Reading time: 26 MIN

Getting to Know: Kenneth Branagh

All mentioned films in article
Not released
Not released

When it came to Kenneth Branagh , Cinema Paradiso wasn't sure whether to profile him in the Instant Expert's Guide series reserved for film-makers or in the Getting to Know strand that focusses on performers. As he has almost 75 acting credits compared to 23 for his directing, we have plumped for the latter. But there's no reason why readers can't become instant experts after getting to know Sir Kenneth a bit better.

Kenneth Branagh is the only person to have been nominated in five different categories at the Academy Awards. Yet, he has never really been given his due in his homeland, where his initial burst of creativity led to him being regarded as a luvvie. Critics in the l980s hailed him as the next Laurence Olivier of Richard Burton. From today's vantage point, however, a better comparison would seem to be with Orson Welles. Branagh's directorial achievements might not have reached the peaks of Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) or Touch of Evil (1958). But his Shakespearean films are certainly on a par with the Welles trio of Macbeth (1948), Othello (1951) and Chimes at Midnight (1966).

A still from Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight  (1965)
A still from Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight (1965)

Moreover, like Welles, Branagh has shown no pretension when it comes to selecting acting assignments. Whereas Welles used to take lucrative cameo roles in productions across Europe to finance his personal projects, Branagh appears to accept character parts in order to test his mettle by rising to the challenges they present.

Not everything comes off, but his enjoyment at practicing his craft is evident whether he is playing a character from the pages of literature or a comic-book, an historical figure or a caricatured villain. As the Australian playwright Ang Collins wrote in The Guardian: 'Branagh's work blurs the line between high and low art, between reality and ridiculousness, between the good, the bad, the camp and the ugly.'

The Belfast Boy

Kenneth Charles Branagh was born on 10 December 1960 and was raised with older brother Bill on Mountcollyer Street in the working-class Tiger's Bay area of North Belfast. While mother Frances stayed home, father William ran a carpentry and plumbing business. While attending Grove Primary School, Branagh enjoyed a contented childhood in a close-knit community. However, as he shows in his latest feature, Belfast (2021), the street became barricaded at either end after a Protestant mob threw gutter gratings through the windows of Catholic houses.

William had already been planning to relocate to England in order to find steady work. But Frances (who was pregnant with daughter Joyce) was convinced to move to Reading after the outbreak of what became known as The Troubles and nine year-old Kenneth had to make the best of things at Whiteknights Primary School, where he was teased for his Ulster accent. This situation worsened at Meadway School in Tilehurst and Branagh took to speaking in an English accent in class and in a Northern Irish brogue at home.

While the bullying at his comprehensive wasn't that serious, Branagh has claimed that it made him more introverted. Indeed, he has suggested that this youthful ordeal has made him wary and unable to accept success because he always feels as though something negative is going to happen.

During the long hours alone in his room, Branagh became intrigued by cinema and grew to admire James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy. If you've not seen anything starring this exceptional trio, type their names into the Cinema Paradiso searchline and give yourself a treat on high-quality DVD and Blu-ray. Might we suggest a title for each? How about Raoul Walsh's White Heat (1949), John Huston's The African Queen (1951) and John Sturges's Bad Day At Black Rock (1955)?

A still from Bad Day at Black Rock   (1955)
A still from Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Branagh also became a telly addict. 'I used to go around the back of the television set,' he told one interviewer, 'trying to work out whether they lived there.' Such was his fixation that he began writing to his favourite stars. He also started to collect books and wrote to the local newspaper to complain that it didn't review children's titles. The editor of the Reading Evening Post was so impressed that he offered the 13 year-old Branagh the job and he produced the Junior Bookshelf column for the next three years.

At school, Branagh tried to win over his classmates by playing rugby and football. But he wasn't a natural and rather stumbled across his métier when the drama teacher recruited sporty types for a school production of Oh, What a Lovely War! (which had been filmed by Richard Attenborough in 1969). Branagh got the bug and not only joined the Reading Cine & Video Society, but also became an active member of Progress Theatre.

