Kenneth Branagh (10 December 1960 -)
Originally hailing from Belfast in Northern Ireland, Kenneth Branagh will always be remembered for his Shakespeare adaptations (six so far and counting) and for bringing a touch of studied class to his acting roles. He’s taken some risks in the past – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) anyone? – but on the whole he’s been a consistently impressive performer, even if the movie he’s in has been less so – Wild Wild West (1999) anyone? He’s also made some odd choices over the years, and his filmography as an actor includes titles as diverse as Swing Kids (1993) (in an uncredited turn) and the TV movie Warm Springs (2005) (as Franklin Delano Roosevelt). Here then are five more roles that might have slipped under the radar, but which are still worth seeking out.
Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) – Character: A.O. Neville
Branagh excels in Philip Noyce’s disturbing exposé of systematic, Australian government-sponsored aboriginal abuse in the early 1930’s. As the official Protector of Western Australian Aborigines, Branagh is cold, distant and unemotional in his treatment of “half-castes” such as the movie’s young heroines, Molly and Daisy. It’s only when they run away from one of his “re-education” centres and elude capture that his mask slips and the depths of his racism becomes apparent, and the extent of Branagh’s control of his portrayal becomes even more impressive.
How to Kill Your Neighbor’s Dog (2000) – Character: Peter McGowen
Easily the oddest movie title in Branagh’s filmography, How to Kill Your Neighbor’s Dog sees him playing a once-successful playwright whose recent string of flops has left him struggling to deal with the various stresses and strains of daily life while attempting to get his career back on track. Branagh keeps McGowen from going fully manic, and this left-field comedy benefits immensely from his performance, being both cheerfully misanthropic and delightfully caustic.
The Theory of Flight (1998) – Character: Richard
A touching and emotionally honest drama (with comedic overtones), The Theory of Flight is effectively a two-hander between Branagh (as an unsuccessful artist who builds primitive flying machines) and Helena Bonham Carter (as a woman suffering from motor neurone disease who wants to lose her virginity before she dies). Contemplative and unapologetic, the movie is an unlikely gem thanks to the playing of both actors, and assured, sympathetic direction from Paul Greengrass (making only his second feature).
Five Children and It (2004) – Character: Uncle Albert
Branagh takes a supporting role in this children’s fantasy movie (adapted from the novel by E. Nesbit) set in World War I, and which sees the titular children discover a sand fairy, a Psammead (voiced by Eddie Izzard), in their uncle’s greenhouse. Branagh takes a back seat to the child actors (led by Freddie Highmore) but does more than enough to make Uncle Albert more than just a kindly, if eccentric, caricature.
Conspiracy (2001) – Character: Reinhard Heydrich
A TV movie, but inarguably one of the finest ever made, with Branagh hypnotic as the overseer of the Wannsee Conference, where the Nazis worked out the details of the Final Solution. Much has been made of the movie’s ability to portray the so-called “banality of evil” that the Nazis’ actions represented, and it’s true that the matter-of-fact way in which matters of mass execution are referred to is horrible and chilling. Just Heydrich’s comment to begin the conference, “So to begin. We have a storage problem in Germany, with these Jews”, is all you need to know as to how terrible the next ninety minutes will be.