Kenneth Branagh, the survivor who went from Shakespeare to ‘Thor’ and from the tabloids to the Oscars | Culture | icon

He had everything against him: an actor (Armie Hammer) accused of sexual abuse and cannibalistic paraphilias, two secondary interpreters (Letitia Wright and Russell Brand) dedicated to spreading anti-vaccine conspiracy, an actress (Gal Gadot) relativizing her country’s offensive , Israel, against Palestine, a pandemic emptying movie theaters… And yet, death on the nile It has not been the box office failure that had been announced for two years, the time that the film has spent on the shelves of its distributor, Disney, like the elephant in the room. Filmed on behalf of 20th Century Fox in 2019, the year in which the Disney conglomerate acquired the company, and initially scheduled to be released in 2020, the successive controversies of its cast turned a luxury production into a poisoned legacy that also worked as a sequel to the very profitable Murder on the Orient Express (2017).

Curiously, the accusations of mistreatment against Johnny Depp did not affect her commercially either, although the actor’s presence on screen was much shorter than that of Hammer. Disney even considered replacing him with reshoots (in the style of what happened with Kevin Spacey in all the money in the world), but he ruled it out due to the complexity of the operation and, finally, he discovered that the remedy for his headaches had always been in front of him.

With a release date strategically placed after the Oscar nominations, death on the nile has ceased to be the film of a thousand scandals to become the new work of the prestigious Irish filmmaker and actor Kenneth Branagh, a firm contender for the season’s grand prizes for his other title on the bill, Belfast. In Spain, last weekend, Branagh’s two films were among the top ten most viewed, with good results by pandemic standards (death on the nilewith more than 800,000 euros, has had the second best opening so far this year, while Belfast has raised more than a million), especially considering that both are aimed at the public that is costing the most to return to the cinema: the adult. death on the nile has recovered globally, in a few days, 75 of its 90 million dollars budget, has garnered better reviews than Murder on the Orient Express and, ultimately, has turned expectations around in the best tradition of the author who adapts, Agatha Christie.

But this is only Branagh’s second feat so far this year: thanks to Belfast, the director and interpreter has become the person with the most nominations in different categories in the history of the Oscars, seven, one above the previous owners of the record, Walt Disney and George Clooney. The three that he has achieved this year in best direction, best original screenplay and best film (category to which he chooses as a producer) are added to his nomination as best actor in 1990 for Henry V (for which he was already nominated as director), best short film in 1993 for swan songBest Adapted Screenplay in 1997 for Hamlet and best supporting actor in 2012 for My week with Marilyn. A feat in tune with the character. “Branagh loves heroes, from Henry V and Hamlet to Poirot [el detective de Asesinato en el Orient Express y Muerte en el Nilo] and from Thor to the children of Belfast. For him, the director is another version of the hero, who manages a gigantic and expensive art form and delivers the finished project on time and under budget, ”reflects, consulted by ICON, Samuel Crowl, professor emeritus of English at the University from Ohio.

Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson and Clint Eastwood at a party in Los Angeles in 1993.
Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson and Clint Eastwood at a party in Los Angeles in 1993.Ron Galella (Ron Galella Collection via Getty)

Academically focused on the work of William Shakespeare, Crowl has investigated, over the years, the various adaptations that Kenneth Branagh has made from the Bard’s texts, a constant in his career: “He has an amazing ability to unite Shakespeare and Hollywood, is not afraid to appropriate established film genres: the epic in Hamletthe musical film in love’s labors lostor the sitcom in Much ado About Nothing. He dares to show off for the camera, as in the long tracking shot after the battle of Agincourt in Henry V and the four uncut minutes shot on Steadicam at the end of Noisy... By paying equal attention to word and image, Branagh brings Shakespeare to life on film.”

Like the characters in the partially autobiographical Belfast, Kenneth Branagh’s family emigrated to England when he was 9 years old to escape the conflict in Northern Ireland. Although he adopted his characteristic and almost goofy accent, as he has stated on several occasions, to deal with the bullying he suffered for not speaking like the other children, Shakespeare did not come into his life as part of a process to become the most English of the world: for Branagh, at the beginning there was not Shakespeare, but Derek Jacobi. I went to the theater [a la representación de Hamlet] because I had seen Derek Jacobi on TV doing I Claudius and I loved it. I read an ad that said he was acting and I went, but I had no idea about Shakespeare,” Branagh recounted in a 1997 interview of his 15-year-old discovery of the greatest author in the English language. “I was absolutely overwhelmed by the energy of the work. I came out thinking I had some kind of life force.”

