MCM: Kenneth Branagh

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Lauded as one of our generation’s finest filmmakers, Kenneth Branagh is known for his meticulous take on Shakespearean classics, as well as for his roles in films ranging across the entire spectrum of noir, comedy, and musicals. When he came on the scene in the late-’80s, everyone dropped what they were doing and flocked to see the films made by the wunderkind touted as the next Olivier.

His creative and romantic union with Emma Thompson became the source of some of the best films of the late-20th century, but when her star started to eclipse his and their marriage crumbled, rumors flew about professional jealousy and revenge affairs with co-stars. Emma went mainstream, while Kenneth went back to what he did best: making timeless films drawing on classical influences, pulling out all the stops and flinging every syllable of Shakespeare at modern audiences with unapologetic bravado. And the public loved it. So let’s look back at his costume flick career to-date and enjoy the scenery!

 

A Month in the Country (1987) – James Moon

Kenneth Branagh in "A Month In The Country" (1987) Kenneth Branagh in "A Month In The Country" (1987)

A young Colin Firth and a young Kenneth Branagh — what’s not to love? This TV series focuses on Tom Birkin (Firth), a WWI vet who is engaged in restoring a medieval fresco in a church in rural Yorkshire. Branagh plays archeologist James Moon, another veteran scarred by the horrors of war, who becomes close with Birkin.

 

Fortunes of War (1987) – Guy Pringle

Kenneth Branagh in "Fortunes of War" (1987) Kenneth Branagh in "Fortunes of War" (1987)

The TV series that introduced Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. Set in the late 1930s, this production tells the story of Guy, a professor of English literature, and his wife Harriet, while both are living in Bucharest in the early days of the Second World War.

 

The Lady’s Not for Burning (1987) – Thomas Mendip

Kenneth Branagh in "The Lady's Not For Burning" (1987)

I had to struggle to find even this one photo from the miniseries. Branagh plays Thomas Mendip, a medieval knight who returns, war-weary, to his home only to end up embroiled in a witchcraft trial.

 

Henry V (1989) – King Henry V

Kenneth Branagh in "Henry V" (1989) Kenneth Branagh in "Henry V" (1989)

This was my first introduction to Kenneth Branagh, and the film occupies a special place in my heart. As a teenager, Henry V taught me that not only was Shakespeare’s play about the warrior king undeniably sexy, but it was REALLY FUCKING BRUTAL. I ate up every blood-soaked moment of it in slack-jawed awe. It also marked Branagh’s directorial debut and from its success lead to more ambitious films. It also is directly related to a whole bunch of young SCA members suddenly getting VERY excited about the 15th century.

 

Dead Again (1991) – Roman Strauss/Mike Church

Kenneth Branagh in "Dead Again" (1991) Kenneth Branagh in "Dead Again" (1991)

Branagh’s foray into film noir, playing Mike Church, a guy living in the early 1990s who suddenly realizes that he and his lover (played by Emma Thompson) are the reincarnated victim and suspect in a murder that happened over 50 years before. The film flashes between the 1940s and the 1990s, weaving the two timelines together until our hero and heroine put the pieces together and solve the tragic mystery. It is a beautifully filmed movie, and Branagh and Thompson are incredibly sexy, but it changed the way I looked at my sewing shears forever.

 

Much Ado About Nothing (1993) – Benedick

Kenneth Branagh in "Much Ado About Nothing" (1993) Kenneth Branagh in "Much Ado About Nothing" (1993)

Branagh’s second Shakespearean offering and an absolutely gorgeous one at that. With an ensemble cast that pretty much includes every relevant celebrity in the early ’90s, it’s a rollicking film set in some vaguely 18th/19th-century Italian countryside. Everyone is sexy, barefoot, sun-tanned, and looks like they’re having the time of their lives. Best of all is the sexual tension and scathing banter between Branagh’s Benedick and Thompson’s Beatrice. My hunch is their relationship wasn’t a whole lot different in real life.

