Photo by Jeff Spicer

All mouth, no trousers?

Kenneth Branagh does seem to like taking his clothes off

Artillery Row

I once saw Kenneth Branagh’s penis, along with around 900 other people. Unfortunately, this did not take place at some grandiose Hollywood orgy, but at the National Theatre in 2003, when Branagh took the lead role in David Mamet’s play Edmond. It was a typically committed, gutsy performance, in which he bared his soul and his genitals alike, and saw the actor daring to do something entirely different in the Shakespearean roles with which he first established himself on stage in the ‘80s.

Since then, Branagh has not exposed himself at the National, or elsewhere

Since then, he has not exposed himself at the National, or elsewhere, but has continued to show a remarkable degree of versatility, as actor, director and occasional screenwriter. If he isn’t setting up his own West End theatre company, he’s appearing as a time-travelling villain in a Christopher Nolan blockbuster, directing Tom Hiddleston as Hamlet on stage at RADA or making big-budget pictures such as Cinderella and Thor. Now, he’s returned to his roots and made the black-and-white autobiographical film Belfast, which won the prestigious People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival, often a harbinger of Oscar glory.

He should be celebrated not just as the new Laurence Olivier a tag that has clung to him since he directed his first film, Henry V, nearly half a century after Olivier’s version but as one of Britain’s most energetic and dynamic talents, a man who combines intelligence and charm with a near-Stakhanovite work ethic and breath-taking versatility. This year alone sees the release of Belfast, the delayed Agatha Christie adaptation Death On The Nile that he has directed and plays Hercule Poirot in, and an appearance as, of all people, Boris Johnson in Michael Winterbottom’s television series about the pandemic, This Sceptred Isle. 

 And yet there has always been the faintest sense of condescension towards Branagh from the British arts establishment. He has the knighthood, along with BAFTAs, Emmys, Golden Globes, Oliviers and what-have-you, but he has never been granted the kudos that peers of his such as Daniel Day-Lewis, Simon Russell Beale and Ralph Fiennes seem to receive effortlessly. Part of this stems from a perception that arose early in his career that he was both self-consciously aware of the Olivier comparisons and all too prepared to revel in them.

The two were lampooned as ‘Ken ‘n’ Em’, a pair of arch-luvvies

It was, perhaps, excessively hubristic to publish his autobiography, Beginning, at the age of 28, if only because it made the as-yet unwritten sequel Continuing? Ending? hard to entitle. His much-documented marriage to Emma Thompson between 1989 and 1995 saw the two of them lampooned as Ken ‘n’ Em: a pair of arch-luvvies who could barely open the front door without joyfully reciting a Shakespearean sonnet together. But what particularly bothered many was the perception that Branagh, who was not privately educated (unlike Olivier) and who had not attended Oxbridge (like Olivier) was somehow storming the citadels of the theatrical and film industries without permission. This young Northern Irishman did not seek establishment approval to make big, glossy films; he was a populist who liked entertaining people, as actor and director alike. How very dare he?

There were numerous setbacks and near-downfalls from early in his career. It was probably a bad idea to set himself up as the new Hitchcock as well as the new Olivier, with his overwrought 1991 crime drama Dead Again, which was lauded in the US and ridiculed in Britain. His wildly OTT and idiosyncratic version of Frankenstein  punctiliously entitled Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but it should probably have been called Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein was derided, not least for Branagh’s many shirtless scenes. (He does seem to like taking his clothes off.)

Even his masterly performance as Hamlet, in his equally masterful film version of it, was mocked in The Spectator as looking like a homosexual motorcycle courier, thanks to his bleach-blonde hairstyle. This is before we get on to his absurd performance in the absurd Wild Wild West, in which he plays a legless Confederate soldier with an army of giant mechanical spiders. It damaged the careers and reputations of all involved, but it seemed an especially egregious misstep for Branagh — from Shakespearean king to the lowliest rude mechanical.

If his latest picture has been a failure, Branagh shrugs and moves on

He has never sunk so low again, although his bewildering musical version of Love’s Labours Lost comes close. (‘Bewildering is a word often used in juxtaposition with Branagh’s career.) There have been successes, such as his witty, stately performance as naturally Olivier in My Week With Marilyn and hugely acclaimed stage appearances as Macbeth, Leontes and Ivanov. There have been oddities, such as his stilted directorial version of Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth with Jude Law and Michael Caine and his putty-nosed Shakespeare (another self-referential piece of casting) in the recent All Is True. And the less said about such unmemorable films as Artemis Fowl, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and As You Like It that he has made, the better.

He has often seemed happiest either in dynamic, often villainous roles as in Nolan’s Tenet and as a chilling Heydrich in Conspiracy  or as a heroic leader of men, a Henry V or Ernest Shackleton. As a director, he has assembled a rep company of actors that includes Judi Dench, the late John Sessions, Richard Briers and Derek Jacobi, and uses them frequently, whether conventionally or not; we may never have heard Dame Judi’s rich Irish accent were it not for Branagh, who encouraged her to use her brogue in both Artemis Fowl and Belfast. There is a pleasing resilience to his career. If his latest picture has been a failure, he shrugs, dusts himself off and moves on. Chances are, the next one will be a success.

As Belfast very much has been. It would be a splendid piece of irony if Branagh were to win an Oscar for Best Screenplay, and thus be recognised as a writer, rather than an actor or director, but I suspect that he’d be perfectly happy with that outcome. For all the sneering about luvviedom, what remains likeable about Branagh is a modesty and humility that manifests itself on screen save for the Heydrichs and behind the camera. He might not be averse to removing his shirt (or trousers, when the part calls for it) but he remains the least navel-gazing of actors, unlike a Day-Lewis. While others might agonise about the craft, Branagh will probably have directed a film, done a cameo in a Hollywood blockbuster and be planning his next picture already. And that, you suspect, suits him exceptionally well.

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