If you, like me, felt the craving and confidence to return to the cinema over the past few weeks, you might have taken a chance, despite the bad reviews, on the latest Christopher Nolan offering, Tenet. I mean, just how bad could it be, right? Well, Tenet is really bad. Like, spectacularly bad. So bad I loved it. And one of the main reasons for that is Kenneth Branagh.
I didn’t even realise Branagh was in the stupid film before I saw it. And yet there he was, like a long-forgotten soft toy found at the back of the wardrobe, rollicking around Nolan’s high-budget flop like it was his movie the whole time. He has a villainous Russian accent, he sports a stubby, gelled faux-hawk, his character loves checking his FitBit (relatable), and – huge spoiler – his demise involves a vengeful Elizabeth Debicki greasing up the deck of his superyacht with sunscreen and sliding him head-first off the side, like he’s on a fatal SPF50 Slip ’n’ Slide.
Branagh is, in a word, supreme, in this movie. And it’s not just this movie. He is just plain supreme. Back in the 90s he was an unforgettable leading man, hailed as the next Laurence Olivier or Derek Jacobi, churning out critically acclaimed stage-to-screen Shakespeare adaptations and earning himself Academy award nominations left and right.
His grasp of Shakespearean language is at once extremely sophisticated and palatable to the masses: watch Much Ado About Nothing, Othello or Henry V to remind yourself of just how impressive he is. There hasn’t been a Shakespearean adaptor working on that cinematic scale since – ask any high school English teacher.
But here’s the thing (or as Shakespeare would say: “Ay, there’s the rub”): Branagh can’t be put in a box.
The man is a creative chameleon. He wants to, and has done, it all. He’s starred in and directed movies (more often than not at the same time) spanning almost every genre you could think of. He started at the top of the high art food chain with Shakespeare and has been munching his way down the ladder ever since.
The man was just 36 when he directed and starred in a star-studded, four-hour version of Hamlet that was critically lauded. Where do you go from there?
Well Branagh went anywhere and everywhere his professional desires led him. He had a particular fondness for cinematic adaptations of literary classics – Shakespeare, of course, but he also starred in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, and Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War (two out of three of which, coincidentally, co-starred his wife at the time, the effervescent Emma Thompson). From the mid-2000s the nature of the roles he accepted became more and more wide-ranging: he’s played a stoic British commander in Dunkirk, a chilling real-life villain in Rabbit-Proof Fence, and an animated conman in The Road to El Dorado.
And that’s just his acting career. Branagh has directed what some might call a bizarre array of films of every description. He’s directed the live-action version of Cinderella (which was bad), a film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (definitely very bad, no matter how much Judi Dench and Olivia Colman there was packed into it), and 2014’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (which was extremely bad, and also, Branagh plays pretty much exactly the same terrible Russian villain that he does in Tenet, down to the same terrible Russian accent). He even directed Thor (the first one in the live-action franchise, which was, I hate to say, pretty bad). The man’s filmmaking taste is wide-ranging, and also highly questionable. Why does he keep saying yes?
But see, that’s the beautiful thing about Branagh. He says yes. You can tell him to do a Russian accent. You can ask him to be in Wild Wild West (dear god, a terrible movie). You can say “Your character will slip off the edge of a yacht totally lubricated in sunscreen” and he will grease up. His acting is whole-hearted, wholesome, passionate and hammy.
He’s like Hollywood’s most fun uncle, if your uncle had an adventurous penchant for art department moustaches, hair dye and slightly inaccurate accents.
Branagh is one of the most prolific actor-directors of all time still working today, and I think it’s time he was rewarded with the same cult renaissance enjoyed by someone like Nicolas Cage. Like Cage’s, Branagh’s work blurs the line between high and low art, between reality and ridiculousness, between the good, the bad, the camp and the ugly.
No matter how wildly different his roles are, no matter how out-of-touch his cinematic taste levels may seem, no matter how many times he thinks it’s acceptable to dig that awful Russian accent out of his back pocket, when I watch Branagh on screen, I really do get the sense that he simply loves his job. Whether he’s playing Hercule Poirot or Doctor Frankenstein, he is pushing his craft in very unexpected ways, grappling with the depths of human emotion, and also, importantly, having fun doing it.
Ang Collins is a playwright working in Sydney. She is the inaugural recipient of Create NSW and Griffin Theatre Company’s Incubator Fellowship.