The 16 year-old Branagh also made his first trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, when he hitched his way west and camped out in a tent in order to see Michael Hordern in The Tempest , Jonathan Pryce in The Taming of the Shrew and Michael Pennington in Measure For Measure . Various adaptations of all three plays are available to rent from Cinema Paradiso and they would become increasingly familiar to the young Branagh after he made up for his modest A-level results by securing a place at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.

West End Wunderkind

With Mark Rylance and John Sessions among his classmates, Branagh quickly settled into RADA. In 1980, principal Hugh Cruttwell (who dubbed him 'an acting animal') selected him to perform a soliloquy from Hamlet during a visit by Queen Elizabeth II and the same year saw him make his screen debut as a Cambridge student in the Society Day sequence in Hugh Hudson's Oscar winner, Chariots of Fire (1981).

A still from Bad Day at Black Rock   (1955)
A still from Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Branagh would win the Bancroft Gold Medal for outstanding student of the year. Yet, despite writing 150 letters in his final term, he had failed to land a place with a provincial repertory company by the time he answered an advertisement in The Stage 'for an actor aged 18 to 24, capable of an authentic Belfast accent'. He would play the role of Billy Martin in Graham Reid's Play For Today trilogy, which comprised of Too Late to Talk to Billy (1982), A Matter of Choice For Billy (1983) and A Coming to Terms For Billy (1984). Each story was directed by Paul Seed, who had to battle with Equity to secure Branagh for the part, as he was still a student.

Within weeks of graduation, Branagh opened in the West End as Tommy Judd opposite Rupert Everett's Guy Bennett in Julian Mitchell's Another Country . He would win the Society of West End Theatre Award (the forerunner of the Olivier Award) for Best Newcomer, but Colin Firth assumed the Judd role in Marek Kanievska's splendid 1984 film adaptation . There were no hard feelings, however, as Branagh and Firth would later join forces in Pat O'Connor's deeply moving adaptation of J.L. Carr's A Month in the Country (1987), as archaeologist James Moon and Great War veteran Tom Birkin search for a lost grave in a 1920s Yorkshire churchyard.

A variety of assignments cropped up as Branagh found his feet. Using £1000 of the money made from his TV appearances, he staged a one-man show entitled The Madness (1983), in which he read extracts from Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem, Maud . One night, there were only 12 people in the 150-seat auditorium and, as half of them were family members, he felt like saying 'Let's go home and do it in the front room.'

Around this time, Branagh ventured Down Under to film Hugh Whitemore's mini-series based on D.H. Lawrence's The Boy and the Bush for Channel Four. However, his reputation was made when Adrian Noble cast him in the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Henry V (both 1984), which made the 23 year-old the youngest to play the role in RSC history.

Having played Oswald Alving in Elijah Moshinksy's take on Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts (1987) - which can be found on The Judi Dench Collection (2007) - Branagh found his name being linked with up-and-coming actress Emma Thompson, after they were paired as Guy and Harriet Pringle in writer Alan Plater and director James Cellan Jones's much-lauded 1987 adaptation of Olivia Manning's bestselling Fortunes of War hexalogy.

A still from Judi Dench at the BBC  (1991)
A still from Judi Dench at the BBC (1991)

Their blossoming romance didn't interfere with the 26 year-old's ambitious plan to become the actor-manager of his own company, however. Joining forces with David Parfitt, Branagh invested £25,000 in the Renaissance Theatre Company, which was launched with Public Enemy , a Belfast saga that its star based on William Wellman's 1931 James Cagney gangster classic of the same name .

Renaissance made a greater impact with stagings of A Midsummer Night's Dream , King Lear , Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night . Once again, several filmed versions of these plays are available from Cinema Paradiso. As is the case with the trio that made up the adventurous Renaissance Shakespeare on the Road programme, which saw Branagh play Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing , Touchstone in As You Like It and the student prince in Hamlet , which were respectively directed by Judi Dench, Geraldine McEwan and Derek Jacobi.

