Kenneth Branagh

In the Bleak Midwinter (1995, Kenneth Branagh)

In the Bleak Midwinter is a sweet movie. It’s kind of a Christmas movie–it takes place at Christmas–and it’s this gentle, thoughtful, sweet but never saccharine or even really acknowledging its sweetness sweet movie. Writer and director Branagh puts a lot of work into the plotting of the film, without ever appearing to be putting a lot of work into it because it’s usually in the background. Because Midwinter is an often uproarious comedy and the comedy gets the foreground. But, in the end, it’s pretty clear Branagh’s made a sweet movie. It’s about a production of Hamlet, but the film itself is more akin to a Shakespeare comedy.

The opening titles has some monologue from lead Michael Maloney, then goes to a scene with Maloney–an out-of-work actor–having lunch with his agent, played by Joan Collins. Collins is great in the scene. She shows up more later, but she’s never as perfect as in that first scene. She helps set the first of Midwinter’s moods. The film has different moods and different narrative distances throughout. Usually they don’t change at the same. Maybe never. But as one changes, the other might react, leading to its change.

All right, I need to explain Midwinter. It’s black and white, it’s about a group of actors trying to put on Hamlet while all living together in this ramshackle church they’re trying to save. Their Hamlet is going to save the church. It’s Maloney’s church from childhood. He’s able to put the show on because of Collins.

There’s a funny casting sequence, setting up the eclectic band of actors. Then they all go to the church to prepare. It’s a big cast–nine principals. Maloney keeps the lead just because he’s directing the play. Hetta Charnley is his sister, who is the one who wants the church saved. She still lives in the unseen town with the church in it. Then there’s Celia Irmie as the production designer (sets and clothes). Richard Briers is the angry old actor. John Sessions is the openly gay actor–Midwinter’s 1995 after all–who’s playing Queen Gertrude. Nicholas Farrell, Mark Hadfield, and Gerard Horan are the male actors. Julia Sawalha is the Ophelia. Everyone’s got distinctive story details. Turns out Branagh doesn’t just want his actors doing comedy–including physical comedy–he’s got some character drama.

Midwinter is really well-written through the first half. It’s really funny, it’s really well-directed. Branagh’s not messing around. He and cinematographer Roger Lanser get some phenomenal shots in the black and white. The filming locations, the production design (from Tim Harvey), all great stuff. But then Branagh gets into the characters and all the actors get this revealed depth to work with. Except Maloney, actually. Maloney’s character arc is something else entirely.

And the movie’s only ninety-nine minutes. Branagh does all sorts of narrative moves in this thing and it’s under 100 minutes. The actors all get these great parts, then they get even better arcs and relationships. And all the relationships are building from scratch because the movie starts before they all meet. So Branagh is building all this stuff quickly and profusely. Nine characters he’s building in ninety-nine minutes. Plus Collins.

Over half the actors give great performances. The others give excellent ones. That latter group gets more material but not as sublime material.

Neil Farrell’s editing is a whole other great thing about Midwinter. The comedy, the character drama, every cut is perfect. Even though Midwinter is a shorter film about a rushed Shakespeare production, the sometimes rapid cutting never seems hurried. Farrell and Branagh always give the actors enough time. Then they cut.

It’s kind of a showcase for its actors, actually. A technically brilliant, marvelously written showcase for the cast. In the Bleak Midwinter is wonderful.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh; director of photography, Roger Lanser; edited by Neil Farrell; music by Jimmy Yuill; production designer, Tim Harvey; produced by David Barron; released by Rank Film Dists Ltd.

Starring Michael Maloney (Joe Harper), Richard Briers (Henry Wakefield), Celia Imrie (Fadge), Julia Sawalha (Nina Raymond), John Sessions (Terry Du Bois), Hetta Charnley (Molly Harper), Nicholas Farrell (Tom Newman), Gerard Horan (Carnforth Greville), Mark Hadfield (Vernon Spatch), and Joan Collins (Margaretta D’Arcy).


