“You think this is game, Jack?” I’m looking forward to Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, but not because of Chris Pine and Keira Knightley. I’m looking forward to it because Kenneth Branagh is playing Victor Cherevin, a dastardly oligarch with a foreign accent and (as per that opening quote) the occasional dropped article. Oh yes, this is game!
Branagh is also the director of the film, having proved – with Thor and Cinderella – that he’s better at helming effects-heavy action pics than he ever was at directing Shakespeare, or such goosepimples on the pale posterior of British cinema as Peter’s Friends (1992), in which he gave us one of the worst drunk scenes in cinema history, culminating in the declaration, “I am an absolute dribbling arsehole.” Few filmgoers subjected to this painful game of Party Quirks performed by the Boy Wonder and his Cambridge Footlights chums would have disagreed.
For a brief period in the 1980s, it was a national sport to hail young Branagh and his then consort, Emma Thompson, as the Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh de nos jours – though the Bryan Forbes and Nanette Newman de nos jours might have been nearer the mark. “The comparison is ludicrous to me,” he told People magazine in 1990, though quite honestly, if he had truly wanted to avoid comparisons with Olivier, there were 34 Shakespeare plays he could have filmed that Olivier hadn’t.
But he opted to follow in Larry’s footsteps by making his directing debut with Henry V. The Battle of Agincourt was ably rendered in mud, blood and pointed sticks, but while everyone assured me Branagh cut a dash on stage, his screen presence just made me think of a line from Down with Skool: “And thou molesworth 1 thou canst not call thyself prince charming when thou hast a face like a mad baboon.”
Not that Branagh’s face was horrible (I once wrote that he had a face like a boiled potato, for which I would now like to apologise) – it’s just that he and Thompson were forever gurning madly, as though imagining their every emotion had to be clearly visible from the back of the stalls. Thompson calmed down after working with Ang Lee on Sense and Sensibility, but it took Branagh longer to find his groove.
In the preposterous thriller Dead Again, he played a Los Angeles private dick who happened to be the reincarnation of a German composer who’d been sent to the electric chair in the 1940s for the murder of his wife; the dual role enabled Branagh the actor to offset the world’s worst American accent with a hammy German one. Meanwhile Branagh the director loses the plot in a hysterical finale (beware spoilers in that clip) incorporating flashbacks, slo-mo, the guy who played Newman in Seinfeld, and everybody galloping back and forth like drunken donkeys.
As the director of Much Ado About Nothing, Branagh seemed to be responding to a common complaint of British films not being visual with the assumption that nice Tuscan landscapes in the background of every scene would provide instant eye appeal. It duly ended up looking like a shoddily directed film shot against a backdrop of nice Tuscan landscapes. Meanwhile, as Benedick and Beatrice, Ken and Em had about as much sexual electricity as John and Norma Major. (To see how it should be done, watch Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker shooting sparks off each other in Joss Whedon’s 2012 film of the same play.)
When it came to Hamlet (once again with the Larry!) Branagh ignored his character’s advice to the Players, and sawed the air, split the ears of the groundlings and generally tore passion to tatters. Had it been a live performance, the front rows would have been drenched in spittle. The decision to film the play unabridged merely showed the wisdom of those who had trimmed it in the past, while Branagh the director had apparently decided that since film was a visual medium, this meant that whenever anyone mentioned Fortinbras or Priam or Yorick, he had to cut away to show us – yes! – Fortinbras or Priam or Yorick. Just so there was no confusion.
Thanks to Peter’s Friends, the national sport of comparing Branagh to Olivier gave way to the national sport of taking critical potshots at him, notably with his misguided version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), in which he stripped off his shirt to expose abs more appropriate to a habituee of a 20th century gym than to a 18th century mittel-Europe medical student marinading his disappointingly normal-looking monster in a giant fish kettle. Meanwhile, Branagh the director’s camera hurled itself into ever more dizzying parabolas of meaningless movement.
It was a string of odd performances in the late 1990s that turned me into a closet Branagh fan, despite the films in question being flops. His unconvincing Southern drawl as a Savannah attorney was the only thing that stopped him being upstaged by Robert Downey Jr and Robert Duvall in Robert Altman’s The Gingerbread Man (1998), while Woody Allen’s weird decision to cast him as the Woody surrogate in Celebrity makes the film a lot spikier than most give it credit for being.
And aficionados of cinematic hogwash shouldn’t miss The Proposition (1998 – not to be confused with John Hillcoat’s 2005 film of the same name) in which Branagh plays a Catholic priest in 1930s Boston who gets embroiled in a plot involving miscarriage, murder, the writings of Virginia Woolf, and Neil Patrick Harris as a hired stud.
This period climaxed with the critically reviled Wild Wild West, in which Branagh’s steampunk villain compensated for his missing manparts with a dodgy Dixie accent, diabolically trimmed beard and an 80 foot mechanical spider. It was here, at the turn of the century, that I decided Branagh was fun.