Undaunted by this undertaking, Branagh returned to the screen as D.H. Lawrence in Coming Through (1988), which can be rented from Cinema Paradiso as part of the two-disc, Alan Plater At ITV anthology (2011). He and Thompson also reunited as Jimmy and Alison Porter in Judi Dench's version of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger (1989), which had previously been filmed by Tony Richardson in 1959 , with Richard Burton as the 'angry young man' and Mary Ure as the wife tied to the 'kitchen sink'. But one Branagh credit from 1989 overshadowed all others.

Ken and Em and, Erm, Helena

Determined to show that Shakespearean films could be crowdpleasers like Peter Faiman's Crocodile Dundee (1986) and Tim Burton's Batman (1989), Branagh reworked the RSC version of Henry V for the big screen. In addition to playing the king rallying the troops on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, he also doubled as director and gave the action a mud-splattered 15th-century realism that contrasted with the Book of Hours approach taken by Laurence Olivier in striving to raise wartime morale with his 1944 Technicolor adaptation .

With Emma Thompson playing the French princess, Katharine, the press had a field day comparing them to Olivier and Vivien Leigh. But not everyone was in raptures. Chief among the doubters was Evening Standard critic Milton Shulman, who opined: 'On the positive side Branagh has the vitality of Olivier, the passion of [John] Gielgud, the assurance of [Alec] Guinness...On the negative side, he has not got the magnetism of Olivier, nor the mellifluous voice quality of Gielgud nor the intelligence of Guinness.'

More knives came out when the newly married 29 year-old published his autobiography, even though Branagh made it clear in the introduction that he had only accepted the commission in order to raise funds for new offices for his theatre company. The naysayers were out in force again when he directed and headlined Dead Again (1991), a neo-noir that shifted between monochrome and colour as the action switched between 1949 and the present.

To avoid spoilers, Cinema Paradiso will stick to the fact that Branagh played the dual roles of composer Roman Strauss and private eye Mike Church and opine that this is nowhere near as misjudged as later sniping would suggest. Derek Jacobi's hypnotist was certainly worth a BAFTA nomination and Branagh's direction pastiches Alfred Hitchcock with a glee reminiscent of Brian De Palma (see our Instant Expert's Guide) .

A still from Henry V  (1944)
A still from Henry V (1944)

Having already been nominated for Best Actor and Best Director for Henry V , Branagh was cited in the Best Live-Action short category at the 1993 Academy Awards for Swan Song . But few columnists bothered to see this, as they were too busy sharpening their pencils to deride Ken, Em and their chums for the excessive luvviness in Peter's Friends (1992), an ensemble dramedy that reunited Thompson with such university friends as Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Tony Slattery. While the plotting erred on the predictable side, there was much to admire in the wintry views of Wrotham Park, which Cinema Paradiso users will know all about from our article, What to Watch If You Liked Gosford Park .

The summery Tuscan vistas also added to the lustre of Branagh's interpretation of Much Ado About Nothing , in which he pitched his Benedick against Thompson's Beatrice, while Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves looked on admiringly as Dons Pedro and John. Amidst snooty critical gripes about casting Hollywood stars in heritage roles, Reeves drew a Golden Raspberry nomination for Worst Supporting Actor, only to lose out to Woody Harrelson for Adrian Lyne's Indecent Proposal (both 1993).

With certain sections of the media bent on rubbishing Branagh and Thompson no matter what they did, they couldn't have been more delighted when Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994) proved to be an expensive flop and Branagh was caught in a fling with co-star Helena Bonham Carter. Nobody seemed bothered about Robert De Niro's Method display as the Creature or that original screenwriter Frank Darabont had distanced himself from the project with the line, 'the best script I ever wrote and the worst movie I've ever seen'.

A still from Much Ado About Nothing  (1993)
A still from Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Branagh and Bonham Carter would go on to co-star in Paul Greengrass's The Theory of Flight (1998), which really should be available on disc, given that it marked Greengrass's return to directing after Resurrected (1989). But they went their separate ways the following year and Thompson, who famously channelled her pain into the betrayal sequence in Richard Curtis's Love Actually (2003), has since claimed to have forgiven Bonham Carter for an episode she now considers to be 'blood under the bridge'.