Since then, Derek Jacobi has acted in five of the films directed by Branagh, in addition to having coincided with him as an actor on more occasions in both cinema and theater. Emma Thompson, who was married to the Irishman in the nineties, her ex-partner Helena Bonham Carter or Judi Dench are the other recurring faces that bring uniqueness to a filmography frequently criticized for being scattered. Although Dr. Samuel Crowl believes that there is an internal coherence, and that coherence can be found, again, through Shakespeare. For the academic, the resonances shakespearian they set the pattern for his narratives: “Shakespeare’s plays are structured around fractured and repaired families in comedies and fractured and destroyed families in tragedies. Branagh’s films follow a similar pattern, both when the families are real and in Belfastas when they are created, as in In the raw of the raw winter”, he explains to ICON.

Kenneth Branagh in 'Mary Shelly's Frankenstein,' a 1994 project that received poor reviews.
Kenneth Branagh in ‘Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein,’ a 1994 project that received poor reviews.DAVID APPLEBY (Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

It is not difficult to trace either how, in addition to the classic models to which his blockbusters seemingly more impersonal for Marvel and Disney, in Thor or Cinderella is the quintessential journey of some characters who have to acquire the qualities of good rulers, just like the protagonist of Henry V. For Dr. Crowl, these incursions of Branagh in popular cinema are, in fact, consistent: “His Films destroy the boundaries between arthouse and multi-screen cinema, just as Shakespeare’s plays did between Court and Globe audiences.”

There is another dimension to Branagh’s character that is now forgotten in favor of his profession, but which in the 1990s obsessed the British press and much of the world press: his status as a leading man. Branagh and Emma Thompson, who were married from 1989 to 1995, were hailed as the golden couple of British industry. In 1993 she won an Oscar for Return to Howard’s End. Thompson’s star was beginning to obscure Branagh’s. In 1994 he responded with a very personal version of Frankenstein in which he spent 40 million dollars, beat himself up in the gym and received the worst reviews of his career as an actor and as a director. He also began an affair with the film’s female star, Helena Bonham-Carter, which led to Thompson’s divorce. That relationship also ended in 1999. Since then, Branagh has married art director Lindsay Brunnock and has stayed out of the tabloid press. Today, to his solace, he appears in the culture ones.

Boris Johnson enters the canon

As an actor, Kenneth Branagh has made an art out of accents. In the two films in which he plays the famous detective Hercule Poirot, Branagh composes an eccentric version of the character created by Agatha Christie, not only through his disproportionate mustache (which in death on the nile reserves an entire prologue to narrate its history and origins), but of its extreme Belgian pronunciation, which gives the adaptations a buffoonish tone. Although we are left without knowing how his assimilation of Swedish would have been in the BBC series Wallanderwhere it was decided to keep the local Scandinavian references from Henning Mankell’s books but not the speech, Branagh also exhibited a Teutonic accent in Valkyrie and, more recently, a Russian accent as a villain in Jack Ryan: Operation Shadow and Tenet. This last film, directed by Christopher Nolan, motivated the playwright Ang Collins to write a fiery defense of the actor, whom she considered “deserving of the same cult status as Nicolas Cage”.

Kenneth Branagh chats with Pedro Almodóvar during a meeting between directors organized by Deadline magazine in Los Angeles in November 2021.
Kenneth Branagh chats with Pedro Almodóvar during a meeting between directors organized by Deadline magazine in Los Angeles in November 2021.Amy Sussman (Getty Images for Deadline)

“Take it it is spectacularly bad. So much that I loved her. And one of the main reasons was Kenneth Branagh ”, Collins began in his article for Guardian. “As disparate as his roles are, as out of the box as his movie tastes seem, as many times as he finds it acceptable to pull that awful Russian accent out of his manga, when I see Branagh on screen, I really get the feeling that he loves his character. job. (…) You can ask him to put on a Russian accent, to come out in wild wild west or slide down the deck of a yacht smeared with sun cream. His performance will always be complete, unconditional, passionate and exaggerated. He is your funny uncle from Hollywood, if only your uncle had a fondness for fake mustaches, hair dyes, and inaccurate accents.”

The last link in Branagh’s chameleonism has been the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, whom he plays in the still unpublished television series This Sceptred Isleby Julian Jarrold and Michael Winterbottom. With a premiere scheduled for the fall, the series reconstructs the first days of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic in the United Kingdom, which had Johnson himself in the ICU. The first images of Shakespearean performer with makeup and hairstyle like the prime minister were received on the network between a certain stupor and surprise at the resemblance.

Being already filmed, it seems unlikely that This Sceptred Isle go pick up the recently uncovered scandal of the parties Johnson participated in during the confinement, although after he compared himself to Othello and his former adviser Dominic Cummings (the Brexit ideologue) to Iago, or that it was known that the president contacted academics to write an essay on Shakespeare in the shadows under his authorship, everything indicates that Branagh, once again, has not taken any wrong step.

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