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Kenneth Branagh Shocked the World With ‘Henry V.’ Then He Had to Live Up to It

That acclaimed 1989 film has cast a long shadow across the rest of the actor-director's career. Did he betray his early promise? Or do we expect too much from boy wonders?

Welcome to Misleading Men, a regular feature where we look back at the actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment.

Hollywood loves young geniuses. The industry can also be a sucker for charming, sophisticated performers from across the pond. So it wasn’t a surprise when the nominees for the 62nd Academy Awards were announced and a relative upstart, Kenneth Branagh, found himself up for two impressive awards — Best Actor and Best Director. He had only recently turned 29. That Oscars was known for other things — most notably, it was the year that Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture and Do the Right Thing was all but snubbed — but it was also seen as a coronation for the talented Shakespearean actor and filmmaker who had brought a vital new version of Henry V to the masses. Branagh was going places.

It’s been more than 30 years since then, and Branagh continues to enjoy a thriving career. And even brighter days may be ahead: His most personal film to date, Belfast, opens this Friday, carrying expectations of being an awards front-runner. (A couple months ago, it won the coveted People’s Choice Award from the Toronto Film Festival, a prize that’s become a bellwether for Best Picture.) Branagh, the five-time nominee, may finally earn his first Oscar. He’s directed Marvel smashes, starry epics and adaptations of beloved Agatha Christie mysteries. He even did a Jack Ryan movie. Now, as he’s getting ready to turn 61 next month, he’s reached elder-statesman status in the business. 

Along the way, though, that aura of the young genius slipped away. Perhaps that’s inevitable: The early promise we all showed eventually gets tarnished by age, iffy decisions, compromises and the fact that we can’t remain the kid we once were. But I also think it’s fair to note that, on some level, Branagh never quite lived up to that initial idea of what we — and maybe he — thought he would become. The next Olivier? That didn’t quite happen. A generational talent? I don’t think that’s accurate, either — although, god, that’s a high bar. Nevertheless, as Belfast demonstrates again, Branagh is a distinctive artist who ultimately may be more about style than substance. That’s hardly a crime, but not that long ago, it seemed like he could be more than that.

I am not the only one who’s been thinking along these lines lately. Recently, The New York Times interviewed Branagh, with writer David Marchese opening by contrasting Branagh’s golden late-1980s arrival to the many ups and downs he’s had professionally since. (“For Christ’s sake, who says that one should have a life of ease?” Branagh responded.) Belfast is being viewed as his artistic comeback, but it’s also a clue into his upbringing since it tells a fictionalized version of his boyhood, casting newcomer Jude Hill to play Buddy, who lives in the titular city during The Troubles alongside his long-suffering mom (Caitríona Balfe) and loving, floundering dad (Jamie Dornan). Branagh moved with his family to England when he was nine, and he took in his first play at 15. It was Hamlet, and soon after the young man decided he’d give acting a try, a certainty cemented after he visited Oxford and hated it. “I smiled and shifted nervously in my seat, moving an enormous working-class chip from one shoulder to the other,” he would later recall, “and thought that this definitely wasn’t the place for me.”

He was a star on stage in the 1980s, first at the Royal Shakespeare Company — he played Henry V in 1984 — and then with the Renaissance Theatre Company, which he co-founded. (To help finance the fledgling company, he wrote an autobiography, Beginning, when he was still in his 20s.) He landed some film roles, as well as TV movies and series, but his 1989 big-screen adaptation of Henry V was the breakthrough and his feature directorial debut. It wasn’t just the fact that he was taking on Shakespeare that made the film a daunting proposition — Laurence Olivier, who Branagh so admired, had made his directorial debut helming Henry V, too. Branagh seemed to be intentionally aligning himself with the revered actor, a comparison most performers would be wary of. But as a behind-the-scenes piece made at the time suggests, Branagh wasn’t worried at all.

