BARD by BRANAGH
In a career spanning thirty years Sir Kenneth Branagh has proved his generation's foremost interpreter and popularizer of William Shakespeare It was an unexpected trajectory for a working-class kid from Belfast, but Branagh's humble background strengthened his resolve to make Shakespeare as entertaining and accessible as possible. While he has directed and starred in a variety of films -- earning an Oscar nod playing Olivier in My Week with Marilyn (2012), helming Marvel superhero movie Thor (2011) and the Agatha Christie adaptations Murder on the Orient Express (2017) and Death on the Nile (2020) -- he has maintained his commitment to the Bard, culminating in his performance as Shakespeare in the critically-acclaimed All Is True (2018).
Henry V (1989)
Branagh burst onto the scene with Henry V, a gritty and gutsy adaptation that announced him as the actor-director heir to Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles. Its earthy, passionate approach to the play -- complete with a muddy, bloody Battle of Agincourt shot on a shoestring budget -- swept away the stereotype of Shakespeare as a genteel relic. The sheer energy and chutzpah paid off: at age 28 Branagh earned Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Director. The film's critical and commercial success jumpstarted the renaissance of Shakespeare-on-screen in the 1990s.
Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
Filmed in sundrenched Tuscany, Much Ado About Nothing is a joyous romp, reveling in sensual springtime delights. The main attraction is the incandescent chemistry between early 90s "It Couple" Branagh and Emma Thompson as they engage in the "merry war" of wits between Benedick and Beatrice. Denzel Washington acquits himself nicely as the regal Don Pedro, but Keanu Reeves (bless him) is stiff-as-a-board; fortunately for us he is "Not of many words" and looks good sporting a villainous black beard. Michael Keaton reprises his Beetlejuice hair, teeth and mannerisms as a grotty Dogberry. The plot breezes through mistaken identity, double-crosses, and near-tragedy, all of which resolves in the happy tolls of wedding bells. The sumptuous location, scintillating dialogue, bronzed and beautiful cast, lush soundtrack, and sun-dappled cinematography makes for ravishing entertainment.
A Midwinter's Tale (1996)
Bruised and battered from a high-profile divorce and the box-office disappointment of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994), Branagh returned to his roots with an intimate comedy about a small-town troupe mounting a Christmastime production of Hamlet. In spite of the "let's put on a show" clichés -- save the local church from greedy land developers! -- Branagh's warm affection for actors, theater and Shakespeare shines through. An ensemble of Branagh mainstays (Richard Briars, Nicholas Farrell, Michael Maloney) capture the neuroses and vanities, as well as dreams and generosity, of an amateurish acting company banding together to make soul-nourishing theater. (Note: Released in the UK as In the Bleak Midwinter, US distributors apparently couldn't countenance a comedy with the word "Bleak" in the title.)
In 1995, in the wake of the infamous O.J. Simpson trial, a 400-year old play about a prominent and respected Black man murdering his white wife suddenly assumed uncanny cultural relevance. Decades later, the filmed version of Othello stands on its own modest merits. Branagh relinquished the director's chair to Oliver Parker, who tried to spice things up with a steamy Othello-Desdemona sex scene (presumably for the benefit of the marketing campaign). Branagh's somewhat dour, sexually jealous Iago is interesting, but saps the villain of any joy or relish in his own malevolence (like Richard III, Iago seduces the audience and makes us complicit through our own guilty pleasure at his scheming). The best scenes are between Branagh and Fishburne, who is commanding in the title role. Overall it's a handsome, accessible production, but lacks the verve and vivacity of Branagh's best adaptations.
In 1996 the ever-ambitious Branagh delivered an uncut, 4-hour version of Hamlet complete with intermission. Filmed in majestic 70mm, it was a self-conscious throwback to the star-studded epics of yesteryear: the sets are lavish, the costumes elegant, and the soundtrack Wagnerian. Some of the movie star cameos work (a surprisingly affecting Charlton Heston, for example, as the Player King) and some don't (Jack Lemmon, Gerard Depardieu), but Kate Winslet is a fierce and fragile Ophelia, and Derek Jacobi -- whose own performance as Hamlet inspired a teenage Branagh to become an actor -- is a chilling, ruthless Claudius. The longer running time allows the play to unfold as a political saga as much as a personal psychodrama. Branagh marshaled all his manic energy and melancholic lyricism in sounding the heights and depths of Hamlet. The film itself stands as a monument to his commitment to bringing the Bard, in all his unabridged glory, to wider audiences.
Love's Labour's Lost (2000)
After the five-course meal of Hamlet, Love's Labour's Lost is a frothy dessert, gussying up one of Shakespeare's slighter comedies in the garb of a Hollywood Golden Age musical. The combination is less seamless than one might have wished (Alicia Silverstone's line readings can be especially cringe-inducing) but for the most part the photogenic cast coasts on creamy charm. The soundtrack features such hummable hits as The Way You Look Tonight, Cheek to Cheek, and They Can't Take That Away from Me by a veritable roll call of classic composers: Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter. The movie embraces old-school glamour in its stylish costumes, song-and-dance routines, Busby-Berkeley water theatrics, and some burlesque-inspired broad comedy. Love's Labour's Lost has all the nutritional value of a flute of champagne, but as the credits roll you'll probably have a couple of catchy showtunes stuck in your head and a warm sense of soft-focus nostalgia for bygone days.
As You Like It (2006)
This is an underrated Branagh film, in our estimation, which appeared on HBO and left critics largely underwhelmed. Bryce Dallas Howard made for a luminous Rosalind and David Oyelowo a winning Orlando. Kevin Kline was well cast as the melancholic Jaques (with shades of Kline's depressive Hamlet); his delivery of the "Seven Ages of Man" soliloquy is a highlight. Alfred Molina earns some laughs as court jester Touchstone, while Adrian Lester (who stole Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost) makes the most of a small part. The setting vaguely evokes 19th century Japan, which adds to the dreamlike atmosphere. Even with the cross-dressing antics and comic hijinks the pace is mostly subdued and leisurely, befitting the pastoralism of the play's setting in the Forest of Arden.
All is True (2018)
It has been two decades since Branagh directed and starred in a Shakespeare adaptation, but he has achieved emeritus status by directing and starring in All is True, a film about the Bard himself. Given his populist take on Shakespeare's plays, it is unsurprising that Branagh's Shakespeare would be human and relatable: wry, intelligent, flawed. Far from the sexy young buck of Shakespeare in Love, this is the "Bard in Winter" wracked with writer's block and haunted by the death of his son, Hamnet. Branagh enlists the support of Dame Judi Dench as Shakespeare's long-neglected wife, Anne Hathaway, while Ian McKellen gives a delicious, scene-stealing turn as the Earl of Southhampton, the recipient of Shakepeare's mysterious sonnets. Watching McKellen and Branagh trade readings of the sonnets is worth the price of admission.