Tag Archives: Kenneth Branagh

Three great film openings

 

Favourite film openings? One obvious one, short but celebrated: Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. The cameras zooming through the familiar tourist sights of central Edinburgh to the drum-driven tune of “Lust for Life”, then onto the five-a-side football field and into the heroin users’ gathering place, accompanying the cynical but revealing narration of Ewan McGregor’s Renton (“Choose life, choose a job, choose a career…”). Until that time I had been familiar with the Iggy Pop/David Bowie track only through its reputation; afterwards, like many people, I could never again separate the music from those pictures. It was especially ironic that, a year or two after the film’s original release,  I heard the song re-employed as the “empowering”(!) soundtrack to my workplace’s corporate start of year presentation!

The second, John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven. Not the very first scene in the Mexican village, but the next in the American border town. No flashy camera work here, but just an engrossing narrative. A few minutes in the life of two men who have advanced skills in a very specialised area – shooting accurately to wound or kill – which they rarely need to use, and who are therefore continually searching for any challenge to relieve the boredom while covering their living costs. Yul Brynner’s cigar-smoking Chris explicitly drives the funeral cart to the cemetery simply because he has overheard a conversation and has nothing else to do; Steve McQueen’s Vin accompanies him perhaps also because he wants to display his skill and character to the one other man in the town who might understand and respect him. Like the onlookers, Horst Buchholz’s willing acolyte and the Mexican farmers who are searching for help, we are impressed by the casual way in which Vin waits for the shot from the upstairs window, reasonably confident that the gunman will miss and definitely confident that he, Vin, will not miss. A few minutes later, Chris shows equally astonishing gun skill by firing two shots instantaneously with no apparent time to aim, yet succeeding in wounding the two gunmen in front of him and allowing him immediately to gain control of the situation. Elmer Bernstein’s music cheers his cart back down the hill. The first challenge has been dealt with – but the two mystery men have not yet been pulled out of their comfort zone, and the tasks ahead may be more arduous.

Third, perhaps least obvious, the minutes before and during the opening credits of Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing. From the start of his career, Branagh has been keen to show that, although a product of the classical theatre, he can direct a full-length feature film with the same flair and flamboyance as any 1960s cinéaste or any 1990s music video maker. Branagh cast some big Hollywood names not previously associated with Shakespeare: Denzel Washington, already with one Oscar and two more nominations, Michael Keaton just out of Batman, Keanu Reeves just before Speed. Shakespeare’s romantic comedy is one which you could categorise as being about older lovers in the way that Romeo and Juliet is about and for young couples, and Branagh’s version employs a number of eye-catching devices in the opening. First, the poetic lament “Sigh No More” about men’s inconstancy to women is moved from the middle of the play where it is spoken by a minor male character, to the very start, written onto a blank screen as it is spoken by a woman, Emma Thompson, over an light strings backing. When the visuals arrive, it turns out that Thomson’s character, Beatrice, has been reading the poem (in a comic faux-serious manner) to a large picnic gathering of Leonato’s family and household.

News comes of the arrival of the victorious soldiers of Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon. This is in line with Shakespeare’s text but depicted with far more spectacle and flourish. The prince’s small Spanish/Italian company is presented more like a US Seventh Cavalry patrol. Flags wave, horses pound, riders swagger. Patrick Doyle’s theme music is brilliantly rich and melodic and powered by full brass orchestration.

The household of Leonato is clearly thrilled to welcome these glamorous visitors. The camera zooms and cuts, picking out characters young and old, male and female; the music has become less bombastic but still urgent, with a background of girlish squeals. The real surprise is the frequent flashes of sensual nudity as both men and women prepare to meet their guests; the soldiers strip off outside and wash alfresco in a long stone water trough, the women do the same indoors. The activities are carried out communally, with gusto and without embarrassment. Editing is fast and flirtatious, contrasting white clothes and grey stone with running, bending, curving smiling flesh.

