In the late 1970s, a young aspiring actor named Kenneth Branagh was about to star in a production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters at the Royal Academy of Arts. Unsure of himself and desperate for guidance, he wrote to his idol Sir Laurence Olivier – and against all expectations, actually received a reply. “I can’t really give you advice,” Olivier wrote, “but I would advise you to have a bash and hope for the best, which I certainly wish you.” A mere decade later, hot on the heels of his Oscar-nominated Henry V, Branagh was banned from attending Olivier’s funeral amid fears expressed by the late actor’s family that Olivier would be upstaged. The legend’s advice had clearly paid off.
Although widely regarded as the quintessential lofty English thespian, Kenneth Branagh was born to a working-class Northern Irish family in 1960. Emigrating to England to escape the Troubles in 1969, Branagh worked hard to lost his natural accent to avoid bullying – an early (if unfortunate) example of his budding theatrical talents.
Beginning his career on the stage, by the 1980s Branagh’s name was already being compared to the likes of John Gielgud and Alec Guinness. However, it was 1989’s Henry V – a cinematic version he adapted, directed, and starred in – that truly catapulted him to international stardom. Earning three Academy Award nominations, it was the beginning of a long and fruitful cinematic partnership with the Bard – and a towering career that, 30 years later, continues to enthrall us.
Nevertheless, for an actor so closely identified with Shakespeare, closer examination of Branagh’s filmography reveals a surprising versatility; his career hardly ends with the Bard. Following Olivier’s suggestion to “have a bash,” Branagh has delivered a range of performances and films over the years – although they haven’t all reached the heady heights of Henry V.
His self-indulgent Frankenstein (1994), as messy as its monstrous namesake, proved that just because you could film a scene where you wrestle around on the floor for several minutes with a nude, heavily oiled Robert De Niro, doesn’t mean you should. The breathtakingly weird Wild Wild West indicated that even The Next Olivier wasn’t above exploding out of a giant plaster Abe Lincoln head in a steampunk wheelchair to monologue villainously in a Blanche Dubois “Ah do de-clay-uh” Southern accent.
But, bar the occasional misstep, Branagh has consistently proven himself a force to be reckoned with. While enjoying enormous directorial success with big-budget spectacles like Thor and Cinderella, Branagh’s acting and directing roles in recent years have largely seen a return to the stage: a muddy, unglamourous Macbeth, a sumptuous Winter’s Tale co-starring Judi Dench, and a gorgeously monochromatic Romeo and Juliet with Cinderella’s Lily James and Richard Madden.
Apparently unwilling to retire his lifelong game of Olivier Bingo, in 2016 Branagh also delivered an excellent turn as fading musical hall star Archie Rice in John Osbourne’s The Entertainer – a role Olivier had played in the 1960 film adaptation. Old habits, it seem, die hard.
Most recently, a small role in the ensemble cast of Christopher Nolan’s excellent Dunkirk, and an hilarious two-minute cameo in Mindhorn proved that, beyond all the pomp, Branagh is more than capable of sharing the spotlight. And, with a galaxy of stars present for his upcoming adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, it seems he’ll have no choice.
Top Five Kenneth Branagh films (in chronological order):
Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
Henry V is widely considered to be his magnum opus, but it’s impossible to resist the sheer joy of Branagh’s Much Ado. Proving he can pratfall with the best of them, Branagh plays opposite his then-wife Emma Thompson as the warring lovers Benedick and Beatrice – and sparks certainly fly. Leading an all-star cast including Denzel Washington, Robert Sean Leonard and a young Kate Beckinsale, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more exuberantly cheerful way to spend two hours. (And, ever the purist, Branagh’s version includes Keanu Reeves reciting Shakespearean prose in tight, tight leather trousers – just as the Bard originally intended. Much obliged, Ken.)
The Road to El Dorado (2000)
Branagh’s chemistry with co-star Kevin Kline was so good that they broke animation voice recording protocol by recording their lines together in this massively underrated Dreamworks classic. Brannagh voices Miguel, the boundlessly optimistic foil to Kline’s sardonic, sharp-edged Tulio, a double act drawing on the “Road to…” buddy movies Bob Hope and Bing Crosby made between 1940 and 1962. A fantastically funny and endlessly quotable animation, it follows the familiar Disney musical formula – but with a bold, mischievous humour that has you double-taking on certain lines.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
All pastel robes and perfectly-coiffed blonde hair, Branagh shines as Gilderoy Lockhart, the smug, self-obsessed Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher whose heroic deeds seem just a little too good to be true. Slipping effortlessly into a role originally intended for Hugh Grant, Branagh smarms around like a pro, delivering a masterful comedic performance that threatens to steal the film.
My Week with Marilyn (2011)
After years of fielding comparisons to the great Olivier, in 2011 Branagh answered the universe’s call and donned a prosthetic chin to portray the man himself in Simon Curtis’ My Week with Marilyn. Clearly relishing the chance to step into his idol’s shoes at last, Branagh’s Olivier is exasperated, hot-tempered, vain – and surprisingly vulnerable, ultimately enchanted by the irresistible magnetism of Michelle Williams’ Marilyn Monroe.
Before Guardians of the Galaxy was even a glint on the cosmic horizon, Kenneth Branagh gave us the psychedelic space opera we deserved in the large, impossibly-muscled form of Thor. Undoubtedly drawing on his extensive Shakespearience, Branagh was the perfect choice to direct the epic tale of an arrogant prince, his treacherous brother, and a royal family in turmoil. Catapulting stars Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston to stardom, Thor’s shiny Flash Gordon flair provided our first taste of magic in the Marvel universe.