Sunday, February 3, 2013

Sunday Best: Directors of All Time #12 - Kenneth Branagh

photo by by_Giorgia_Meschini

-Henry V
-Dead Again
-Much Ado About Nothing

-As You Like It
-Love's Labours Lost

-Peter's Friends

When I think of the movies directed by Kenneth Branagh I think of beauty.

His movies strive not just for excellence of storytelling, but also visual spectacle that stays with you.  Of all of the Marvel superhero movies, Thor is the best aesthetics both visually and musically.  Even his worst film, Frankenstein, was a bold experiment in freeing the camera to move around inside of the space.  In that case it created a blurry mess, but he took what he learned from that production and used adapted it to great effect in his Hamlet (more on this later).

I watch Branagh's great movies at least once a year.  And each time I am transfixed.  They are mesmerizing.  His directorial debut, Henry V, begins so boldly.  It lets the Chorus played by the great Derek Jacobi walk through the cluttered sound stage full of the sets and props to be used in the film.  It was risky because when doing any movie, but particularly a period piece, you never want to break the spell and remind the audience that they are watching a movie.  But Branagh used this opening as an opportunity to draw you in and make you feel as if you were a part of this wonderful film.

I love his use of color and shadow throughout the film.  Jack Falstaff's presences brings warmth and richer hues, but the world literally fades when he leaves.  He takes the often imitated St. Crispin's Day speech and shows you why it is the primogeniture of all epic pre-battle speeches.   Now it could be argued that the movie is good because it has such a good source: Shakespeare.  But that would ignore the important choices Branagh made interpreting the character as both noble and savage.  Henry is a man of iron and a man of faith, a man of courage and a man of fear.

It was also in this movie that we see his signature style begin to form, with long single-take shots.  The post battle "No Nobis Domini" scene would have been a technical nightmare to shoot.  But in that beautiful, sweeping shot it revisits all of the important characters and commingles the emotions of devastation and triumph.

And for my money, there are very few thrillers better Dead Again.  It is smart, scary, and has wonderful twists that effectively shock.  Here he showed his ability to juxtapose tones to maximize effect.  Watch the heartbreak of the scene where the fiancé Doug shows up after the two main characters fall for each other, only to be followed by something truly unexpected that keeps you on your toes for the rest of the movie.  But nothing beats the scene where Branagh's Mike Church finally snaps at Emma Thompson's Grace.  I was in a packed theater watching, and I couldn't believe that the entire auditorium jumped at shrieked at the sound of the name "Margaret."

Much Ado About Nothing returned Branagh to Shakespeare and he brought a very important idea to the screen: Shakespeare is funny!  Too often movie versions of the Bard's comedies are mired in prevention and reverence (see 1999's A Midsummer Night's Dream).  But Much Ado is really funny.  Branagh understood that Shakespeare was dealing with universal, timeless themes and foibles to which people of any age can relate.  And all the while he glides the camera around such lovely vistas that your heart is lightened.

And of course, there is his Hamlet.  Shot on 65mm and capturing the entire 4-hour play, Branagh's version is so rich and visually textured that I wouldn't know where to begin discussing it.  This was his last great movie, using his sweeping, swirling, single-take camera shots to put you into Hamlet's shoes.  By constantly moving the camera around in that space you feel like you are surrounded by the great hall at Elsinore.  And even with all of the mirrors, he deftly hides the film crew so he never breaks the spell.  At times the experience is overwhelming.  It's length is so unusual for normal movie-experiences.  But Branagh lets this greatest of plays stretch its legs on screen so that you can drink in all of its emotional pitfalls and ubiquitous themes.

I also love that he still experiments with ways to tell Shakespeare.  He made Love's Labours Lost into a musical and As You Like It was set in 19th-Century Japan.  And while they each have their drawbacks, they both work pretty darn well.

As a director, Kenneth Branagh understands that the visual element is not only a means to story.  It is also an opportunity to present the eyes and ears with beautiful art that will stir your passions and stay in your heart.

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