 

Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (1994) – Victor Frankenstein

Kenneth Branagh in "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" (1994) Kenneth Branagh in "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" (1994)

NOW we’re getting to the real man candy! This adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic horror novel is gorgeous, but what it’s probably best known for is the insane chemistry between Branagh and his co-star Helena Bonham Carter. Their affair was widely known, and the tabloids had a field day with it, contributing to the demise of the Branagh-Thompson marriage/partnership. Years later, Emma would brush aside the notion that there was any bad blood between her and HBC, saying “Oh, we are [alike]. Being slightly mad and a bit fashion-challenged. Perhaps that’s why Ken loved us both. She’s a wonderful woman, Helena.” Proving yet again what a class act Emma Thompson is.

 

Othello (1995) – Iago

Kenneth Branagh in "Othello" (1995) Kenneth Branagh in "Othello" (1995)

Branagh is the duplicitous Iago to Laurence Fishburne’s Othello. The only Shakespearean film adaptation in Branagh’s career that he didn’t direct, the film received wide acclaim for the casting of Fishburne as the first African-American actor to portray the Moor on screen in a major studio picture (there were a few before him, but they were all indy films, so apparently that doesn’t count). While Fishburne was lauded for his nuanced performance of the conflicted hero, and Branagh snagged a SAG nomination for best actor that year, the praise did not prevent the movie from tanking in the box-office.

 

Hamlet (1996) – Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

Kenneth Branagh in "Hamlet" (1996) Kenneth Branagh in "Hamlet" (1996)

If you thought Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was ambitious, you ain’t seen nothin’ until you’ve sat through the epic four-hour spectacle that is Branagh’s Hamlet. Eschewing a historically accurate setting (been there, done that, conquered 15th-century France), Branagh chose to place the action in the late-19th century court of a fictional Denmark. The cast alone is impressive; it holds the distinction of having the most Oscar-winning cast members in any film (although three of the nine earned their Oscars after the film was released). Alexandra Byrne, the film’s costumer, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Costume but was beat out by Ann Roth for The English Patient (1996). Bonus — Branagh was paired with another of our historical costume faves, Kate Winslet as Ophelia.

 

Wild Wild West (1999) – Dr. Arliss Loveless

Kenneth Branagh in "Wild Wild West" (1999) Kenneth Branagh in "Wild Wild West" (1999) Kenneth Branagh in "Wild Wild West" (1999)

I had all but forgotten that Branagh starred in this EPICALLY panned Will Smith vehicle as the evil engineer Dr. Arliss Loveless. And likewise, I had forgotten that he was just about the only thing really worth watching in the entire film. If only this movie had been made 10 years later, it would have capitalized on the Steampunk obsession everyone and their soccer mom has with the genre, but in 1999 it was deemed too weird, too wacky, and too Will Smith-trying-too-hard to be a success, and it bombed badly in the box office. That said, the set design and practical effects are pretty fabulous, and if you can manage to blank out the Sexy Saloon Girl costumes and the tortured dialogue, it’s quite the visual treat.

 

Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000) – Berowne

Kenneth Branagh in "Love's Labour's Lost" (2000)

Branagh returns to Shakespeare in this musical adaptation of the classic romantic comedy, set between 1939 and 1945. Critics complained that the movie was trying too hard, and that Branagh had lost track of what had made his previous Shakespearean films so great by packing this one with actors who were not cut out for the script but had a huge amount of box-office draw. While that worked for the most part in Much Ado (ahemKeanu Reevesahem), this flick was just too much, too different, and too musical for most people to grok, and it bombed commercially.

 

 

My Week With Marilyn (2011) – Sir Laurence Olivier

kenneth-branagh-week-with-marilyn1

Like I wrote in Eddie Redmayne’s Man Candy Monday, this was the role that Branagh’s been auditioning for his whole life. Definitely give the film a watch — everyone is great in it.

 

If I didn’t include one of your favorites, let me know in the comments!

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About the author

Sarah Lorraine

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Sarah discovered her dual passion for history and costume right around the age of twelve. Dragged kicking and screaming to her first Renaissance Faire at Black Point, she was convinced she was going to hate it, but to her surprise, she fell head over heels in love with the world of reenactment and dress up immediately. Her undergraduate degree is in Clothing & Textile Design, and she has a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture. When she’s not hauling crap to SCA events and ren faires, Sarah enjoys reading true crime books, writing fiction, and sewing historical clothing from the Middle Ages through the 20th-century. One of these days, she might even start updating her old costuming blog again.