Henry V (1989, Kenneth Branagh)

Director (and adapter) Branagh splits Henry V into three sections. They aren’t equal, they don’t match the act changes (usually); Branagh lets photographer Kenneth MacMillan open up the film to (outdoor) light while Patrick Doyle’s score becomes essential. The first outside, daylight sequence–Branagh (as Henry) gives his troops a rousing speech–defines the rest of the film. Even when it gets dark and violent in the subsequent, breathtaking battle sequence, there’s still a lot of light. That light carries over into the finale, which is light comedy featuring Branagh bantering with his betrothed-to-be Emma Thompson.

The problem with that finale is it requires Branagh’s Henry to be a likable character in a way Branagh’s never been concerned about. He’s a king, not a bashful suitor. It’s an odd conclusion, with Thompson not speaking English and coming off like a possession to be had. With Branagh’s strange comedic handling, the whole thing is off.

Until Derek Jacobi, as the modern day chorus, guiding the audience through the film, gets in the last word, Henry is almost in trouble. Not a lot, but more than one would expect given how Branagh goes from being expert to sloppy in one scene.

Branagh’s excellent. Brian Blessed, Ian Holm, Michael Maloney, Christopher Ravenscroft, all astounding. Branagh gets these beautiful performances in long, usually close-up takes. And gives a great one of his own with the same treatment.

The battle scene is an amazing intersection of artifice and reality.

Real good stuff.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Kenneth Branagh; screenplay by Branagh, based on the play by William Shakespeare; director of photography, Kenneth MacMillian; edited by Michael Bradsell; music by Patrick Doyle; production designer, Tim Harvey; produced by Bruce Sharman; released by Curzon Film Distributors.

Starring Kenneth Branagh (King Henry V), Brian Blessed (Duke Thomas Beaufort of Exeter), Paul Gregory (Westmoreland), Nicholas Ferguson (Earl Richard Beauchamp of Warwick), James Larkin (Duke John of Bedford), Simon Shepherd (Duke Humphrey of Gloucester), Charles Kay (Archbishop of Canterbury), Alec McCowen (Bishop of Ely), Fabian Cartwright (Earl Richard of Cambridge), Stephen Simms (Lord Henry Scroop), Jay Villiers (Sir Thomas Grey), James Simmons (Duke Edward of York), Christopher Ravenscroft (Montjoy), Paul Scofield (King Charles VI of France), Michael Maloney (Louis the Dauphin), Emma Thompson (Princess Katherine de Valois), Geraldine McEwan (Alice), Harold Innocent (Duke Philippe of Burgundy), Edward Jewesbury (Sir Thomas Erpingham), Danny Webb (Gower), Ian Holm (Captain Fluellen), John Sessions (Macmorris), Jimmy Yuill (Jamy), Judi Dench (Mistress Nell Quickly), Robert Stephens (Auncient Pistol), Richard Briers (Lieutenant Bardolph), Geoffrey Hutchings (Corporal Nym), Christian Bale (Robin the Luggage-Boy), Michael Williams (Williams), Shaun Prendergast (Bates), Patrick Doyle (Court) and Robbie Coltrane (Sir John Falstaff). Derek Jacobi as Chorus.


Dead Again (1991, Kenneth Branagh)

I indistinctly remember the last time I saw Dead Again, I didn’t think much of it. I don’t know what I could have been thinking.

Until the last act, which slaps a mystery conclusion onto an amnesia thriller without enough padding, the film’s utterly fantastic. Branagh’s direction is great, but the most striking thing initially about the film is how good he plays an American. He gives L.A. a natural look, no sensationalizing (though probably some beautifully) and his character moves amusingly through it. Scott Frank’s script is great too; the two styles, Branagh’s America and Frank’s modern detective, match perfectly.

The acting is amazing. Branagh and Emma Thompson have to essay modern characters and their previous incarnations in the forties with a not insignificant twist in the second act. Only no one can know the twist, but the acting has to be consistent with it throughout. One’s not looking for clues on a repeat viewing so much as understanding how the performances work with the actors being aware of the twist.

There’s also Derek Jacobi as a nebbish, which is hilarious. Andy García gives a mannered, textured performance—Branagh’s direction probably helps. Robin Williams’s excellent in his cameo.

Patrick Doyle’s score is wonderful, as is Matthew F. Leonetti’s cinematography. It would be interesting to see the Welles influenced flashback scenes in their original color.

The too standard ending is technically successful (with Blood Simple homages no less).

