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.