Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Kenneth Branagh ... What Are You DOING? (Part I)

Branagh as Henry V

I've been thinking about Kenneth Branagh recently ... wondering about the career choices he's made, this gifted actor, writer, director from Northern Ireland ...

I'd been seeing his name in print in the late 1980s, but I'd never heard anyone say it, so it was a while before I learned how to pronounce his last name--Branagh.  It looked like one of those names that defy pronunciation altogether (the first year I taught I had a boy with the surname Cvrk--pronounced suh-VERK--welcome to teaching!).  I first saw his name--Kenneth Branagh (b. 1960)--in 1989 when the world (well, the cultural world) was in love with his new film, Henry V.  The theater world knew him already--he'd had a spectacular career in the U. K., earning major roles at a very early age.

Olivier as Henry V
It was a nervy thing, doing Henry V.  For one thing--he was not yet thirty years old.  For another: For decades everyone had assumed that Sir Laurence Olivier's Henry V (1944--the year of my advent!) was the definitive filmed version of Shakespeare's play ... why would anyone else even bother?  (Think: A new film of Citizen KaneGone with the WindStar Wars?  Wedding Crashers?  It's almost sacrilegious to think such thoughts!)

But Branagh did it; the critics loved it; his film career seemed poised to break the possessive clutch of gravity, to soar into the Beyond.

And so it did ... for a while.  He followed Henry V with a psychological thriller, a murder mystery, Dead Again (1991), a film critics liked, too.  He played an American private eye--sounded American, through and through.  Branagh could do no wrong.  Not yet.  I loved that film, was falling in love with its creator, too.
Next, a much smaller film--Peter's Friends (1992)--a film about a young man who gathers his friends for a weekend to tell them that he is dying.  It was the first time I remember seeing the amazing actress Phyllida Law, the mother of actress Emma Thompson, who at the time was married to Branagh.  I saw this one several times, dazzled by how he could cram something so immense into something so small--infinite space in a nutshell, as our buddy Hamlet might have put it.  The critics were kind about this film, too--but many were wondering: Where's the next Shakespeare film?

Burton & Taylor in Shrew
Not far away, it seems, for the very next year came Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing, which I still think is the best film of a Shakespeare play I've ever seen--and I've seen pretty much all of them.  In my eighth grade English classes I'd been using the 1967 Zeffirelli film of The Taming of the Shrew (with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor), but when I saw Much Ado, I knew that Dick and Liz were history.  I showed Much Ado to my classes (after we read the play) every year until I retired in January 1997.  And my students loved it, year after year.  I never got tired of seeing it, either.  (And remember, I was watching it, sometimes, six times a day--six classes.)  And I still watch it, now and then, when it's on cable.  I still laugh where I always laughed, weep where I always wept.

Branagh had included in his cast such stars as Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, Robert Sean Leonard, Michael Keaton, Emma Thompson (and her mother, Phyllida Law) and the very young actress Kate Beckinsale, who went on to be a kick-ass vampire in the Underworld films.  He also populated the cast with Shakespearean actors he'd worked with for years--Brian Blessed and Richard Briers among them.

I remember reading an emotional review in the New Republic by curmudgeonly critic Stanley Kauffmann.  He loved it too.  Saw it twice.  (Kauffmann's review)

And then ... the first stumble.  Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994) with Robert DeNiro as the creature.  (Mary Shelley's creature was eight feet tall; the diminutive DeNiro had no chance of capturing the creature's immensity or agility.)  I wanted so much to like that film.  But it flat sucked.  Branagh had Gone Hollywood, at numerous moments filming himself shirtless and cut (while at university, Victor Frankenstein apparently used the gym every day for several hours).  The film earned few favorable reviews, disappointed fans of the novel and of Branagh.  And the critics surely began to wonder: Were we wrong about this guy?

Then ... a rebound. He told the world he was working on a full-length Hamlet.  And then, beforehand, he released the little film A Midwinter's Tale (aka In the Bleak Midwinter, 1995), a quiet and very funny movie about a motley group of unemployed actors putting on Hamlet in a small church at Christmas.  Branagh does not appear in the film--he wrote and directed it.  I used to like to show it to my students after we'd read Hamlet.  They felt like geniuses ... understanding all the allusions, the humor.

Up next for Branagh ... Hamlet ...

(To be continued--including the gripping story of how I learned to pronounce his name--a story with a Hollywood connection)

No comments:

Post a Comment