28 Responses

  1. Trystan L. Bass

    He is my ideal historical costume boyfriend. Except for breaking up with Emma Thompson — took me a long time to forgive him for that. I figure Wild Wild West was his penance. That’s SUCH a shitty movie. Yes, I’ve seen it (twice, bec. I re-watched it recently for Snark Week). His Southern American accent is atrocious, which is weird bec. his standard American accent in Dead Again is perfect. But every other one of these films is fantastic, & Kenneth is totally on my free-pass list :)

    Reply
  2. Charity

    I LOL’d at that first pic and went, “Aww, look at ikkle Colin Firth!”

    I haven’t seen several of these. I should.

    MWWM is one of those movies where… I could not get the original actors out of my head enough to enjoy new actors playing them. I think the lack of impersonations got to me — Kenneth looks and sounds NOTHING like Olivier, so that threw me. I was also disappointed to reach the Vivien Leigh scenes and Julia Ormond (whom I usually adore) also didn’t bother to sound or act anything like Vivien. I should watch it again, though; I think my expectations led to comparisons that became unfavorable, whereas now knowing no one bothers to throw in any impersonations would let me enjoy it as a period piece.

    I think it’s a lot harder to play someone people KNOW, and have heard or seen for themselves. That’s why Cate Blanchett’s Katherine Hepburn blew me away.

    / rambling thoughts

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      I’ll be reviewing My Week With Marilyn at some point, but yeah… I found Branagh’s & Ormond’s impressions of Olivier & Leigh rather lacking. At least with Branagh, there was a hint of Olivier, only because he’s basically been role playing Olivier for the last 30 years of his life in one form or another, but Ormond’s Leigh just was so flat and weirdly utilized.

      That said, I did enjoy Michelle Williams’ Marilyn. I thought she did a great job showing how MM could just turn it on and off like a faucet, so you never really knew what version of herself was authentic. Was it the free spirited Manic Pixie Dream Girl? Was it the drugged up ball of self-hatred and anxiety? Was it the ditzy blonde? The charmer? Was she just the world’s greatest manipulator?

      And the costumes were fantastic. I was seriously impressed with the level of detail they went to reproduce Marilyn’s gowns that I was convinced they actually used the originals until I read that they were all made for the film.

      Reply
      • Charity

        I felt the movie misfired, but I agree that Michelle Williams was magnificent. It probably also helped that, not being a fan of Marilyn, I haven’t seen her in many things, so I had nothing to compare her performance to. And yes, the costumes ARE gorgeous.

        Reply
  3. Susan Pola

    Can one day all the Shakespeare films, his movies with Emma and I agree Wild Wild West was his penance. It was his worst film. I will have to see Month in Country for content as well as Ken and Colin.
    Just rewatched My Week with Marilyn. He got Larry to a Tee. Whole cast was stellar. With the possible exception of Ormond as Ms Leigh. Her talent, Vivien’s, was great and beauty as well. She and Ms Monroe were undefeated as actresses. Marilyn due to ‘dumb blonde’ act and Ms Leigh due to her jawdropping beauty and marrying Olivier.
    BTW Ken was in Harry Potter and you didn’t include it. Gilderoy Lockhart was…

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      We dither on the Harry Potter films — we’re huge fans, but they’re technically modern films (set in the contemporary era) & of course fantasy too. Except for the upcoming Magical Beasts & Where to Find them, which is firmly set in 1920s New York City!

      (Side note: I love Gilderoy Lockhart & my husband wants to cosplay him *squee*)

      Reply
      • Liutgard

        Apparently Hugh Grant was first choice for that role, but he was busy, and Ken got it. I think Ken did a better job than Hugh ever could have. He’s ten times the actor.

        Reply
  4. Val

    He was so good as a Nazi in Swing Kids and the Final Solution. And I loved his FDR in Warm Springs!

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      I left off the two Nazi roles of his mainly because neither of them were great costume flicks. Great flicks in general, sure, but costume-wise? Not so much.

