Every year, the San Francisco International Film Festival chooses a great director to honour with the Founder’s Directing Award and this year that honour was bestowed upon the great actor-director Kenneth Branagh. He is in good company. Past winners include Clint Eastwood, Akira Kurosawa, Werner Herzog, and Mike Leigh. Branagh came to SF this week for the festival to accept the award and to participate in a special “on stage” event at the Castro Theatre on Friday with a screening of his second film, “Dead Again”.
Kenneth Branagh has often been called the next Laurence Olivier, in praise of his fantastic film adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, both as a director and an actor. When he was just twenty-eight, he made his directorial debut with “Henry V”, in which he also played the title role and was nominated for both Best Actor and Best Director Academy Awards. In his interview on Friday, he revealed that he was actually in San Francisco when “Henry V” was beginning to get significant critical acclaim and cited reading the glowing New York Times review of it while here as a life-changing moment. His brilliant “Much Ado About Nothing” is a masterpiece and the definitive version of the play; he playing Benedick to Emma Thomson’s Beatrice, alongside an impressive supporting cast including Denzel Washington and Kate Beckinsale.
In 1996, Branagh, not Sir Branagh – he declined the offer of knighthood – filmed a full-length rendition of “Hamlet”, in which he also played the title role quite brilliantly, alongside Kate Winslet’s Ophelia. When he found out that he had been nominated for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for “Hamlet”, he thought it was some kind of cruel joke. Yes, he had radically interpreted the play as a director but he had kept the entire script intact. Eventually, he and a writer friend concluded that this was really a nomination for Mr William Shakespeare, 400 years late, and a nod of approval from other writers for leaving Shakespeare’s play alone.
Although his adaptations of the bard’s “Love’s Labour Lost” as a Hollywood musical and “As You Like It”, were both flops and failures, as Branagh puts it, only the great can fail spectacularly. The good can be good all the time without ever being terrible or great. But you have to take risks to be great.
His oeuvre is not, however, limited to Shakespeare. He successfully dallied in noir with “Dead Again”, made a film of “Frankenstein”, remade “Sleuth” with a script by Harold Pinter, and most recently tanked with “Thor”. It’s also a little known fact that his film “Peter’s Friends”, which starred his real-life friends Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Imelda Staunton and then-wife Emma Thompson, was the first time Hugh Laurie’s singing and piano playing were captured on film for the big screen.
The evening opened with an interview with Branagh by CalShakes artistic director Jonathan Moscone. Branagh was, of course, charming, witty, and incredibly articulate and humble. When the floor was opened up for audience questions, there was a general well-deserved outpouring of gratitude for Branagh’s work to make Shakespeare accessible to the masses, and yet he still remained sincerely humble. We were reminded of his beginnings as a boy from a working-class family in Northern Ireland, who moved to England at age nine, where he adopted an English accent as a means to ensure he was understood and fend off bullies.
As a young actor and director, he was known to mouth off a fair bit about ‘wankers’ who claimed what Shakespeare was or how Shakespeare should be performed. He had the misfortune of having some of these youthful phrases, now circulating on the internet, quoted back to him, like “I’m just a foul-mouthed Brit”.
Branagh and Moscone got into some very exciting in-depth discussion about his directorial choices for his Shakespearean films. He chose to set “Hamlet” in bright, expansive spaces, because after performing the play multiple times, he felt that these sets were just as arguably appropriate as the gloomy environs “Hamlet” is so often confined to. It was also done to help draw attention to the fact that there were many joyous happenings in Elsinore from, his mother’s happy new marriage to Claudius’s competent ruling of the country, and that Hamlet’s gloominess was very much a character trait. Of course, Branagh humorously summarizes the play as basically being about how the map of Europe could change just because a man couldn’t have a proper conversation alone with his mother after his father’s death. He does, of course, acknowledge that it’s brilliant in many ways.
They also discussed the iconic opening scene of “Henry V” when Derek Jacobi speaks his soliloquy while walking through the backstage of a film studio, and upon finishing, opens a door, revealing a small sliver of light, and the play begins. While earlier adaptations of “Henry V”, like Olivier’s, favoured a romantic interpretation, Branagh aimed to look at the play as being about what happens in hushed conversations behind closed doors. The frequent use of close-ups in the film, he said, was part of setting up this idea.
After the interview and a brief intermission, the audience was treated to a screening of “Dead Again”, in which he also stars alongside Emma Thompson. “Dead Again” is an impressively crafted film which embraces and even acknowledges and mocks all the conventions of film noir and puts them in a modern setting. When Mike Church (Kenneth Branagh) is called into the orphanage where he grew up to help Grace, a woman who has lost her memory (Emma Thompson), everything starts to get screwy for him. Through a series of hilarious events, they wind up visiting a quirky hypnotist who helps Grace regain some memories. But her memories are not from the recent past but rather involve a married couple from the 1940s that look exactly like our heroes but are, in fact, Margaret and Roman Strauss, famous for the fact that Roman was sentenced to death for Margaret’s murder.
Of course, it’s absurd and we have to suspend our disbelief just as much as our heroes do. Here is where the film gets very, very clever. Branagh lays on the noir thick from the suspicious camera angles to the genre-like dialogue, and Mike’s own disbelief about all the events happening to him. And it is very, very funny, both from one-liners and the intended irony of the situations. Branagh manages to build up so much suspense, so much dramatic tension, and so much enthralling action, with earned plot twist after earned plot twist, that by the end, you actually have to catch your breath. The suspense is really heightened when watching this on the big screen with big sound because it’s completely absorbing. Here Branagh proves that he’s not just a master at putting theatre on film but in filmmaking itself, mastering film noir just as deftly as he did Shakespeare.
It has now been a few years since Branagh has brought a Shakespeare play to the big screen, though other Shakespearean adaptations have been made, from Julie Taymor’s “The Tempest” to Ralph Fiennes’s “Coriolanus”. When asked if Branagh will be returning to Shakespeare again soon he said he has plans to make a film of a play whose name cannot be uttered in the current venue. “The Scottish Play”, that is. And after a few more comments about superstition he asked us if he had made himself absolutely clear yet. The unnamed play is, of course, “Macbeth”. He also stated that he would like to make another noir film set in San Francisco, a city so rich with film noir history.