Beyond Our Ken

Bafflingly, Branagh's monochrome Christmas comedy, In the Bleak Midwinter (1995), is not currently available on DVD in this country. This is all the more frustrating, as this celebration of amateur dramatics was the first film on which he remained firmly behind the camera. Moreover, it contains one of the best screen pratfalls since the heyday of Laurel and Hardy.

An uncredited cameo as SS-Sturmbannführer Knopp in Thomas Carter's Swing Kids (1993) had seen Branagh make his bow in American cinema and he strayed Stateside again for a guest appearance in Al Pacino's directorial debut, Looking For Richard . This documentary explored the problems of staging Shakespeare's Richard III , which had been so memorably filmed by Laurence Olivier in 1955. And the Bard lured Branagh to Hollywood again, as he was cast as Iago opposite Laurence Fishburne's Moor in Oliver Parker's Othello (both 1995).

But Branagh remained based in Britain and he artfully turned Blenheim Palace into Elsinore for his ambitious adaptation of Hamlet (1996), which earned him an Oscar nomination for his work on the screenplay rather than his performance as the troubled Danish prince. More faithful to the original text than Olivier's 1948 Oscar-winning truncation and less obviously populist than the 1990 Franco Zeffirelli version starring Mel Gibson , this stellar interpretation was filmed in 70mm to emphasise its epic nature.

Yet it didn't quite convince the critics and Branagh took time away from the cameras to record the narration for Jon Blair's Anne Frank Remembered (1995), as well as a number of small-screen projects. He can be heard on all three volumes of The Great Composers (1997) and the acclaimed BBC series, Walking With Dinosaurs (1999), which would lead to later contributions on The Ballad of Big Al (2000) and Walking With Beasts (2001). However, no one has seen fit to release three significant insights into cinema history, Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood (1996), Universal Horror (1998) and The Tramp and the Dictator (2002). Similarly, Branagh's sterling work on the 24-part CNN series, Cold War (1998) - which matched Laurence Olivier's exceptional narration of The World At War (1973) - is currently unavailable. However, those interested in military history can still appreciate Branagh's voiceover on World War 1 in Colour (2003) and On the Western Front: The Great War 1914-1918 (2013), which are both available from Cinema Paradiso.

It was Branagh's voice that caused the critics to question his performance as Savannah lawyer Rick Magruder in Robert Altman's take on John Grisham's The Gingerbread Man . Doubts were also cast about his suitability to play Lee Simon, the insecure writer at the heart of Woody Allen's Celebrity (both 1998) who was such an alter ego character that reviewers couldn't understand why Allen hadn't played the part himself instead of asking Branagh to produce an often quirksome impersonation.

This remains one of Branagh's more curious acting choices and Cinema Paradiso users should check it out, along with Lesli Linka Glatter's The Proposition (1998). This maligned melodrama is set in 1930s Boston and sees Branagh play a Catholic priest who is drawn into an intense relationship with Madeleine Stowe, who is married to his powerful uncle, William Hurt. Once again, the critics proved unkind, although they were no more generous when Branagh ventured into the realms of blockbuster cinema for the first time, as he tried out another Dixie accent as Civil War veteran, Dr Arliss Loveless, in Barry Sonnenfeld's steampunk Western, Wild Wild West (1999).

A still from The Proposition    (1998)
A still from The Proposition (1998)

As the villain menacing James T. West (Will Smith) and Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline), Branagh camps it up for all he's worth, particularly while galumphing around atop a giant mechanical spider. His efforts were only rewarded with a Razzie nomination for Best Supporting Actor, however, and he must have been grateful that the voters plumped for Ahmed Best's voicing of Jar-Jar Binks in George Lucas's Star Wars: Episode One - The Phanton Menace . At least his performance was seen, unlike his brief appearance in Liam O Mochain's The Book That Wrote Itself (1999), a little-seen road comedy that also includes cameos by George Clooney and Catherine Deneuve, among many others.