      Reply
  5. mmcquown

    Branagh and Thompson certainly brought out the best in each other — and probably the worst. I believe she had her own ambitions as a director, which certainly would add fuel to the fire. I don’t see how any relationship lasts in Hollywood when people spend months in hothouse situations with each other, trying to find love and passion. It’s almost inevitable that some of it carries over when the cameras stop rolling.

    Reply
  6. mishkagora

    ‘Shackleton’ and ‘Swing Kids’ both deserve a mention. Having lived in LA, I’m fairly immune to celebrities, but I must admit that Branagh has a remarkable charisma. I think every woman’s knees started to buckle when he walked into the room. He was astounding in his charm.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      I freakin’ LOVE Shackleton! Branagh was spectacular in that TV movie, & it was just a really well-made story. (Also, having been to Antarctica, I have a thing for the golden age of polar exploration, so yay for two worlds colliding!).

      Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      Like I said above, I left off “Swing Kids” because the costumes were meh. The movie was absolutely fantastic, but costume-wise? Not a lot there to discuss.

      Same with “Shakleton”. You gotta admit that the costuming was not exactly a compelling reason to watch the film.

      I have a feeling we’re going to get the same sort of reaction when we leave off “The Revenant” for Leo Di Caprio. :P

      Reply
  7. Clara

    Fun fact, I do blame this man for my love of Shakespeare and for finding a purpose in my purpose-less teenage life (Really really weird how I connected with his Henry V, probs even saved my life- yeah I was at a really awful point of it when I first watched the movie)
    So if I ever meet him, I shall need to give him a hug.

    Reply
  8. Lexi

    He was my first love and the only male to receive the “Tiger Beat” treatment in my life. I had that same sultry photo of the pair from Frankenstein adorning my teenage bedroom closet door, not to mention my posters and other clippings from Entertainment Weekly. Henry V was indeed an awakening for my fifteen-year-old self. From it my love of Shakespeare and my general Anglophile-ness was born. I remember trying to find ANYTHING Branagh among the catalogs of the pre-Netflix video clubs in order to feed my obsession. And I never had this feeling duplicated with another. Oh, young love…

    Reply
  9. Liutgard

    Ken was one of my first- my first being Frank Langella, after he was in Dracula in 1979. Oh. My, God. (insert copious drool.) I adored Ken, and when Frankenstein came out, I dragged my then-boyfriend to see it. And he freaked out of me because of the gore- he loved slasher movies and stuff, but the gore in Frankenstein was much more immediate, with context, and felt more real. He was mad at me for quite awhile after that. But he went with me to see Ken’s Hamlet, and liked it.

    Ken has been superceded though, by another Shakespearean- David Tennant. I LOVED him as the Tenth Doctor, but I also saw his Hamlet. And bought a copy. It was AMAZING. And a copy of Spies of Warsaw, and Escape Artist, Casanova, and I have watched his Richard II over and over and over. They’re bringing it to New York next month- If I could afford tickets and plane fare, I’d BE THERE. Oh God, I’d so be there. (He was also in The Last September, along with Michael Gambon and Maggie Smith. And I saw him in Recovery, which was heartbreaking and I don’t know if I could watch it again. Secret Smile had him as the villain, and it was pretty sick. He’s really good at the dark side. And The Politician’s Husband was also very hard to watch. So yeah, basically I watch anything I can get my hands on with him in it… Sexiest Scot EVAR.)

    Reply
  10. drush76

    I left off the two Nazi roles of his mainly because neither of them were great costume flicks.

    You should have never left “CONSPIRACY” from the list. It’s one of his best films. And Reinhard Haydrich is one of Branagh’s best roles. He received BAFTA and Emmy nominations for his performance. It was chilling.

    Reply
  11. mmcquown

    It could be argued that “Conspiracy” is a costume flick because it takes place in a time period other than the present and clothing details differ not only in style and cut but the attitude about the way clothing was worn. Certainly all the uniforms can be considered costumes.

    Reply
    • mishkagora

      Indeed, the costumes were done by Rosalind Ebbutt who’s won a BAFTA and was nominated for an EMMY for Emma (Romola Garai version). She’s worked on Foyle’s War, Downton Abbey, etc.. While not a costume drama, it is a period piece in which the costumes *do* matter.

      Reply

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