Sir Kenneth Charles Branagh (born 10 December 1960) is a British actor, director, producer and screenwriter.
He was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the son of Irish Protestants. In his early 20s he began to make a name for himself in British theatre. He spent much of the 1980s appearing in several well-received Shakespeare productions, as well as a 1989 production of Look Back in Anger co-starring Emma Thompson.
In 1989 he made himself an international star by directing and starring in a spectacularly successful film adaptation of Henry V. From 1989 to 1996 he appeared mostly in films he directed himself, such as another hit Shakespeare adaptation, 1993's Much Ado About Nothing, yet another Shakespeare adaptation with a four-hour Hamlet in 1996, as well as the thriller Dead Again and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Most of these films also co-starred Emma Thompson; the two were married from 1989 to 1995.
The box-office failure of his return to Shakespeare with Love's Labours Lost in 2000 sent his directing career into the doldrums for several years. He continued to act, however, taking Large Ham Up to Eleven with his portrayal of Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and playing occasional British Nazis (Conspiracy, Valkyrie). In 2011 he got a Casting Gag role as Laurence Olivier in My Week with Marilyn—Branagh has often been compared to Olivier, as both of them directed themselves in filmed versions of Henry V and Hamlet. He got a gig directing the 2011 film Thor, his biggest directing project since Hamlet, and has directed several more films in the years since, including a live-action remake of Disney's beloved Cinderella and an All-Star Cast adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express in which he stars as Hercule Poirot. An adaptation of Death on the Nile (directed by and starring him again) followed.
His television credits include an award-winning performance as Kurt Wallander in the Wallander series (2008-2012) based on the novels of Henning Mankell, as well as the TV-movie Shackleton about Ernest Shackleton and the desperate journey of the 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. He was also the narrator of the Walking with Dinosaurs series.
Films Branagh has directed
- Henry V (1989) (also starred)
- Dead Again (1991) (also starred)
- Peter's Friends (1992) (also starred)
- Swan Song (1992)(short film)
- Much Ado About Nothing (1993) (also starred)
- In the Bleak Midwinter (1995)
- Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1996) (also starred)
- Hamlet (1996) (also starred)
- Love's Labour's Lost (2000) (also starred)
- As You Like It (2006)
- The Magic Flute (2006)
- Sleuth (2007) (Creator Cameo)
- Thor (2011)
- Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014) (also starred)
- Cinderella (2015)
- Hercule Poirot:
- All Is True (2019) (also starred)
- Artemis Fowl (2020)
Branagh as actor only:
- Swing Kids (1993)
- Anne Frank Remembered (1995) (Narrator)
- Othello (1995) — no, he did not direct this one!
- Celebrity (1998)
- The Gingerbread Man (1998)
- Wild Wild West (1999)
- Walking with Dinosaurs (1999) (Narrator)
- The Road to El Dorado (2000) (voice)
- How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog (2000)
- Conspiracy (2001)
- Walking with Beasts (2001) (Narrator)
- Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)
- Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
- Shackleton (2002)
- Warm Springs (2005)
- Walking With Monsters (2005) (Narrator)
- Valkyrie (2008)
- Wallander (TV series) (2008-2015)
- The Boat That Rocked (2009)
- My Week with Marilyn (2011)
- Dunkirk (2017)
- Avengers: Infinity War (2018) (voiceover cameo)
- Upstart Crow (2018) (Guest role)
- Tenet (2020)
Tropes associated with Kenneth Branagh include:
- Ability over Appearance: Invoked when he cast Idris Elba as Heimdall (see below). But then again, he already had a reputation of doing this long before Thor (see his version of Much Ado About Nothing (1993) with Denzel Washington as the brother of Keanu Reeves)
- Black Vikings: Practically a trademark of his style. In Much Ado About Nothing, he cast Denzel Washington as the Prince of Castile; in Thor, it was Idris Elba as the Norse god Heimdall; and in Hamlet, there was a black soldier in the Norwegian army. The black guard captain in Cinderella (2015) was considered by some to also be a case, though there's actually some historical justification there (at least as far as the film's time period can even be nailed down).
- Career Resurrection: Thor seems to have rejuvinated his directing career. He followed that up with Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and Cinderella. All three have been financial successes, and Cinderella in particular was a great critical success.
- Chewing the Scenery: You could feed a legion of starving children with Branagh's leftover scenery, especially in his more theatre-based films.
- Colorblind Casting: Uses this in a lot of his projects, as described above.
- Creator Killer:
- Mary Shelley's Frankenstein nearly did this to Branagh's directing career. The film was such a huge bomb it was a while before Hollywood would trust him to helm another blockbuster (and made finding funding for Hamlet difficult). But he was still easily able to get plenty of acting jobs as well as directing the indie films he usually prefers.
- The poor box office and critical reception for Love's Labours Lost was even worse, and as a result Branagh only managed to direct two low-budget indies over the next decade.
- Fake Nationality: Plays a Third Reich German in Valkyrie and Conspiracy. Other examples:
- Large Ham: My Week with Marilyn, which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. His Shakespearean films often have him overacting just about every syllable in the sentence, whether they warrant it or not.