The Boards and the Box

Branagh's filming schedule had kept him out of the theatre, but the new millennium had him back with an ambitious slate of productions. In 2001, he directed The Play What I Wrote , a celebration of the comic partnership of Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise, whose genius is available to Cinema Paradiso users who follow the link Morecambe and Wise (1968-2001) . The following year, Branagh took the lead in Richard III before tackling David Mamet's controversial drama, Edmond , which would be brought to the screen by Stuart Gordon in 2005 , with William H. Macy in the title role.

Following a five-year hiatus, Branagh returned to the stage to win a Critics' Circle Award for his performance in Tom Stoppard's translation of Anton Chekhov's Ivanov (2008). Four years later, he reached his biggest global audience by playing Isambard Kingdom Brunel reciting 'Pandemonium' from The Tempest during the Industrial Revolution segment of the Opening Ceremony of London 2012, which can be relived on the BBC's London 2012 Olympic Games , which is available from Cinema Paradiso on high-quality DVD or Blu-ray.

A still from Edmond  (2005)
A still from Edmond (2005)

His 2013 performance in Macbeth was transmitted to cinemas as part of the National Theatre Live initiative before the production afforded him an overdue debut on Broadway in June 2014. Two years later, he launched the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company with a five-play programme that included The Winter's Tale and The Entertainer , which were screened by Picturehouse. The latter again drew comparisons with Olivier, as he had earned an Oscar nomination for playing Archie Rice in Tony Richardson's 1960 adaptation of John Osborne's play .

Meanwhile, Branagh had been adding items to his increasingly impressive TV CV. Perhaps the most notable was his Emmy-winning performance as high-ranking Nazi Reinhard Heydrich in Frank Pierson's Conspiracy (2001), which drew on the minutes of the notorious Wannsee Conference in 1942, at which plans were drawn up for the implementation of the Final Solution.

The following year, Branagh met future wife Lindsay Brunnock while playing Ernest Shackleton in Charles Sturridge's Shackleton (2002), which retraced the steps of the 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Having been nominated for another Emmy and a BAFTA, Branagh completed his historical trilogy with Joseph Sargent's Warm Springs (2006), which brought more Emmy recognition, as the teleplay converted five of its 16 nominations for recalling how Franklin Delano Roosevelt gained relief from debilitating polio at a little-known health spa in Georgia.

If playing a future president of the United States was considered a somewhat surprising piece of casting, even fewer pundits would have anticipated that Branagh would become a cult figure on the ScandiCrime scene as Inspector Kurt Wallander in four series of cases derived from the bestselling Nordic Noir novels of Henning Mankell. Shown on the BBC, Wallander (2008-16) brought Branagh his first BAFTA TV Award in 2009, while his performance in the 'One Step Behind' episode earned him a Primetime Emmy nomination.

During the run of Wallander , Branagh also played Colonel Tim Collins in the 'Our Business Is North' episode in the BBC series, 10 Days to War (2008). He also contributed to the 'Mary Shelley' episode of the Prophets of Science Fiction (2011) series that was produced by Ridley Scott (who is the subject of a Cinema Paradiso Instant Expert's Guide ).

However, Branagh clearly liked the idea of cracking crime and boldly took on the mantle of Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express (2017), which he directed himself. This all-star reinterpretation might not have enjoyed as much critical favour as Sidney Lumet's 1974 version , which landed Ingrid Bergman the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. But Branagh's accent and outrageous moustache became hot gossip topics and he is due to reprise the role in a long-delayed remake of Death on the Nile (2022), which had previously been filmed for the big screen by John Guillermin in 1978 , with Peter Ustinov in the first of his six outings as the Belgian sleuth with the little grey cells.

A Bit of a Marvel

After a gap of four years, Branagh renewed his cinematic acquaintance with Shakespeare by directing another stellar line-up in a version of Love's Labour's Lost (2000) that also saw him take the role of Berowne, a courtier to the King of Navarre. This was no ordinary adaptation, however, as it not only removed some three-quarters of the original text, but it was also conceived as a musical in the mould of Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You (1996).

