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Branagh, Kenneth (1960-)

Actor, Director, Producer

Main image of Branagh, Kenneth (1960-)

Born on 10 October 1960 in Belfast, Kenneth Branagh moved to Reading when he was ten years old. In 1979 he joined RADA and even before graduating he was offered a place with the RSC, which he turned down, subsequently making his name in the West End production of Julian Mitchell's Another Country. Since then Branagh has come to be known as a protean actor/director/writer/manager/producer, equally adept on the stage, TV and on both sides of the film camera.

When he set up Renaissance Films to film his adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry V (1989), the comparisons with Laurence Olivier, as actor and film-maker, were inevitable. However, in his continuing attempts to find a synthesis between cinema and theatre, a comparison with Orson Welles may prove to be more apposite, for instance in Branagh's express desire to create the "longest tracking shot in the world" for Henry V. With his third film, Peter's Friends (1992), Branagh moved towards a style of film-making and production which he has adopted in all his subsequent films. This involves filming in a single environment where the crew is based and where most of the scenes will be filmed: a British country house in Peter's Friends, a Tuscan villa in Much Ado about Nothing (US/UK, 1993), a church in In the Bleak Midwinter (1995), and vast adjoining sets for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (US, 1994), Hamlet (US/UK, 1996) and Love's Labour's Lost (UK/US/France, 1999). This approach is seen at its best in Much Ado, still his most commercially successful film, and in his 70mm, star-studded, four-hour version of Hamlet, in which the main chamber is completely surrounded by two-way mirrors and is full of cubby holes and trap doors - surely a comment both on court politics and the Prince's state of mind?

In the Bleak Midwinter, which looks comically at a ramshackle attempt to stage Hamlet in a village church, and which Branagh both wrote and directed, is his most obviously personal film. But it is less ambitious and adventurous than Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Love's Labour's Lost, both of which try to collocate themselves between two existing cinematic traditions. Universal's approach to Frankenstein always favoured the monster, Hammer preferred the creator; Branagh tries to give them equal weight by stressing their inter-dependence. In Love's Labour's Lost, he radically replaced two thirds of the text with Broadway songs. The result was a 1930s style musical comedy filmed with 1950s colour and CinemaScope, bringing into relief the way that the war changed cinema, audiences and history, which Branagh further emphasises by his addition of a wartime coda to the text.

Although still best known for his acting, Branagh's very individual directorial style, characterised by his charisma, ambition and enthusiasm, make him a valuable asset to the British film industry.

Branagh, Kenneth, Beginning (London: Chatto & Windus, 1989)
Branagh, Kenneth, Much Ado About Nothing: screenplay, introduction and notes on the making of the film (London: Chatto & Windus, 1993)
Shuttleworth, Ian, Ken and Em: a biography of Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson (Chatham, Kent: Headline, 1994)
Weiss, Tanja, Shakespeare on the Screen: Kenneth Branagh's Adaptations of Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1999)

Sergio Angelini, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

Second outing for the fantastically popular boy wizard

Thumbnail image of Fortunes of War (1987)Fortunes of War (1987)

Romantic wartime drama starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson

Thumbnail image of Twelfth Night (1988)Twelfth Night (1988)

TV version of Kenneth Branagh's acclaimed stage production

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