There are two instantly surprising facts about Sir Kenneth Branagh. The first is that the man considered perhaps the foremost Shakespearean actor of the 80’s and 90’s, with the cut-glass diction to match, is really a Belfast native. The second is that, despite being a perennial fixture of stage and screen for decades, Sir Ken is still a man of relative youth, at 56.
The accent is the result of RP training received at school after being bullied for his Northern Irish dialect. From school he trained at RADA, graduating with a roughly contemporaneous group of other great straddlers of stage and screen including Jonathan Pryce and Alan Rickman. He found fame early thanks to a beloved 1984 production of Henry V, which he adapted for the screen and directed in 1989, earning Oscar nominations for best actor and director.
Ironically for the Belfast boy, Branagh came to be mocked in the media during this period as the quintessential English ‘luvvie,’ self-important and pretentious; maybe lambasted as much for youthful precocity as for his persona. His fourth directorial effort, the indulgent Peter’s Friends, with its ensemble cast of Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Imelda Staunton and his then-wife Emma Thompson did little to dispel these jibes.
There followed a string of Bardic adaptations during the nineties (Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, Love’s Labour’s Lost) along with the ambitious folly of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which Branagh’s reach was seen to have exceeded his grasp. He also appeared in a string of forgettable movies such as The Gingerbread Man, Celebrity, and The Proposition.
After appearing in another huge flop, Wild Wild West, it would be fair to say that Branagh’s reputation was kept afloat by Shakespearean efforts. In 1999 however, he leant his mellifluous tones to the BBC series Walking with Dinosaurs, which coincided with the beginnings of a renaissance in his career as a screen presence. In 2001 he narrated the follow-up Walking with Beasts, and appeared as Reinhard Heydrich in the TV movie of the 1942 Wannsee Conference, Conspiracy alongside Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth. It was followed by further portrayals of men with prominent roles in 20th century history, Ernest Shackleton in Shackleton (2002) and Franklin Roosevelt in Warm Springs (2005).
During this time he appeared in several films that received warmer attention than much of his work in the nineties. Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit Proof Fence (2002) was critically praised, and what British thespian of note hasn’t graced a Harry Potter film? Branagh portrayed Gilderoy Lockheart in The Chamber of Secrets and remained in family friendly territory for Five Children and It.
His directorial mojo returned in 2006 with an intriguing English-language film version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, another Shakespeare adaptation with As You Like It. and a new version of Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth in 2007. In 2008 he took on which may for many viewers be his defining role; that of Kurt Wallander, ace Swedish detective and human pit of existential despair. He played the detective to great acclaim over four series, dragging himself perilously close to National Treasure status in the process.
Younger viewers may know him best however as a beneficiary of Marvel’s willingness to take a chance with its directors. He brought a suitable overblown theatrical sense to Thor in 2011, following up with a successful take on Cinderella in 2016. Most recently he’s been the most noble of exposition dumps on the sandy inferno of Dunkirk, and has directed himself as Hercule Poirot in a new version of Murder on the Orient Express, proving he’s still a man of considerable ambition.
Murder on the Orient Express will be released this weekend in UK cinemas.