Branagh is back! Theatre fans will say he’s never been away, and that’s true enough, but this is a movie site, and it’s fair to say that in Hollywood, the multi-talented actor-director had dropped so far off the radar he might as well have been in free-fall. How things change!
Judging by the reaction of the British critics, Branagh has a hit on his hands, at last. And it’s not just the critics. The buzz is so good, commercial prospects are sky high. Fifteen years ago, if you had suggested that the vehicle for this success would be Marvel’s Norse comic book hero, Thor, not many people would have taken you seriously. Even today, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher: that Branagh would have wanted to direct such a blatant popcorn movie (a special effects extravaganza - in 3D!), and that Marvel would have let him.
Bear in mind, if there’s anything remotely similar in the Irishman’s filmography, it would be Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a pretentious big budget horror fiasco, and the first film where the erstwhile golden boy demonstrated his rare ability to fall flat on his face.
Still, that was a long time ago – 1994, to be precise – and Branagh has had his share of ups and downs since then. More downs than ups, if we’re sticking with the movies. As an actor, there was a so-so collaboration with Robert Altman (The Gingerbread Man) and a worse one with Woody Allen (Celebrity). He even managed to pick the one Will Smith summer blockbuster that didn’t make any money (Wild Wild West). That little run seems to have exhausted any idea that Mr Branagh was going to be a Hollywood leading man. Not that it’s ever too late. But consider how easily he could have played the two roles that bagged Colin Firth back-to-back Academy Award nominations (and a statuette this year) for A Single Man and The King’s Speech, and how unlikely it is that Branagh would have been cast in either case.
Of course we should not overlook his contributions to Rabbit Proof Fence and Harry Potter, but these were a long way from starring roles. It was only on the small screen, brilliant as Heydrich in Conspiracy, Franklin Roosevelt in Warm Springs, as Shackleton and more recently as Wallander that Branagh has excelled in the meaty leading roles that might have been expected of him. On TV and in the theatre he is charismatic and revealing. Somehow, on the big screen, he always seems to be trying too hard.
If the latter was his most ambitious project to date, it was significant that it failed to pick up Oscar nominations in any of the acting categories, let alone for direction or best picture. Even Bafta restricted itself to nominations for costumes and production design… In other words, Branagh’s peers were impressed with the look of the thing, but they weren’t convinced he’d turned arguably the greatest play in the English language into a movie that could stand on its own merits.
Branagh’s performance as Hamlet was characteristically clear and sometimes powerful, but this sprawling, restless film never seemed focused. An all-star cast that ranged from Ken Dodd and Brian Blessed to Jack Lemmon, Billy Crystal and Charlton Heston underlined a sense of mounting panic, as if the director was so desperately afraid of boring his audience he’d throw in an animated segment if he had to.
Perhaps that’s what Marvel responded to when they sized up Branagh for Thor: his showmanship. Like Olivier (it’s impossible to write about Branagh without raising the spectre of the previous “greatest Shakespearean actor of his time”), Branagh is a galvanic force, an interpreter of grand gestures and bold strokes. The plays are launching pads for mercurial displays of virtuosity and self-expression. His filmmaking is in the same register: the camera is always present, always moving, pushing the actors onwards and upwards. When it comes off, most notably in Henry V and in Hamlet, the results are dynamic and exhilarating. When it doesn’t – in Sleuth, for example, and in Frankenstein – the movies feel gimmicky and hollow.
If he’s finally cracked the North American market with Thor, well, perhaps Branagh will allow himself to relax just a little bit, and let his natural charm, humour and intelligence emanate through the work without feeling compelled to throw in nods and winks. His next acting gig (already in the can) is playing Oliver opposite Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn, an enticing prospect by any standards. As for filmmaking, don’t bet against Thor 2...
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