In that clip, you get a sense of what a prodigy he was — so exciting, so confident, so undeterred by anything. He wanted to do the story of King Henry as a popular entertainment, not some drowsy, good-for-you historical artifact. “People get intimidated,” Branagh said in 1992 about the pitfalls that other Shakespeare adaptations encounter. “They think they are making a classic instead of making a movie. I think at all times on Henry, we were aware we were making a movie, a film that needed to live alongside other films. We were not creating a cultural religious experience.”

He assembled a murderers’ row of exceptional actors, including Paul Scofield, Derek Jacobi, Ian Holm, Judi Dench and a kid named Christian Bale. But Branagh also had the good sense to cast his wife Emma Thompson to play Katharine, Henry’s love interest. She, too, had done plenty of stage and TV work, but Henry V was one of the first films Americans saw her in, and their warm rapport was obvious. It’s not a stretch to say that, soon after, they became an “it couple” for those who cared about arthouse cinema — they seemed refined, elegant and very much in love.

All of that contributed to Henry V feeling like a revelation, proving to be a modest hit with audiences and much praised by critics. “We had no concept of the success and the kind of acclaim that Henry V would receive, and the sort of faintly invidious position it puts you in internally,” Branagh said several years later. “You realize that with one film you are not suddenly a man who knows how to make films, or any form of expert about Shakespeare, but simply someone who has produced this piece of work that had an extraordinary reaction.” 

And because Branagh played the title role of a leader in the midst of difficult times, viewers couldn’t help but conflate Henry’s qualities with this young man’s. Roger Ebert had some reservations about Henry V, but his review’s final paragraph neatly summarized the impact of Branagh’s performance. “What works best in the film is the overall vision,” Ebert wrote. “Branagh is able to see himself as a king, and so we can see him as one. He schemes, he jests and he deceives his soldiers during his famous tour of the field on the night before the battle. In victory he is humble, and in romance, uncertain. Olivier, who was 37 in 1944, wrote that Henry V was the kind of role he couldn’t have played when he was younger: ‘When you are young, you are too bashful to play a hero; you debunk it.’ For Branagh, 29 is old enough.”

Branagh didn’t win in either Oscar category for which he was nominated — Best Director went to Oliver Stone, Best Actor went to Daniel Day-Lewis — but this was truly a case where being nominated was prize enough. (Henry V did take home Best Costume Design, while Branagh won the directing award at the BAFTAs.) What was important was that Henry V opened the door for Branagh in Hollywood, earning him plenty of comparisons to Orson Welles, another enterprising young multi-talent who shocked the world with his first film.

Fully feeling himself, perhaps not surprisingly Branagh followed up Henry V with an excessively clever, showy, self-aware thriller. Dead Again is about an L.A. detective (Branagh) who’s trying to help a beautiful amnesiac (Thompson), and the film did nothing to hide its homages to noir, Welles and Alfred Hitchcock. If anything, Dead Again encouraged you to spot its reference points, with Branagh aiming for an operatic, feverish tenor. (Even his American accent as the private eye called attention to itself.) In the movie, actors played multiple roles, and the overall spirit was that of a burgeoning filmmaker having a ball seeing what he could get away with. Dead Again felt audacious at the time, although a recent rewatch mostly revealed how preening and labored its stylistic dress-up really is. But even back in the early 1990s, Branagh’s homeland was beginning to tire of his ostentatiousness, even if American viewers and critics remained charmed.

“Kenneth is very hot — especially in your country,” Thompson told a U.S. reporter upon Dead Again’s release. “But where we’re from, making it [to the top] so quickly and so apparently flashily is not quite cricket. They say that Kenneth is full of hubris, that he’s a self-promoter and that he can’t act. The last part of that certainly isn’t true, but Kenneth — while perhaps not as much as he once was — is certainly driven.”