A still from Love's Labour's Lost   (2000)
A still from Love's Labour's Lost (2000)

The disappointing box-office returns saw Miramax shelve its three-picture deal with Branagh and he moved on to voice Miguel the con artist in Bibo Bergeron and Don Paul's DreamWorks animation, The Road to El Dorado (2000). He followed this by teaming with Robin Wright Penn as an irritable playwright in Michael Kalesniko's How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog (2001), which did modest business while reminding audiences of Branagh's comic talents.

His growing reputation for villainy was further enhanced by his small, but forceful role as A.O. Neville, the Chief Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia in the 1930s, in Philip Noyce's harrowing historical exposé, Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002). The same year saw Branagh reach a younger audience as Gilderoy Lockhart, the bestselling author who becomes the Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts in Chris Columbus's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets .

He remained in the world of kidpix to play Uncle Albert in John Stephenson's adaptation of E. Nesbit's 1902 classic, 5 Children and It (2004), although he was rather upstaged by the 'psammead crustacean decapodlium wishasaurus' created by Jim Henson's Creature Shop. However, Branagh focussed on directing for the next two years, although he did have an uncredited cameo as a man on the television in the last of the three features.

Abandoning the traditional setting of a French duchy for 19th-century Japan, Branagh's reworking of As You Like It saw Alfred Molina take on the role of Touchstone that his director had played on stage. But, while critics felt it paled beside his previous Shakespearean offerings, they were more intrigued by his take on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's opera, The Magic Flute (both 2006), which was made to mark the 250th anniversary of the composer's birth and boasted a new translation by Stephen Fry. Cinema Paradiso users can compare their efforts with those of Ingmar Bergman in the 1975 variation he made for Swedish television .

A still from The Magic Flute  (1975)
A still from The Magic Flute (1975)

In 2007, Branagh revisited the Olivier canon once more by teaming with playwright Harold Pinter on a 'reinvention' of Sleuth , the Anthony Shaffer play that had paired Olivier with Michael Caine in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1972 original . Both men had been nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars. But, while Caine swapped the role of Milo Tindle for Andrew Wyke in locking horns with Jude Law, few felt they had the same chemistry and the reviews were largely unflattering.

The films make for a fascinating comparison, however, as Cinema Paradiso users can see. They can also compare the acting styles of Branagh and Tom Cruise in Bryan Singer's Valkyrie (2008), as Major General Henning von Tresckow and Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg take very different approaches to their efforts to assassinate Adolf Hitler (David Bamber). Users can also judge the merits of Branagh's cameo as Sir Alistair Dormandy, the government minister charged with closing down 1960s pirate radio stations in Richard Curtis's The Boat That Rocked (2009), which also features Emma Thompson, although she didn't share any scenes with her ex-husband.

As sharp-eyed viewers will have spotted in Belfast , the young Branagh had been hooked on a particular Marvel superhero and he got to fulfil a dream when he was hired to direct Chris Hemsworth in Thor (2011). The consensus was that Branagh did a good job with both the character and the action scenes, but Alan Taylor was brought in for Thor: The Dark World (2013), while Taika Waititi took over for Thor: Ragnarok (2017).

In a complete change of pace, Branagh got to connect with another hero when he played Laurence Olivier opposite Michelle Williams's Marilyn Monroe in Simon Curtis's My Week With Marilyn (2011), an account of the filming of Olivier's The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) from the perspective of junior assistant, Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne). The performance earned Branagh a place in history, when he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, the fifth category in which he has been cited. However, he has yet to win.

He has, however, been knighted and his investiture coincided with an invitation from Sight & Sound to participate in the 2012 edition of its decennial poll of the greatest films of all time. Every title in Branagh's selection is available to rent from Cinema Paradiso: Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927); Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941); David Lean's Brief Encounter (1945); Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus (1947); Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949); John Ford's The Searchers (1956); Woody Allen's Manhattan (1979); Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980); Sidney Pollack's Tootsie (1982); and Louis Malle's Au revoir les enfants (1987). Why not treat yourself to an undisputed classic or two?