Though it ends on its weakest footing, Dead Again’s a significant success.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Kenneth Branagh; written by Scott Frank; director of photography, Matthew F. Leonetti; edited by Peter E. Berger; music by Patrick Doyle; production designer, Tim Harvey; produced by Lindsay Doran and Charles H. Maguire; released by Paramount Pictures

Starring Kenneth Branagh (Mike/Roman), Emma Thompson (Grace/Margaret), Andy Garcia (Gray Baker), Derek Jacobi (Franklyn Madson), Wayne Knight (Pete Dugan), Hanna Schygulla (Inga) and Campbell Scott (Doug).


Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994, Kenneth Branagh)

I’m trying to think of good things about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It starts off poorly, with an opening title seemingly made on a cheap video editor from the late 1970s, then moves into the Walton framing sequence. Apparently, no one involved with the film—Branagh, the screenwriters, the producers—understood the point of these frames in the novel. Here, Branagh uses them as a warning about obsession. I think. He saddles that delivery on Aidan Quinn, who’s absolutely awful in the film.

But terrible performances are Frankenstein’s surplus. Branagh is laughably bad, sometimes so bewilderingly bad one wonders how he thought he was making a reasonable film. Tom Hulce is weak, as Branagh seems to have instructed him to play it like Amadeus. The elephant in the room is Robert De Niro as the monster.

Between De Niro’s risible performance and Branagh’s ludicrous direction, Frankenstein might actually work as a big joke. It’s somewhat unthinkable these two filmmakers—who have done such substantial work elsewhere—really thought they were making a good film. The film reminds one, on multiple occasions, Young Frankenstein is far better.

There are some good performances—Helena Bonham Carter is nowhere near as bad as the two leads, Ian Holm holds it together in his few significant scenes and Trevyn McDowell is good. John Cleese is… out of place, to say the least.

The film’s not an adaptation of the novel, rather an amalgam of every Frankenstein film before it; I can’t believe no one sued.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Kenneth Branagh; screenplay by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont, based on the novel by Mary Shelley; director of photography, Roger Pratt; edited by Andrew Marcus; music by Patrick Doyle; production designer, Tim Harvey; produced by Francis Ford Coppola, James V. Hart and John Veitch; released by TriStar Pictures.

Starring Robert De Niro (The Creature), Kenneth Branagh (Victor Frankenstein), Tom Hulce (Henry Clerval), Helena Bonham Carter (Elizabeth), Aidan Quinn (Captain Robert Walton), Trevyn McDowell (Justine), Ian Holm (Baron Frankenstein), Robert Hardy (Professor Krempe), Celia Imrie (Mrs. Moritz) and John Cleese (Professor Waldman).


Valkyrie (2008, Bryan Singer)

For Valkyrie to work, Bryan Singer needs to get–give or take–five minutes when the viewer isn’t entirely sure Adolf Hitler wasn’t assassinated. The entire premise of watching a film, a historically-based film, where the conclusion is well-known and suspending disbelief… he needs five minutes. Maybe the trick is casting Tom Cruise as a German. By the time the story gets around to needing the viewer to question whether or not Hitler is dead, he or she has already accepted Cruise. The biggest hurdle is over (who knows what Welles could have gotten away with in Touch of Evil, after everyone is buying Charlton Heston as a Mexican).

Valkyrie arrives following months of internet-fueled derision–from Singer as director to Cruise as German–and it does away with both concerns in the first scene. The language transition from German to English isn’t the best ever, but it’s fine. It acknowledges the situation of having an English language film about a bunch of German speakers. Cruise is solid from the open. As for Singer–he keeps out of the way. Singer’s direction is unobtrusive and perfectly measured–when he needs to emphasize an actor, he emphasizes the actor, same thing when he needs to emphasize a story development. At its core, both story-wise and star-wise, Valkyrie is one of those 1970s pictures with a lot of recognizable, good actors and a lead who maybe has seen better days. Charting Cruise’s career, it’s either a good sign or a bad sign in terms of his bankability, but it shows he’s still capable of doing a fine movie star turn.

