Perhaps the best-known Shakespeare interpreter of the late 20th century, Kenneth Branagh began his career in a golden haze of critical exultation. First a star pupil at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (one of Britain's most prestigious drama schools), then a promising newcomer on the London stage, then hailed as "the next Olivier" for his 1989 screen adaptation of Henry V, Branagh could, for a long time, do no wrong. Unfortunately, a string of bad luck, catalyzed by his disastrous Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in 1994, began to tarnish the halo that had hovered above the actor/director's head. His lavish, four-hour Hamlet in 1996, however, did much to further his status as a man who knew his Bard, helping to alleviate some of the disappointments that both preceded and came after it.
Although his accent suggests otherwise, Branagh originally hails from Northern Ireland, not England. Born in Belfast December 10, 1960, to a working-class family, he was raised in the strife-ridden section of the country until he was nine. Leaving Belfast to escape its troubles, his family relocated to Reading, England, where Branagh spent the remainder of his childhood and adolescence. By turns bookish and athletic -- and assuming an English accent at school while remaining Irish at home -- Branagh became interested in acting at the age of 15, after seeing Derek Jacobi perform Hamlet (the two would later collaborate numerous times both in film and on the stage). Immersing himself in all things theatrical, Branagh was accepted at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) in London when he was 18.
For Branagh, RADA formed the beginning of a brilliant career. The young actor drew repeated acclaim, particularly for his titular performance in a production of Hamlet, and won the school's coveted Bancroft Award for his work. After graduation, he went on to further success on the West End stage, where he starred opposite Rupert Everett in a 1982 production of Another Country. For his portrayal of a conflicted schoolboy, the actor won the Society of West End Theatres' Most Promising Newcomer Award. The following year, he further ascended his adopted country's theatrical ranks, securing a coveted membership in the Royal Shakespeare Company. Branagh continued to enjoy almost consistent critical appreciation during his tenure with the company, garnering particular praise for his lead performance in a production of Henry V. He became increasingly unhappy, however, with the RSC's bureaucratic organization and stuffiness and, in 1987, quit to form the Renaissance Theatre Company with his friend David Parfitt. The idea for the company came to Branagh while he was making the acclaimed Masterpiece Theatre adaptation of Fortunes of War in 1987. That production was one of many he did for television during his time with the RSC, and it was during that period that he met Emma Thompson, whom he married in 1989 and cast in almost all his films until their 1995 divorce.
Although Renaissance struggled at first -- its premiere effort, a production of Public Enemy, met with across-the-board disapproval -- it gained a reputation for quality work, and soon counted such vaunted performers as Judi Dench, Richard Briers, and Derek Jacobi among its ranks, many of whom were later cast in Branagh's directorial debut, Henry V. The 1989 film, a sober, mud-saturated affair that served as a stark contrast to Olivier's 1944 version (which was intended to boost England's national pride), brought Branagh international acclaim and recognition. He was soon being hailed by many a publication as "the next Olivier," a title which he repeatedly stated made him uncomfortable. The next Olivier or not, Branagh was nominated for Best Director and Best Actor Oscars for his work, and went on to win other honors, including British Academy and National Board of Review Best Director awards.
Riding high on this success, Branagh rather cheekily published his autobiography, Beginning, at the advanced age of 28. Although it was labeled a little premature and more than a little ego-driven, the book further played into his mystique, which was heightened in 1991 with his Hollywood debut. That year, he directed and starred opposite Thompson in Dead Again, a stylish, Hitchcock-inspired romantic thriller. The film was both a critical and commercial success, and the two were soon being labeled "the royal couple of British cinema." Branagh's next effort, the 1992 ensemble comedy Peter's Friends, was of comparatively lackluster character. Starring Branagh, Thompson, co-writer Rita Rudner, and comedians Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, it received some positive reviews, but was largely regarded as a disappointment. Fortunately for Branagh, he had better luck that year with the Bard, turning out a sun-soaked, giddy adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, which found favor with audiences and critics alike. That same year, he garnered additional acclaim, directing the short film Swan Song and winning an Best Live Action Short Academy Award nomination for his work.
Things began to go badly in 1994 with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which Branagh both directed and cast himself as the mad doctor. Winning a dubious honor as one of the year's worst movies, Frankenstein had many doubting the director's hitherto golden touch. An adaptation of Othello the following year, in which Branagh was cast as Iago in Oliver Parker's directorial debut, received a similarly lackluster reception. Branagh's other film that year, In the Bleak Midwinter, went largely unseen, though he bounced back to a degree the following year with his all-star, uncut, 1996 adaptation of Hamlet. Clocking in at four hours and featuring a peroxided Branagh as the Danish prince, Julie Christie as Gertrude, Kate Winslet as Ophelia, Derek Jacobi as Claudius, and such actors as Robin Williams, Charlton Heston, and Jack Lemmon in other roles, it was hardcore Shakespeare for the masses. Although many potential audience members were scared off by the film's length, it won a number of positive reviews, and Branagh garnered a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination.
Unfortunately, Branagh's subsequent efforts met with either disdain or indifference. Falling into the latter category were The Proposition, The Theory of Flight, and Robert Altman's The Gingerbread Man, which cast him as, respectively, a priest, an eccentric inventor, and a philandering Southern lawyer. Woody Allen's Celebrity settled thornily into the former category, with Branagh earning almost unanimous critical scorn for his portrayal of the film's neurotic, Allen-esque protagonist. Many critics noted that he seemed to be trying to out-Allen Allen, with unfortunate results. In 1999, Branagh embraced a dastardly, camp sensibility to play the villain in the big-budget Western fantasy Wild Wild West. He did manage to win some of the only positive comments that critics had for the film. Off the screen, he was still keeping busy with Shakespeare, adapting Love's Labour's Lost into a perplexing, '30s-style musical featuring the likes of Alicia Silverstone, Matthew Lillard, and Nathan Lane. A variety of leading roles in better-received features followed in 2002, however, including Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Rabbit-Proof Fence, and the TV miniseries Shackleton.
Branagh continued his highly-respected stage career, even though his movie work contained duds like the remake of Sleuth, though he did find success on the small screen playing a detective in the series Wallander.
In 2011 Branagh enjoyed his biggest popular and critics success in quite some time, scoring a worldwide smash as the director of the Marvel Superhero movie Thor, and earned raves for his portrayal of Laurence Olivier in My Week With Marilyn, a part that garnered him Oscar, BAFTA, Golden Globe, and Screen Actors Guild nominations for Best Supporting Actor.
~ Rebecca Flint Marx, Rovi