The Films of Kenneth Branagh


On Friday night I went to see another great production of a William Shakespeare play by the Red Monkey Group. This time it was an excellent abridged version of The Merchant of Venice. As I was driving home, I started thinking about the 2004 movie adaptation starring Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, and Joseph Fiennes. My mind started wandering to other films based on Shakespeare's classics, including some of my favorites by Kenneth Branagh. That's the roundabout way of explaining how I decided to write about today's blog topic.

Kenneth Branagh's filmography ranges from the brilliant to the over-indulgent. He's a fine actor and a wonderful director, and because of his love and appreciation of Shakespeare he has created some of my favorite cinematic interpretations of the immortal Bard's tales.

His next directing assignment will be a big-budget live-action movie version of Marvel Entertainment's Thor, starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, and Samuel L. Jackson. The superhero version of the Norse god of thunder definitely begs to be treated as a Shakespearean style epic, especially the scenes in Asgard. The film is scheduled to be released in 2011 so we will have to wait until then to see if Branagh can pull it off.

In the meantime, let's look at some of his other motion pictures. I'll only examine the movies he directed that I've seen (so that leaves out Swan Song, In the Bleak Midwinter, Listening, The Magic Flute, and Sleuth, none of which I've seen). I'm also only looking at projects he directed, not films that were directed by others in which he worked as an actor (so that counts out Othello, which I loved, The Gingerbread Man, Celebrity, Wild Wild West, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Valkyrie, and others.)

So here we go...

Henry V - Kenneth Branagh made a huge impact with his directorial debut. Winning a bunch of awards, it was a stunning freshman effort. One can't help but think that William Shakespeare himself would have been thrilled to see his story of England's conquest of France come to gritty life. Full of adventure, great camera work, incredible performances, this is one of the best, setting a standard that would be hard for Branagh to top.

Dead Again - Branagh's follow-up was an interesting homage to the films of Alfred Hitchcock. I enjoyed this thriller and the performances by Branagh, Andy Garcia, Derek Jacobi, and Emma Thompson, even if the plot was convoluted.

Peter's Friends - This little film might seem out of place in Branagh's list of epics, but it's a fun diversion about a reunion of college chums. Hugh Laurie is particularly great to watch.

Much Ado About Nothing - Branagh returns to Shakespeare with what I consider to be the definitive film version of this beloved comedy. Keanu Reeves is rather bland as the villainous Don John, but the rest of the cast is superb, including Kate Beckinsale and Denzel Washington. The chemistry between Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh in this film is at their all-time best.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein - I had such high hopes for this faithful re-telling of the horror classic, with Robert DeNiro as the monster and Branagh himself as the tragic doctor trying to play God and create life. There were some very compelling moments in this movie but there were also too many over-the-top absurdities that made it a misguided mess.

William Shakespeare's Hamlet - It's a shame that Branagh made this version of Shakespeare's classic, one of the Bard's best known plays, during what I call his "over-indulgent phase." Unabridged, over-long, and fully of artsy-fartsy moments, it still had enough great stuff to garner awards and praise. In my opinion, Branagh was trying too hard, trying to make the perfect film, wanted to create a masterpiece, instead of just letting Shakespeare's magnificent words stand on their own. He paints with such broad strokes, it overshadows the story.

Love's Labour's Lost - Branagh dips his foot back in Shakespeare territory, but this time on a smaller (but still grand) scale, and in my humble opinion it works. I loved Alicia Silverstone in this and even Matthew Lillard who usually annoys me. Branagh's decision to film this tale as a 1930's musical was an inspired choice.

As You Like It - This is one of my favorite Shakespeare comedies, and Branagh does an admirable job bringing it to life. I adore the cast: Bryce Dallas Howard as Rosalind, Alfred Molina as Touchstone, and Kevin Kline as Jaques. When Branagh doesn't let his ambition and obvious talent overshadow the story, the result is a beautiful film to watch.

Kenneth Branagh understands Shakespeare and his passion for the text shows. That's why I hope he continues to make more adaptations of those classics. Hopefully someday we'll see his big screen versions of Macbeth, The Tempest, A Midsummer Knight's Dream, and many others. Until then, we'll see what he can do with Odin, Loki, and the Mjolnir hammer-wielding Thor in an epic battle for the ages.

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