving much of the original poetry and literacy. Branagh's screen adaptations of Much Ado and Hamlet also confirm what had become strikingly evident in his leadership of the Renaissance Theatre Company: He is a keenly savvy—some might say cynically savvy—marketer of his projects. By casting such actors as Keanu Reeves, Denzel Washington, and Robert Sean Leonard alongside Branagh, Thompson, and other British actors in Much Ado , and by casting Robin Williams, Jack Lemmon, Gerard Depardieu, and Billy Crystal alongside Branagh, Derek Jacobi, John Gielgud, and Julie Christie in Hamlet , Branagh strengthens his films' potential international markets, particularly in the United States. Such patterns of casting do not always work, but they do help to attract financing and have influenced recent attempts by others to adapt Shakespeare to the screen.
Although the text of Much Ado about Nothing has been severely pruned by Branagh, like his Henry V , it emerges on screen as a highly intelligent, clearly told story. Filmed on location in Tuscany, Much Ado is visually enchanting, as vibrantly bright and sensually warm as Henry V is consciously dark and (until the wooing scene) cold. Like so much of his film work, Branagh's reading of Much Ado derives a great deal from his performance (also opposite Emma Thompson) in Renaissance's stage production of the play, directed by Judi Dench in 1988. Branagh has written of the potentially filmic images that haunted him during performances of that production in his introduction to the published screenplay: "One night during Balthasar's song 'Sigh No More, Ladies,' the title sequence of this film played over and over in my mind; heat, haze and dust, grapes and horseflesh, and a nod to The Magnificent Seven. The men's sexy arrival, the atmosphere of rural Messina, the vigour and sensuality of the women, possessed me in the weeks, months, and years that followed."
"Emotional volatility," Branagh writes in this essay, was the key to the Beatrice-Benedick relationship. But, most especially—in Much Ado as in virtually all Renaissance stage and screen productions—the rehearsal process depended on a genuine desire to eliminate "artificial Shakespeare voices" in favor of acting "naturalness" which would retain the poetry while conveying the "realistic, conversational tone" present in much of the play's original dialogue. The witty battle of the sexes, so often the essence of comedy, is splendidly articulated here in the Branagh-Thompson dueling lovers. Like Henry V , Much Ado proves in both visual and aural terms that, even when Branagh cuts Shakespeare's text perhaps more than he should, he knows exactly how and why he is doing it.
Among Branagh's non-Shakespearean films, Dead Again deserves special mention. A film in which Branagh and Emma Thompson both play dual roles, it reveals Branagh's knowledge of other films, filmmakers, and genres—and his considerable versatility as both actor and director. Dead Again employs numerous conventions of film noir, including the periodic insertion of a 1940s plot-line, shot in black and white, into the film's main story, which is photographed in color. Numerous references to specific films (including Citizen Kane , Psycho , Vertigo , and noir detective pictures) periodically appear. ( Dead Again even makes droll reference to one of its featured actor's early television successes: Derek Jacobi's I, Claudius series.) The film's detective hero, Mike Church, displays Branagh in James Cagney mode. The screenplay and performances are extremely witty, by turns frightening the spectator into total identification or saturating him with over-the-top red herrings that become self-reflexively and genuinely funny. Robin Williams's uncredited appearance as a psychiatrist is among the film's cleverest surprises.
Peter's Friends and In the Bleak Midwinter are modest entertainments, partially autobiographical, it would appear, particularly In the Bleak Midwinter (released in the United States as A Midwinter's Tale ). Here, Branagh affectionately satirizes a group of actors attempting to mount a production of Hamlet , and the film appeals especially to admirers of British theatre. It should be noted, particularly in audience anticipation of Branagh's Hamlet movie, that he returned to the RSC to play the title role in a magnificent, sold-out production of that play (directed by Adrian Noble) during the 1992–93 season. In numerous ways, Hamlet is likely to be the Shakespeare play with which Branagh (who also directed the all-star BBC radio version) remains most closely identified.
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is as "big" a Branagh film as Peter's Friends and In the Bleak Midwinter are small ones. Produced by Francis Ford Coppola and costing forty-four million dollars, the film stars Branagh (who also directed) as Victor Frankenstein and Robert De Niro as the tormented creature. It contains numerous imaginative pleasures, but its overblown representation of an implicitly overblown story brought general critical wrath upon Branagh's head at the time of its release. It has became a rare example of a Branagh film that (to date) is a commercial failure.
In January, 2000, Branagh was awarded the Golden Quill by the Shakespeare Guild, an American society devoted to fostering appreciation of the Bard in the United States. The award preceded by three months the American premiere of Branagh's film Much Ado about Nothing —a work taking what might be considered substantial liberties with the Shakespearean text. Branaugh, who starred, directed, and wrote the screenplay, set the story in the 1930s and made it a musical comedy, complete with period songs by Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. American critics tended to praise the film for its freshness and mixture of cinematic styles; British reviewers were, on the whole, considerably less generous.
The careers of Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, as frequent co-stars and a prominent acting couple, have attracted considerable publicity, especially since their marriage in 1989 and separation in 1995. (Their relationship has invited frequent comparison to the one between Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, who eventually divorced.) Each has always made films without the other; and Thompson has won Oscars for Best Actress in Howards End and for Best Screenplay Adaptation for Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. Nevertheless, some of the most magical moments in Branagh's films feature the two of them together ( Henry V , Peter's Friends , Dead Again , Much Ado about Nothing ).
—Mark W. Estrin, updated by Justin Gustainis