Now the music changes again as the preparation is almost over. Don Pedro, played by Denzel Washington, leads his soldiers in formation up the steps and into the courtyard of Leonato, played by Richard Briers, while the household arrives from the other direction, pointing from balconies and windows. An aerial shot makes a pleasing X shape of the principal characters together as the music comes to a stop. “Good Signior Leonato, you are come to meet your trouble,” says Don Pedro. “Never came trouble to my house in the likeness of your grace,” replies Leonato.

No ordinary film could live up to this incongruously alluring opening, and Much Ado About Nothing doesn’t. So perhaps that means it is actually a poor opening and betrays a self-indulgence connected more to Branagh’s professional and personal confidence at that time, rather than a genuinely fresh and imaginative perspective on Shakespeare’s text?  Certainly I have watched the opening rather more often than the complete film. But actually that also applies to the other two, more famous, examples. That’s probably why they came to mind as Great Film Openings.

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Olivier and Branagh

 

When I saw Kenneth Branagh play Laurence Olivier in the film My Week With Marilyn, it reminded me of the many times in the past when Branagh has been compared to Olivier. First, by his star-making performance of Henry V for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1984 at the age of 23. Then the film of Henry V which he both directed and starred in. By this time he had made his bold move into theatre management with his Renaissance company, performing in or directing several classic and modern plays.  The next film he directed was Dead Again with its evocation of Rebecca, in which Olivier had starred for Alfred Hitchcock.  Later came his film of Hamlet in which he starred. Eventually, inevitably, came the knighthood. Over many years, frequently, circulated the rumours that, following further in Olivier’s footsteps, he might become the artistic director of the National Theatre.

Some writers, like Joe Queenan, have pointed out that Branagh has less acting talent than his success suggests, but in a busy successful career there are always a few false steps. My own  choices for Branagh’s most wince-making were his association, adding spurious gravitas, with the BBC’s over-publicised fantasy/science melange Walking With Dinosaurs  when he had already served as narrator in serious documentaries such as Anne Frank Remembered, and with the BBC’s unnecessary Wallander , when the corporation had already bought and were screening a perfectly decent Swedish version.

Otherwise, I would suggest that TV and film producers have been luring classical British actors to highly-publicised and/or unedifying projects since the 1930s, and, taking this into account, Branagh’s acting CV is almost certainly no worse than many distinguished predecessors like Olivier.

In addition, some of the films which he has directed suggest that one area where he has a greater professional skill than, say, Olivier is in directing, and not merely acting in, a lightweight special effects-driven potboiler like Thor. (I can’t imagine why artistically he would choose to do it, but he clearly seems to have the necessary professional ability!)  Furthermore,  directing a World War One-set version of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute is certainly something that no previous British theatre knight ever felt inclined to attempt.

One reason I have always had a high regard for Branagh, in addition to his varied and substantial career, is that he has always appeared personally very affable and even self-effacing. I remember a TV interview with Barry Norman at the time of the film of Henry V when he brushed aside media attention with a comment like “There are other actors”. In other words:  you needn’t give unusual attention to what I’m doing.

Olivier lived during an era of much greater hierarchy, his life divided  by two world wars and great changes in social class and the British Empire, where a man’s age and experience greatly affected his own behaviour and people’s perceptions of him. It was often reported that he was prone to jealousy and hated anyone whom he saw as a rival. But then Olivier was one of the first people in his profession to experience the opportunities and success and status which he enjoyed, and the rulebook for socially approved behaviour had not been written.

It may well be true that Branagh’s long-term reputation will rest on his versatility and his project management skills rather than on individual performances, so I’m pleased that he has returned for a while to an area where his talents are of particular value, leading a theatre company in a year-long season of varied plays . His production for the Kenneth Branagh Company of The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare’s complicated play of jealousy, suffering, loss and reconciliation, was highly suitable for this time of the year, and it was good to get the chance to see it through the currently popular practice of live video screening from theatre to cinema.

 

 

 

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