A still from Goodbye, Children   (1987)
A still from Goodbye, Children (1987)

Branagh's stock also remained high in Hollywood, as he was selected to direct Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014), the fifth title in the series based on Tom Clancy's page-turners. In addition, he was also given the chance to fashion a Russian accent as Viktor Cherevin, an oligarch whose missing billions attracts the attention of Jack Ryan (Chris Pine), a CIA agent working undercover on Wall Street. With a score by Branagh's regular composer, Patrick Doyle, the picture was commended rather than eulogised, even though it racked up a more than respectable $135.6 million worldwide.

Having inherited that project from Jack Bender, Branagh was also happy to take over Cinderella (2015) after Mark Romanek failed to resolve his creative differences with screenwriter, Chris Weitz. Starring Lily James as Ella, Cate Blanchett as stepmother Lady Tremaine and Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother, this was a live-action retooling of Walt Disney's 1950 animated retelling of the beloved Charles Perault fairytale, which had been directed by Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, and Wilfred Jackson. Released in IMAX, as well as standard formats, the picture was Oscar-nominated for Sandy Powell's costumes and gave the director his biggest box-office hit to date.

In recent times, Branagh has become the king of the cameo and he cropped up again as himself in an amusing audition sequence in Sean Foley's Mindhorn (2016), which stars Julian Barratt as Richard Thorncroft, an actor still living on his success in a 1980s TV show about a cop with cybernetic eye. Branagh only had a marginally more substantial role in Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk (2017), but he brings an air of authority and assurance as Bolton, the Royal Navy Commander who remains on the beach to supervise the evacuation of the French after 300,000 British service personnel have been recovered.

A still from Dunkirk   (2017)
A still from Dunkirk (2017)

Having anonymously contributed an Asgardian distress call to Anthony and Joe Russo's Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Branagh guested as Colin in 'A Crow Christmas Carol', a festive episode of Ben Elton's Upstart Crow (2016-20), the BBC sitcom starring David Mitchell as William Shakespeare. In his role as Chairman of RADA, Branagh would also narrate the Shakespeare-derived episodes in Six Tales of Love (2019). More importantly, he would also direct himself as Shakespeare in All Is True (2018), a poignant biopic that is set in 1613 and co-stars Judi Dench as Anne Hathaway and Ian McKellen as the Earl of Southampton. For more information, see Cinema Paradiso's article, What to Watch Next If You Liked All Is True .

Equally moving is Dermot Lavery and Michael Hewitt's Lost Lives (2019), a memorial to those who perished in The Troubles that includes readings by Branagh and such Irish stalwarts as Stephen Rea, Ciarán Hands, James Nesbitt and Roma Downey. Maybe Belfast will prompt someone finally to release this powerful tribute on disc. Irish author Eoin Colfer provided the much-cherished literary impulse for Artemis Fowl (2020), but Branagh only came aboard at the end of a 15-year journey through Development Hell and he had to bear brickbats that were largely hurled at the muddled scripting and inconsistent casting. As a consequence, plans for a franchise were quietly shelved.

Lockdown did much to damage the prospects of Christopher Nolan's Tenet (2020). But the critics were also confused and peevish in puzzling over a scenario in which a CIA agent known only as The Protagonist (John David Washington) is detailed to recover some bullets with inverted entropy that have been acquired by Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a Russian oligarch with the power to communicate with the future. He strikes a deal with our hero to track down a missing consignment of plutonium-241, but nothing is as simple as it seems.

We'd like to say, it's an easy watch. But it's certainly a challenging and often gripping one, with Branagh having a ball with both his accent and his miscreancy. What will he make of Boris Johnson in Michael Winterbottom and Julian Jarrold's This Sceptred Isle ? And will he get to make the rumoured biopic of The Bee Gees. One thing's for sure, Kenneth Branagh will keep surprising us (and perhaps himself) with the choices he makes as both actor and director. As he celebrates his 61st birthday on 10 December, long may he continue to do so.

Uncover landmark films on demand
Browse our collection at Cinema Paradiso
Subscription starts from £15.99 a month.