Though he was no fun at all – but obliged me to take back everything rude I’d ever written about him – in the superb 2011 telefilm Conspiracy, based on transcripts of the 1942 Wannsee Conference, in which 15 Nazis (speaking not with cod German accents but in preternaturally correct English) enjoy fine wine and a buffet lunch while discussing details of the Final Solution. Branagh’s chilling performance as Reinhard Heydrich was awarded an Emmy, and rightly so.
He was very amusing as preening Gilderoy Lockhart in the second Harry Potter movie, heroic as Shackleton in the 2002 mini-series, nasty in Rabbit-Proof Fence, and played a nicer kind of Nazi in Valkyrie, in which he and the rest of the British supporting cast only emphasised how miscast Tom Cruise was in the central role.
Branagh’s remake of Sleuth (yet another Olivier echo) was a disaster, and we will draw a polite veil over The Boat That Rocked, but the BBC’s Wallander was proof he had learnt at last to command attention by keeping his face still. And after a careerful of comparisons, it was only fitting he should finally be cast as Laurence Olivier himself, exasperated beyond measure by the visiting American movie star in My Week with Marilyn. He was the best thing in the film, ruefully aware that Monroe has a screen presence that no amount of professional technique can replicate: “She’s quite wonderful. No training, no craft, no guile. Just pure instinct. Astonishing.”
Perhaps he has finally found his niche as a character actor, often (like Larry again) specialising in villainy with an accent. “Is it safe?” Maybe the comparisons are no longer so ludicrous.
The preceding piece was first posted on the Telegraph website in January 2014. It has been lightly edited.
ADDENDUM NO 1: MY REVIEW OF MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN
(directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh; first published in the Sunday Telegraph, November 1994)
Many and varied are the films about Frankenstein and his monster. From the creature’s first silent steps in 1910, to Boris Karloff’s classic performance and Christopher Lee in Hammer’s Gothic fairy-tale, the myth has continued to thrill and shock one generation after another. Young Frankenstein was Mel Brooks’ most affectionate spoof, and the creature has proved durable enough to survive meetings with Abbott and Costello, Andy Warhol and the Giant Devil Fish of Hiroshima. Given this history, there is no doubt he will also emerge unscathed from his encounter with Kenneth Branagh.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein sticks fairly closely to Shelley’s book (and in keeping some of the philosophical discourse between creature and creator makes you realise why it was jettisoned in every other film version). But the title is less an acknowledgement of its author than a reminder that Universal still owns the copyright to plain unqualified Frankenstein. In fact, Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein might have been more apt as a title, because our Ken, as usual, co-produced, directed and starred – everything but made the tea, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he did that too.
The word that springs to mind when contemplating Branagh is “energy”. There is so much energy crackling noisily around his attic laboratory it’s a wonder the neighbours don’t complain. The camerawork is of the needlessly busy-bee variety, and Branagh himself, even in is more relaxed moments, has a physiognomy that fizzes, as though there were another dozen film projects fermenting behind it.
The problem is that compelling screen acting requires a certain blankness. Branagh is constantly expressing himself, as though playing to the back of the stalls. He is much too affable and puppyish to be convincing as a scientist so obsessed he is prepared to challenge life and death. You find yourself thinking, not “There’s Victor Frankenstein in his laboratory”, but, “Oh look, it’s our Ken.” Compare him with supporting actors Tom Hulce, who plays his best buddy, or Aidan Quinn, as obsessive as one could wish as the Arctic explorer to whom Victor is relating his tragic tale. Simply by keeping still, they draw our attention.
This is not to say that Branagh’s performance is no fun. Naked torso all agleam, he bounds around his lab, yelling at the giant fish-kettle in which his monster is being marinaded. Ken has obviously been preparing hard for this role; quite why an 18th century science student should have gymnasium-honed abs, lats and deltoids is anyone’s guess, but it kept reminding me of a lyric from that other Frankenstein spin-off, The Rocky Horror Show: “In just seven days, I’m gonna make you a man. Oh-ho.”
The man-made man is played by Robert De Niro, and very disappointing he is too. So is the make-up; while he would never find employment as a model for Camay, the clumsy stitching and ripped-cornea lenses make him no more hideous, I daresay, than your average 18th century smallpox, syphilis or leprosy sufferer, which makes a nonsense of everyone’s fearful reactions. It rather defeats the object of the story when you start reflecting that if only the doctor had spent less time blabbering about transplants and more time brushing up on his cosmetic surgery, things might have turned out so differently.
No sooner is the De Niro creature out of his fish-kettle than he launches into a silly walk, which is not surprising as he has been given the brain of John Cleese. Cleese is one of the film’s pleasant surprises; he is almost unrecognisable and not at all funny as Victor’s demented and slightly sinister mentor. Basil Fawlty was only a few tics short of total monstrousness; perhaps Cleese would have been better cast as the creature than De Niro, who seems to have lost the manic intensity he once brought to films like Taxi Driver.