The script–from Singer’s Usual Suspects writer McQuarrie and some other guy–does have a lot of twists and turns. It’s kind of like watching a chess game and knowing who’s going to win in advance. At some point, knowing the winner isn’t as interesting as seeing how the game is played. Valkyrie‘s not one of the best World War II films, but it gets a lot of mileage out of emulating them–I half expected an end credits actor showcase like The Great Escape. The only thing I couldn’t figure out about the script was the presence of Carice von Houten as Cruise’s wife. Sure, it’s historically accurate, but Cruise is the protagonist because of his role in the conspiracy, not because he’s necessarily the most interesting character.

It doesn’t hurt the film’s technically superior. Singer’s usual crew, cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, editor and composer John Ottman, these guys usually turn in good work.

Similarly, the all-star cast is excellent, particularly Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson and Terence Stamp. Kenneth Branagh and Eddie Izzard are fine in glorified cameos. Jamie Parker’s good as Cruise’s sidekick. All of the aforementioned anti-Hitler conspirators are played by Brits. The hero’s American. Given a point of Valkyrie is to identify some Germans as different from Hitler following stooges–the reality of a postwar Germany, excellently discussed in Tony Judt’s Postwar for example, reveals a far more depressing truth than a Hollywood movie would ever want to present–it’s kind of strange Singer casts a very German guy as a very big Nazi. You’d think he’d at least go for one major good guy. There’s one good guy played by a German, but he doesn’t come into the movie until real late.

Valkyrie‘s a solid, watchable thriller. Maybe even a little bit better than it should be. Singer has a couple excellent moments as a director, maybe the best stuff he’s done since The Usual Suspects. He actually gets sublime.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Bryan Singer; written by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander; director of photography, Newton Thomas Sigel; edited by John Ottman; music by Ottman; production designers, Lilly Kilvert, Patrick Lumb and Tom Meyer; produced by Singer, McQuarrie and Gilbert Adler; released by United Artists.

Starring Tom Cruise (Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg), Kenneth Branagh (Major-General Henning von Tresckow), Bill Nighy (General Friedrich Olbricht), Tom Wilkinson (General Friedrich Fromm), Carice van Houten (Nina von Stauffenberg), Thomas Kretschmann (Major Otto Ernst Remer), Terence Stamp (Ludwig Beck), Eddie Izzard (General Erich Fellgiebel), Kevin McNally (Dr. Carl Goerdeler), Christian Berkel (Colonel Mertz von Quirnheim) and Jamie Parker (Lieutenant Werner von Haeften).


The Magic Flute (2006, Kenneth Branagh)

With the exception of The Tales of Hoffmann, I’m not really familiar with any other efforts to adapt an opera to film. I guess there are those Andrew Lloyd Webber adaptations (right?), but I don’t think of them in the same sense–the artistic one. Branagh’s The Magic Flute has more in common with his Hamlet then it does Hoffmann (and, I imagine, Phantom of the Opera).

Branagh sets his adaptation in a World War I setting–there are similar uniforms and trench warfare–to fine effect. The film opens with Branagh going wild with CG–something he does later–but he does it well. The film requires an indulgent suspension of disbelief immediately and it’s hard to get upset about the little CG butterfly. But after this strong opening, in the first act section, The Magic Flute falters.

Technically, the section is solid and all the singing is good. But the film introduces way too many characters in way too little time. Worse, the film takes a backseat to the concept here–the singers have English lines, but it’s frequently impossible to understand them. Whether or not any important narrative information is being conveyed doesn’t really matter–the impression exists, so it’s hard not to feel like one’s missing something. It isn’t just the unintelligibility, it’s also the way Branagh structures the first act. The Magic Flute feels very much like a gimmick–a filmed opera with CG; there’s technical competence–technical excellence, really–but without any visible artistic impulse.

Until the big trick.

I’m not sure it is a trick–I browsed the opera’s page on wikipedia but didn’t look too close–I might have just missed something. But there’s a reveal about halfway through the film, a little earlier, and immediately, everything changes.

Without trying to get through exposition–an impossible task given the storytelling techniques–Branagh and his cast get to immerse themselves in the material. It all gets very simple and very predictable and joyous to watch.

As the leads, Joseph Kaiser and Amy Carson have incredible chemistry, though the majority of their scenes are apart. Renè Pape is spectacular–he might have some of the best scenes. Benjamin Jay Davis, in the comedic sidekick role, gets grating rather fast. All of the singing is good, like I said before, as is the straight dialogue delivery.

