Kenneth Branagh is in a new film, My Week With Marilyn, in which he plays his hero Laurence Olivier. Reviews so far have been enthusiastic and the audience at Bafta’s recent tribute series, Life in Pictures, were feeling that enthusiasm when the erudite Irishman spoke of playing the great English Actor. After more than 30 years in the cinema, he gratiously sat for the audience to talk about his stellar career.
The Saturday night crowd was warm and very receptive to the 51 year old Branagh, who took the praise and attention with a casual elegance. In fact nothing of Branagh’s screen performances was evident on stage. He spoke calmy and with much consideration, almost downplaying the event and its significance. Maybe it was the favourable response from the mature female element in the room which was more than palpable that kept the smartly gentlemen planted in his seat. Presenter Francine Stock’s body language on stage seemed to hint at something too, and why not Branagh is a smart, successful and handsome man.
I won’t kid you anymore I am not a Branagh fan. There is nothing in his work that has made me think wow, who is this guy. I will go out on a limb and say that he might not have much of an audience for anyone under 40. I mean sure anyone can see he has got something. I mean he is handsome, and replaying some of his earlier works one can see he some some quintessential romance to him in a terribly upper crust British sort of way. Particularly as he plays so many strong male roles such as Henry V and Hamlet. The man loves shakespeare. He loves the words and what the those words mean. He is the kind of man who can use a word like ‘atavistic’ in a casual and contemporary way. And that is what struck me most about the evening, Branagh does enjoy talking and he can describe things very well and without the animation I had pegged him with. The night in this regard was quiet a revelation.
Of the films that were showcased in honouring Branagh it was his role as Lee Simon in Woody Allen’s Celebrity (1998) which seemed to mark a clear transition from the Shakespearean Branagh to a Hollywood one. He recounts the story on how he came to the role after receiving a letter from Woody Allen himself. It said…
“Dear Kenneth Branagh, ….. please look at the part of Lee Simon. When I wrote this part, I knew that there was only one actor in the world who could play it. Alec Baldwin. And he’s not available. So I thought for a while about Mel Gibson, but in the end decided that you would be more correct.” That was his ringing endorsement [of me], followed by a wonderful line where he said: “Lee Simon is essentially a loser, but he is attractive to women, therefore no facial hair.”
Maybe the idea of playing a loser was better on paper. Branagh was back to playing serious roles in no time. In reecent times he has carved a niche for himself in the role of the brooding Swedish detective Wallander for British TV. Of the interesting facets of the role Branagh declares, “he doesn’t have a series of things that particularly characterise him, except – one might say – misery, and in the first film of the new series, which is called An Event in Autumn, even I put the script down at the end of that one and went: Bloody hell, wow, that’s a tough time he has in that film.”
As proficient as he is in front of the camera, Kenneth Branagh has directed more than 12 films, his most recent effort Thor received a mixed critical response but was very positive at the box office. Which leads to one of the most anticipated films of the year My Week With Marilyn. Branagh was asked what was some of the aspects he concentrated on in the role of Olivier.
“The fun thing was to try to physically transform a bit. He didn’t have facial hair – he would have been well cast in a Woody Allen film – but he did have this wonderful square chin with a cleft in it. He didn’t have the large spots on his chin like I have, so we took those away, we put a prosthetic chin piece on, we gave me a bigger bottom lip – nice to have a bottom lip for once in my life!
I would listen to him, on headphones, give his dramatic reading of the Bible, which he does in its entirety. I just tried to find his voice, with that curious kind of lisp. He was one of those people who was very quiet when he wanted people’s attention – people would lean forward. He had complete command over his voice.
But Gielgud used to say of Olivier that it was sometimes hard to find the man himself, so it was interesting to play him at this moment – when he was exactly the same age as I am now – which was a kind of a midlife crisis moment for him, it seemed. That’s what he wrote of consequently. He was looking for Marilyn to renew him, to associate him with the new and the youthful and the vigorous and the sexy.”
Maybe Branagh will feel that sense of renewal with the youthful and the vigorous also, My Week With Marilyn is playing now in the UK.