Thursday, 7 April 2011


Last week the Guardian devoted an entire page of their Friday review section to Joe Queenan's discovery that Kenneth Branagh was not the second coming of Laurence Oliver. Since this acclamation is now more than two decades old, and because most of us have long since been disabused of the notion, Queenan's decision to use the upcoming Thor movie for a re-evaluation that turns out to be merely a confirmation of the existing evaluation is an interesting one, more interesting because he seems to miss the essential point of Branagh's original appeal and his career since then.

Where the comparison with Oliver held up best, I believe, is in the transition from stage to film. Oliver understood very well how to convey theatrical effects, and also understood even better the uses of the camera to provide those effects, like close-ups, which could not be delivered on the stage. Watching his Hamlet, Richard, or Harry is to get the best sense of theatrical performance. Branagh had a similar sense of transferring some of the immediacy of the stage, some of the control the lead actor has, to the screen. Problem was, he had much less to work with.

Years ago I wrote about Branagh's Henry V, noting that his was a performance for Thatcherite Britain. Oliver's had been empowered by World War II; Branagh's by the Britain of war in the Falklands ('rejoice!', 'gotcha!') and war against miners. His was a performance full of stature but lacking presence. I called it a cost-accounting prince; the newly upwardly-mobile striver's version of nobility. It's not, as Queenan believes, a question of looks, though Branagh is a potato compared to Oliver, or indeed to most Hollywood action men. It's a question of posture. I never got the sense Branagh's Harry knew what battle, or comradeship, were all about. Olivier got it, even with the bad haircut and dye job. Branagh was more like posing for a photo op, taking a chance to deliver some good PR and move on; Nick Clegg with an army behind him. He was adept at organising, at putting things together with his RSC and Oxbridge stock company, and getting the reflected spotlight onto himself; the actual acting, full of pomp and circumstantial evidence, got lost in the shuffle.

The difference between Oliver and Branagh was exactly the difference between Sean Connery's James Bond and Daniel Craig's hold-em playin', football-supporting, hands clenched in knife-edge sprinting version: not so much dumbed down as aimed down. Craig grabs one note of Bond, technology, and like a junior clerk who's just watched Top Gear, jumps into the role. Branagh avoids one-note by projecting technique; thus he failed miserably in Dead Again because he was unable to tap into the ambiguities real noir would require; instead he and Em did their Footlights thing in the shadows, half-full of sound, some fury, and signifying almost nothing at all.

Branagh fell prey to the same sort of problem when he did BBC's version of Wallander, a dully-hammered one-note sombre based on some English idea of Scandinavian alienation. His Wallander is closer to Jo Nesbo's Harry Hole than to Mankell's detective, and not a patch on Krister Henriksson's more nuanced version.

Queenan notes than Branagh has done some excellent work for television (though he includes Wallander in that) but fails to figure out why. It's mostly that the small screen gets filled with Branagh's actorly emoting, where on the bigger screen it gets overpowered and lost. Interestingly, his two best TV roles have touched on his quintessential strengths as a performer. As Shackleton he got to project beyond and through English reserve; enduring unnecessary hardship and managing to triumph in defeat.

But his greatest performance may well be as Heydrich in the HBO/BBC Conspiracy, the story of the Wannsee meeting at which the logistics of the Final Solution were agreed. Branagh gets to display a little flash, but primarily the performance is a perfectly controlled exercise in bullying petty bureaucracy; the Thatcherite ideal transformed on the wider historical context. He plays off well against the more anguished performances of some of his 'nice' Germans (Ben Daniels in particular), and he gets brilliant support from Stanley Tucci as Eichmann; Tucci understands exactly the mundanity at the heart of the evil on display. Without meaning to take the historical context lightly, the nature of these characters could just as easily have been those at the meeting where Dave Cameron and Nick Clegg drew up their own final solution (the Big Society) for Britain. They are the children of Thatcher, just as Branagh will be remembered as Thatcherism's greatest actor.

Directing Thor is not beneath Branagh's talents; there Queenan has it wrong. Playing him would be. But Loki might well be perfect for him.

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