It’s the weird dichotomy between the U.K. and the U.S.: Speaking very generally, the former tends to be suspicious and resentful of those who aspire to be wildly successful, whereas here it’s celebrated as a virtue. This was very much the honeymoon period for Branagh in the States in which we somehow felt we had “discovered” him — he was our new shiny toy. Around the same time that Dead Again came out, Thompson was also in Howards End, winning Best Actress for that terrific Merchant Ivory drama. Her triumph only further established the industry’s love affair with this smart, attractive power couple. 

“It was great that Emma won an Oscar for a picture with which I was utterly unconnected,” Branagh said in 1993. “And I think that’s done much to say, ‘Listen, we are independent creatures.’ We don’t do interviews together. We don’t cultivate being joined at the hip. There’s a line that we go to in terms of talking about ourselves in relation to the work, and beyond that we don’t pursue any extra celebrity. We aren’t chasing around at premieres or doing anything more to be in the public eye.”

I bring up Thompson because, especially in those early days of Branagh’s movie stardom, the buoyancy of their relationship was central to his appeal. For anyone who thinks parasocial relationships are some new phenomenon, look back at how Branagh’s subsequent films — the Big Chill-ian Peter’s Friends and the Shakespeare comedy Much Ado About Nothing — worked in part because of the couple’s onscreen chemistry, the way her natural warmth grounded his golden-child swagger. I don’t pretend to possess any insider knowledge of what they “really” were like as a married pair, but from an outsider’s perspective, their grownup air made them stand out. They vibrated on a different frequency than the rest of us. If a woman of such grace and wit liked him, that was good enough for the rest of us.

Which is why the utter failure of Branagh’s next film, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, ended up being about more than one bad movie. “The book Frankenstein is so different from what’s been done on screen,” he declared in the runup to making the film. “It’s really a Gothic fairy tale with lots of moral meat.” That may be true, but his version was the sort of tonal disaster — featuring awful performances from both him (as the doctor) and Robert De Niro (as the monster) — that makes you wonder if anybody involved in the production knew what they were doing. Plus, it was the film where, it’s widely assumed, Branagh began an affair with Helena Bonham Carter, which led to the end of his marriage. (“You can’t hold on to anything like that,” Thompson said a few years ago. “It’s pointless. I haven’t got the energy for it. Helena and I made our peace years and years ago.”) The double whammy of Frankenstein’s commercial/critical failure and the implosion of Branagh’s relationship took the shine off him. He no longer was a boy wonder. He just seemed like another Hollywood schmuck.

It’s not as if Branagh fell off the map afterward. There’s much to recommend about his ambitious four-hour Hamlet, but his directorial projects became predictable — lots of Shakespeare adaptations — and when he acted in other people’s films, they tended to be disappointments. (I actually have fondness for his work in Robert Altman’s commercial bomb The Gingerbread Man — aka Kenneth Branagh Does a Southern Accent — but his turn in Celebrity is generally considered to be, bar none, the most annoying Woody Allen impression ever.) He was the villain in Will Smith’s worst film during the rising star’s hottest commercial heyday. Nothing was working. Maybe the Brits had been right about this guy all along — maybe he was just a clever chap with little beneath his veneer of precocious showmanship.

What turned it around — at least commercially — was landing the job directing Thor. He had to audition for it, and it sounds like he was in a bad spot professionally. “I’d made three films where I had a lot more freedom: Sleuth, As You Like It and Magic Flute,” he said this week. “They did not find audiences or any particular critical approbation. I wanted the work that I made to be seen by people, and after you’ve struck out three times, people are not falling over themselves to hire that 47-year-old former wunderkind Kevin Brannigan or whatever his name was.” This was still the early days of the MCU, when no one knew for sure if anybody really wanted a bunch of superhero movies starring unknown actors — Chris who? — and Branagh had to help shape the tone for what a Thor film would be. His approach was simple.