- The Oner: a trademark of his.
- Nice Hat: His Olympic Games role.
- Production Posse: Branagh's posse includes BRIAN BLESSED, Richard Briers, Derek Jacobi, Jimmy Yuill, Gerard Horan, and (while they were married) Emma Thompson, as well as composer Patrick Doyle and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos. Recently, he has acted twice under the direction of Christopher Nolan.
- Promoted Fanboy: Branagh, reportedly, is a big-time Thor geek, and has been since childhood. One suspects his ear for Shakespeare was honed by the faux-Elizabethan dialogue of Marvel's Asgardians.
- Also William Shakespeare: He fell in love with the bard at an early age and is now arguably considered the greatest translator of his works to the Big Screen.
- Had become such a fan of the Wallander novels, that he personally approached Henning Mankell at a Ingmar Bergman film festival in 2007, and asked if he could play the Swedish detective in The BBC's adaptation.
- Branagh is also a fan of Laurence Olivier, and many have compared the two's career paths (as they both have successfully directed several Shakespeare adaptations). So, this made things humorous when Branagh was cast AS Olivier in My Week with Marilyn, which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Olivier is also responsible in part for Branagh's conversion to Christianity.
- The Shakespeare play Branagh saw when he was 15 that changed his life was Derek Jacobi in Hamlet. Cut to 1989 and Branagh's cast his idol in Henry V (1989), and like half the films Branagh directed after that. In 1990 Jacobi directed Branagh in a production of Hamlet inspired by Jacobi's version in the 1970s. Branagh's film version of Hamlet (1996) where Jacobi plays Claudius capitalises on the physical resemblance between them (their hair was dyed the same shade of Nordic blonde) and the theme of displacing a powerful father figure (obviously the antagonism is just in the film, they are friends in real life).
- Race Lift: He casts actors so blindly of their race that one suspects it's a deliberate habit. He does, however, cast really good actors, so it's not just some dumb, cheap stunt.
- His most blatant example of this took place early in his career. In Much Ado About Nothing (1993) he has Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves play half-brothers. One of them is the noble Duke that everyone respects and follows. The other is his bastard half-brother who is insulted over how everyone hates him because of his parentage and uses this as a justification to be the villain of the piece. The film is set in 19th century Europe. So who do you think plays the Duke and who plays the bastard? Wrong.
- His casting of Idris Elba as the Viking god Heimdall in Thor generated quite a bit of controversy (Heimdall is described in sagas as the 'whitest' of the gods). However, after seeing Elba's performance, many reviewers commented that if racist idiots are getting upset about a black actor playing a fictional, supposedly-white character (and less worried about a guy who throws a magic hammer), ol' Kenny must be doing something right. Also 'whitest' is only one translation, it's more along the lines of purity rather than coloration. Besides, the gods can look however they want one presumes.
- Rosalie and Salome Otterbourne in Death on the Nile. Previously, they were always played by Caucasian actresses. Here he cast Letitia Wright (as Rosalie) and Sophie Okonedo (as Salome).
- Real-Life Relative:
- Branagh was married to Emma Thompson from 1989 to 1995. Count how many of his films feature her as his wife or love interest during that period. Interestingly, his one role in Harry Potter (Chamber of Secrets) was right before her debut (Prisoner of Azkaban).
- He was also with Helena Bonham-Carter from 1995 to 1999 (they supposedly first got together when working on Frankenstein in 1994) and subsequently cast her as well.
- Real Men Love Jesus: Became a devout Christian after hearing Laurence Olivier, one of his childhood heroes, reading the Bible. He remains so to this very day.
- Scenery Porn: His movies nearly always feature lavish production design and sweeping camerawork that isn't afraid to show it off. His Hamlet and Murder on the Orient Express were also both shot in 65mm.
- Walk and Talk: He did it first.
- What Could Have Been: Was rumored to be a front-runner to play a young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels.
- Your Cheating Heart: His ex-wife Emma Thompson has spoken multiple times regarding the widely held view that Branagh and Bonham-Carter actually had an affair. She also said the scene in which her character in Love Actually realizes her husband is cheating on her was inspired by her own experience.Emma: It's all blood under the bridge. [...] You can't hold on to anything like that. It's pointless. I haven't got the energy for it. Helena and I made our peace years and years ago. [...] Being slightly mad and a bit fashion-challenged. Perhaps that's why Ken loved us both. She's a wonderful woman, Helena.
References to Kenneth Branagh in fiction:
- In Blackadder Back and Forth, a time-travelling Blackadder meets William Shakespeare and beats him up in retribution for providing the tools with which centuries of students have been tormented. He adds an extra blow specifically for "Ken Branagh's endless, uncut, four-hour version of Hamlet".Shakespeare: Who's Ken Branagh?
Blackadder: I'll tell him you said that. And I think he'll be very hurt.
- In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Defector", Data mentions studying Branagh's performance of Henry V.