Sunday, October 27, 2013

Sunday Best: Actors of All Time #15 - Kenneth Branagh

photo by Melinda Seckington

Henry V
Swing Kids
Much Ado About Nothing
Dead Again
Love's Labors Lost
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

I admit this one may be the most controversial on the list.

It is particularly difficult if you recall his putrid performance in Wild Wild West.   It may also be hard to see the strength of his performance in Frankenstein, considering how poorly he directed it and how terrible DeNiro is as the Creature.  And some my caricature his performance in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets as hamish over-acting.

 But Wild Wild West was a movie that tainted every great actor in it, including Will Smith and Kevin Kline.  The core of his performance as the obsessive Dr. Frankenstein was dynamic and electric.  And his Gilderoy Lockhart was meant to be the brazen, egotistical, over-the-top blowhard that Branagh made him.

I first really noticed Branagh in Dead Again, my favorite thriller of all time.  His performance as Mike Church was so convincing, I actually thought he was American and not a Brit.  What was particularly powerful about this role on subsequent viewings was the seething anger bubbling underneath the surface.  Mike tries to be cool and quiet, which Branagh accomplishes with expert charm.  But he is always trying to keep his volcanic anger in check.  In the scene where it does finally explode on "Grace" you can feel Branagh getting lost in his performance and then he makes you feel the overwhelming guilt as he calms down.

But I was convinced we was a great actor when I saw him in Henry V.  His first scene as the dread sovereign is weighed with much gravitas.  It feels as though the slightest change in tone or body language could kill you.  As the movie progresses, and we get deeper into Henry's mind, we feel the pull from his old life to his new one.  I never forget Henry's face as Bardolph is hanged.  It is an expression of sorrow and resolve.  His prayer before the battle of Agincourt, illuminated only by pale blue moonlight highlights the emotional depths Branagh takes his king.  And perhaps most importantly, his St. Crispin's Day speech, the prototype for all pre-battle speeches, is invigorating and inspiring, all while never feeling artificial or false.

He followed this up with a small role in the tragically underrated Swing Kids.  He brought all of the humor and charm of his Mike Church performance into his role of Herr Knopp.  But he used that to show the seductive faux-fatherliness of the Nazis.  The main character in the movie is a fatherless German teen.  Knopp tries to bring him into the Hitler Youth.  Branagh's Knopp makes every word and gesture feel sympathetic and supportive.  It is unnerving how pleasant to the ear he makes his horrible propaganda sound, and that is a testament to Branagh's skill.

But his comedic side is also very strong.  His Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing is comedic gold.  I had never really considered that Shakespeare was actually a funny writer until I saw how Branagh let the Bard's words come alive and tickle the funny bone.  His Benedick is a puffed up, arrogant man of swagger who is completely at a loss on how to behave when in love.  To this day I can watch his monologues and laugh out loud.

And he took the complete opposite tack with his Hamlet.  His Prince of Denmark is awash in melancholy.  His emotions, dark and bright, move through him like a storm.  Because much of the movie are long, wide shots much of his performance is big and loud.  But that fits with Hamlet's emotional states.  And when the camera rests on him, Branagh shows an amazing stillness.  I was deeply moved by his "readiness is all" speech and tone of acceptance in his voice.

 Hamlet is difficult to capture as a character even by the best actors.  Some play him as mad.  Some play his as pretending.  What I see in Branagh is a man pretending to be mad who gets caught up in his own pretend madness.  It is a layered performance that can be mined for more insight with each viewing.

I feel like I owe Branagh a lot.  I had a passing familiarity with Shakespeare before I saw his movies.  But his performances helped me to truly experience Shakespeare, whose writings are now very dear to me.  And to awaken that aesthetic in a silly teenager takes some truly great skill as an actor.

(Here's a little bonus: Kenneth Branagh talking about making Wild Wild West.  Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but it feels like he's trying to pick his words carefully to not accidentally be too mean)

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