BACK ON THE BRITISH STAGE
This year’s Baftas put the seal on the revival of Kenneth Branagh’s fortunes, writes Stephen Brown. He was nominated for two out of the four actor awards-for his portrayal of Himmler’s deputy Reinhard Heydrich in Conspiracy and for the title role in Shackleton. And, after a decade’s absence from the British stage, his Richard III at the Sheffield Crucible was also generally well-reviewed.
For those fascinated by hubris, Branagh’s career had begun to seem exemplary. After a famously precocious start on television (notably Fortunes of War, in 1987), at the RSC and with his own Renaissance Theatre Company, success with his film of Henry V (1989) led to a career in Hollywood. But that first film remains his best and though, as an actor, he has worked with figures such as Robert Altman and Woody Allen, the results have been undistinguished. Branagh’s commitment to putting Shakespeare on screen-he has also filmed Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Hamlet (1996) and Love’s Labour’s Lost (1999)-curiously worked against him. It takes a director of strong, disrespectful vision-Welles, Kurosawa, Brook, Luhrmann-to reshape Shakespeare successfully for film. Branagh, though bold, is not in this league.
Critical opinion on Branagh’s acting has always been divided. He is a performer of ease; unlike many theatre actors on the screen, he almost never seems busy. He has warmth and wit. His handling of language, and of Shakespeare’s verse in particular, is dazzlingly rapid and assured. According to the FT’s Alastair Macaulay, Branagh has “a hotline to Shakespeare: he speaks the old words like his mother tongue.” But Branagh’s facility and clarity have been perceived as weaknesses too. We rarely feel in Branagh’s work-his detractors have argued-the pressure of inner tension that thrills us in really great performances. His charm can slip into blandness. Yet it may be that British irritation with Branagh reveals how, after a century of Stanislavsky and the method, we still don’t know what we want from actors.
The cunning of Branagh’s recent work is that it plays quite self-consciously on his perceived limitations, turning them into strengths. His performance as Himmler’s deputy Reinhard Heydrich in Conspiracy was an examination of the committee politics of the Wannsee conference that agreed on the final solution. Branagh’s slightly too brisk, too affable style was put to brilliant use. Here was the ultimate bureaucrat pushing through an unspeakable resolution with breezy charm:…