Monday, August 15, 2005

Whatever Happened to: Kenneth Brannagh?

At one time, Kenneth Branagh was everywhere. Directing and starring in classic Shakespeare films such as Much Ado About Nothing (1993) Othello (1995), Hamlet (1996), Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000). Seen as the next Laurence Olivier, right down to his alleged bisexuality, his star ascended before he was thirty. Starring as a Woody Alan like character in the Woody Allan movie Celebrity (1998), pulling together his Cambridge footlights’ friends – Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie – and engaging them in film projects, such as Peter’s Friends (1992). Then nothing. Well, almost nothing unless you count his appearance in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) as a stellar performance.

True, he did provide an over the top performance as Shackleton (2002) and a modest performance as a zealous hunter of missing children in Rabbit Proof Fence (2002). He also played Reinhardt Hydrich in the film Conspiracy (2001) - a limp account of the agreement over the “final solution” to the Jewish question amongst the Nazi leadership – a film which was the subject of considerable criticism. Despite his performance, he won an Emmy for this film and not for Shackleton.

But from a heady start – three Oscar nominations in different categories (writer, director and best actor) for three different films, including the short film Swan Song (1992), an Emmy and wins at the Venice Film Festival (for In the Bleak Midwinter, 1993) and several European Film Awards for Hamlet - its fair to say that his career has not recently been the headline news it was in his early years.

He is maturing. He began as the youngest actor ever to play the lead in the Royal Shakespeare Company - Henry V at the age of 23. A lot of his early work had the enthusiasm of youth without some of the depth of character needed to reach inside the persona and reveal more than we already know about them – this was the problem with Shackleton and Hydrich and to some extent his portrayal of Hamlet. He played some of his award winning roles in his mid thirties and now, a decade on, he his beginning to look more like a thoroughbred.

He is discovering. Since he divorced Emma Thompson in 1996 – a British star marriage that had class, unlike that of Victoria and David Beckham – he has explored a range of challenging roles. His portrayal of Dr. Loveless in Wild West (1999) or his portrayal of a troubled artist who befriends and then falls in love with a young woman dying of MS – The Theory of Flight (1998) – are all examples of him seeking a new angle or a new persona. His recent portrayal of FDR in Warm Springs (2005) shows what this new work can produce – depth, a sense of privileged insight into the workings of a character.

He is getting back to his roots. He began his acting career on the stage and moved from theatre to television and then to film. He was powerful and effective as Edmond in the play of that name running at the National Theatre in London. His performance was so strong he was nominated for a 2004 Laurence Olivier Theatre Award for Best Actor of 2003.

He has married again – Lindsay Brunnock, an art director who worked on Shackleton and other projects. He met her through an introduction by Helena Bonham Carter, with whom he co-starred in Hamlet, The Theory of Flight and Frankenstein (1994)

He is hectic. In addition to numerous voice over projects (including his narration of the Goebbels Experiment (2005)), he is finalising his next Shakespeare film As You Like It (due in 2006) and working with Tom Cruise and others on Mission Impossible . He is also writing.

Its time to see more of Branagh, but this time with more depth, more maturity and more intimacy. The big bold characters he played in his early days, very much in the style of Olivier, are now being replaced by more intimate portraits. We need more.

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