There are other compensations. Even Helena Bonham Carter-haters will enjoy a surprisingly full-blooded performance from her as Victor’s adopted sister and sweetheart. There is a keen intelligence at work in the screenplay, the themes of science and responsibility are more relevant than ever, and Branagh’s energy propels the story through its dull spots. And I think he deserves a pat on the back for exploiting Britain’s underappreciated heritage of horror rather than playing safe with Howards End Part 53.
But the biggest problem with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is that, for all its grave-robbing and heart-snatching, it is simply not very frightening. My spirits sank as soon as I read that De Niro accepted the role, “because I knew that Ken was going to make more than just another horror film, that he was going to give it a deeper meaning.”
It’s like Wolf and Bram Stoker’s Dracula all over again; another instance of an upmarket film-maker mistakenly thinking he can teach the schlock merchants a thing or two – and then forgetting what makes horror movies tick in the first place.
ADDENDUM NO 2: MY REVIEW OF HAMLET.
(directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh; first published in the Sunday Telegraph, February 1997)
It has been suggested that if Shakespeare were alive today, he would be writing screenplays. Hamlet, especially, has all the ingredients for a Hollywood hit: sex, murder, madness and the monarchy, plus spooky special effects. You can bend it any way you want; there’s Olivier for traditionalists, the Soviet version for spine-tingling visuals, Mel Gibson for action fans, even a sardonic Finnish variation in which Elsinore has been changed into a rubber duck factory. No matter how many Hamlets there have been, there’s always room for one more.
You can be sure of one thing, though. If Bill Shakespeare, top Hollywood script-doctor, were to take another look at his play with a view to adapting it for the cinema, either he would pare it down ruthlessly – or his producer and director would do it for him.
But now, in a bid to produce the definitive version, Kenneth Branagh – adaptor, director and star – has opted for the unexpurgated text, one long “unweeded syllable” (as the great Nigel Molesworth put it) which weighs in at a bum-numbing four hours, including a “previously on LA Law“-style resume after the intermission.
Whether or not this is a worthwhile enterprise depends on whether you think of Shakespeare’s text as a bible to be treated with the utmost reverence, or as source material to be cut and shuffled – which is after all how theatre producers have been treating it since 1602. The extra verbiage, alas, doesn’t so much elucidate the text as dissipate the tension and clog the senses. No longer is this Olivier’s story of a man who “just couldn’t make up his mind”. Now it’s just a man who won’t shut up.
On the visual front, Branagh has aimed for the David Lean approach, with masses of Dr Zhivago-esque snowscapes and Lean’s Lara, Julie Christie (acquitting herself rather well, though lighting and camera angles do her no favours) as Gertrude. The costumes are two-parts Mayerling and three parts Prisoner of Zenda, with just the teensiest dash of Star Wars in the form of moulded fancing vests. Elsinore is a warren of richly appointed rooms cluttered with gilded mirrors and several series’-worth of Antiques Roadshow furniture, while the main purpose of shooting on 70mm widescreen appears to have been to squeeze the entire width of Blenheim Palace into a single frame.
Branagh is ever mindful that film is a visual medium, but seems to think that ‘visual’ is a synonym for ‘literal’, and so repeatedly illustrates speeches with redundant flashbacks and cutaways to Fortinbras (Rufus Sewell) wearing his Denmark-conquering expression, to Hamlet and Ophelia (Kate Winslet) thrashing around in bed, to John Gielgud as Priam or Ken Dodd as Yorick. Meanwhile, the ghost, on which you really would have expected a film-maker to go to town, looks like the Commendatore from a creaky amateur production of Don Giovanni.
There are some decent performances buried in here; Richard Briers makes Polonius a slippery old windbag, Charlton Heston brings the full weight of his epic career to the role of the Player King, Nicholas Farrell is a nicely simpatico Horatio. There are a couple of former Hamlets seeded away for good measure: Derek Jacobi as rather a muted Claudius, and Simon Russell Beale wasted as Second Gravedigger while Billy Crystal snaffles all the best lines as First. Other movie stars – Jack Lemmon, Gerard Depardieu, Robin Williams – enliven boring bits with wacky cameo appearances. Winslet does OK as Ophelia, despite having to perform her first Mad Scene apparently dressed as an egg.
But Hamlet stands and falls by its Prince, and this is where this version comes unstuck. I realise I’m committing an act of heresy here, in a country where Branagh was long ago slapped with the label “Great Actor” and can therefore do no wrong, but the film’s chief weakness is the man himself. With bleached blond hair and a moustache shaped like a Stealth bomber, he looks less like Olivier than a denizen of one of Old Compton Street’s gay bars. Ignoring his own advice to the Players, he saws the air, splits the ears of the groundlings and generally tears passion to tatters; if this were a live performance, the front rows of the auditorium would be drenched in his spittle.
And in moments of extreme emotion, his voice shoots up an octave, so that one can’t help but be reminded of Harry Enfield playing Kevin the Teenager; “It’s so unfaaair, Horatio!” In short, it’s not so much a great film performance as an uncanny impersonation of an old-style actor-manager at full-throttle rant. Hamlet has always been one of my favourite plays, and yet for long stretches of this version of it, I was bored out of my skull.