That dialogue confused me, since I always thought operas were all singing, no dialogue. Here Branagh uses the dialogue sparingly and only in essential scenes. But there is one section at the end when I got impatient waiting for people to start singing again.

The Magic Flute has an iffy opening, a great middle and a long close. Not being familiar the opera, I don’t know if Branagh cut anything, but he should have done something with the ending. There are two or three false endings. Though they tie up all the subplot threads, the subplots aren’t important anymore after the big finish.

It’s hard to describe the middle of the film’s accomplishment; usually, artistry doesn’t show up late. It’s either present or not. But The Magic Flute is a different situation.

A lot of it is probably Branagh’s best work as a director–and it reminded me not to discount him.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Kenneth Branagh; screenplay by Branagh and Stephen Fry, adapted for the screen by Branagh, English liberetto and dialogue by Fry, based on the opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, liberetto by Emanuel Schikaneder; director of photography, Roger Lanser; edited by Michael Parker; production designer, Tim Harvey; produced by Pierre-Olivier Bardet and Simon Moseley; released by Les Films du Losange.

Starring Joseph Kaiser (Tamino), Amy Carson (Pamina), René Pape (Sarastro), Lyubov Petrova (Queen of the Night), Benjamin Jay Davis (Papageno), Silvia Moi (Papagena), Tom Randle (Monostatos), Ben Uttley (Priest) and Teuta Koço (First Lady).


The Gingerbread Man (1998, Robert Altman)

Somehow Altman lets The Gingerbread Man get away from him. Never the direction, which holds up until the end–and seeing Robert Altman direct a fight scene is something to behold–but the plotting. The film starts high, thanks to the compelling plot and the performances, but then the plot gets more and more… not convoluted, but desensitizing. Once Kenneth Branagh’s kids are in danger, it’s clear there’s nothing special about the plot, since it’s such a genre standard. The film also loses, around that section, as the storytelling becomes more set piece oriented, the strange texture Gingerbread Man had before. It was clearly, both through style and script, a Robert Altman movie. Branagh, always the protagonist, was not the whole show. Then he becomes the whole show and the movie loses something.

It never regains it either. Even with one nice moment or two, there’s the epical storytelling key turn and then it’s liftoff and it’s Branagh racing to discover the truth, just like every other thriller involving a lawyer who gets involved with a client. At that point, it’s sort of clear the story came from John Grisham. Or maybe I’d just like to think Altman wouldn’t have made a pedestrian conclusion. It’s possible, since it is Altman, he was pandering to see what it was like to pander (Altman’s disinterest in his finished product, good or bad, is always a little stunning).

The acting is, with one and a half exceptions, fantastic. Branagh’s performance (as a Southerner) is excellent. Embeth Davidtz makes a great white trash femme fatale, Daryl Hannah is good as Branagh’s (long suffering) associate. Robert Downey Jr. has a great time in a flashy private investigator role–not spinning Downey off into his own movie is probably Gingerbread‘s greatest tragedy (as is not sticking with him as much as possible). Even Tom Berenger is good in a small part. The two exceptions? Well, the half is Robert Duvall, who does his crazy thing again here. Duvall looks the part and I suppose he’s fine, but it’s a lame casting choice and a poorly written character. Then there’s Famke Janssen, who’s less convincing as a parent than as a Southern belle (her accent is less convincing than Marge Simpson as Blanche). Luckily, Branagh is frequently around to save Janssen’s scenes.

The Gingerbread Man is a fine filmmaking exercise from Altman, has some great acting, and has some great cinematography. But its production quality is not matched by the rote plot. Altman, had he taken the film at all seriously, could have done a lot more with it.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Altman; written by Clyde Hayes, based on an original story by John Grisham; director of photography, Gu Changwei; edited by Geraldine Peroni; music by Mark Isham; production designer, Stephen Altman; produced by Jeremy Tannenbaum; released by Polygram Filmed Entertainment.

Starring Kenneth Branagh (Rick Magruder), Embeth Davidtz (Mallory Doss), Robert Downey Jr. (Clyde Pell), Daryl Hannah (Lois Harlan), Tom Berenger (Pete Randle), Famke Janssen (Leeanne Magruder), Mae Whitman (Libby Magruder), Jesse James (Jeff Magruder) and Robert Duvall (Dixon Doss).


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