“I read the comic books and all I saw were the images in those [Dutch] angles,” he said recently. “I like big foreground faces and making things or people look bigger, and having more things in the frame. For me it was an attempt to find the dynamism of the comic books … [because] that’s how I would read them. I know quite a few people weren’t crazy about it, but I’m so glad we did it. It has quite a distinctive look, doesn’t it?” 

Thor does, and the film also understood that the chemistry between Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston was going to be crucial to making the franchise work. The movie was a hit — easily the biggest commercial smash of Branagh’s career — and soon he was being courted to helm other potential blockbusters. Sometimes they were duds (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), sometimes they were the perfectly serviceable live-action remake of Cinderella. Meanwhile, he continued acting in other people’s films, earning an Oscar nomination playing, of all people, Laurence Olivier in My Week With Marilyn. Suddenly, he was back, even though none of the work he did during that period was especially strong — except for Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, where his crusty Commander Bolton is the embodiment of stiff-upper-lip courage. In a movie that could have easily been merely an expert technical exercise — all those shifting time frames and locations — Branagh’s blessedly restrained performance gave the proceedings extra emotional oomph. For once, he does so much by not doing much at all.

Dunkirk was the polar opposite of his redo of Murder on the Orient Express, where his Hercule Poirot was cartoonish, allowing Branagh another excuse to do an exaggerated accent. Like Thor and Cinderella, Murder on the Orient Express was a lively, low-calorie spectacle. It felt fussy and impersonal. But it, too, was a huge hit, and he got to make another Poirot, Death on the Nile, which finally comes out next year. These studio tentpoles have allowed Branagh back into Hollywood’s good graces years after Henry V made the future look so big and bright.

Which brings us to Belfast. Its distributor, Focus Features, is positioning this coming-of-age drama as a deeply personal film from Branagh. (The New York Times even headlined its interview with the filmmaker “Kenneth Branagh Is Finally Processing His Childhood Trauma.”) “You can’t go through those things at an impressionable age without it leaving a very, very strong mark,” he said in a recent interview, mentioning that he began the script in the midst of last year’s lockdown. “In a way, I was writing about one lockdown and this other lockdown dragged it out of me.”  

Obviously, studios have to create narratives around their awards candidates, making them as appealing to voters as possible. But while there’s certainly craftsmanship to Belfast — beyond its black-and-white images, he shoots scenes from unconventional angles, presumably to heighten the intense, half-remembered quality of childhood memories — what it lacks is that spark that made Henry V feel like a herald of an exciting new talent. 

To be fair, Branagh is no longer that young man, and trying to imitate his old swagger would be foolish, but Belfast doesn’t seem so much a progression or maturation as it comes across as another bit of self-conscious preciousness from someone who always likes to wow us with his inventiveness. Whether it’s the wall-to-wall Van Morrison oldies on the soundtrack or the overly orchestrated scenes of rioting and bedlam, there’s a slick artificiality to the film that’s the opposite of “personal.” Whatever trauma he’s processing is filtered through showiness. Belfast remains an impressive package — the man has always known how to give us a good time — just so long as we don’t look too close for the depth that’s not there.

Again, Hollywood loves young geniuses. But they don’t often have long shelf lives — if anything, that’s part of the appeal. Welles’ legend is built around the popular perception that he never lived up to his promise, that he never topped Citizen Kane. Likewise, Branagh has probably never surpassed Henry V. He’ll be as much a part of this year’s awards conversation as he’s ever been since that first film, but even if he’s “back,” he can’t ever come back all the way. 

“Who pretends that life is one slowly ascending curve of human development?” he told The New York Times. “Most of the time you have to smash into something: the death, the broken relationship, the horrible career moment. Then you think, ‘Well, what matters to me? What do I enjoy?’ Or even just, ‘I’m still here.’” 

Indeed, Branagh has proved himself to be a survivor. Perhaps it’s the fate of all former boy wonders. Henry V is a man ready to die for his beliefs, once more unto the breach. Kenneth Branagh’s debut film grows fierier and more poignant with each passing year as he and we move further and further away from its charge.