January 4th, 2010

Kenneth Branagh

We caught the end of The Wild, Wild West over the holiday. It's a damn bad film- an attempt to transfer the peculiar charm of Men in Black to another genre which fails laboriously.  Branagh was in it. He was chopped off at the waist and sitting in a steampunk wheelchair, sporting long black locks and a cod Southern accent. He seemed to be having the time of his life. I winced for him.

I winced for Monument Valley too. After all those John Ford movies to have to appear as a backdrop to this! 

Branagh is a peculiarly wince-making actor. He can be very good and he can be very bad. And when he's being very bad it's not because he's phoning it in, it's because he's having such fun. Much Ado About Nothing was a pretty good movie (Branagh as director is similarly hit and miss) but it had a couple of terrible performances in it. One was Michael Keaton's (what did he think he was doing?) and the other was Branagh's own- hyperactive, stagey and unfunny- and irresistibly reminiscent of the hateful British gameshow host Noel Edmonds.

All though his career Branagh has been dogged- or blessed- by comparisons with Olivier. The comparison holds on many levels- and this is one of them- that they're both mad enthusiasts for their craft- in love with make-up and silly accents and going out on a tightrope over a cage of hungry lions armed only with an umbrella. Olivier once, notoriously, starred in a double-bill of Oedipus Rex and Sheridan's The Critic- the starkest of Greek tragedies and a piece of Georgian fluff.  It was a way of showcasing his virtuosity. He admitted it was vulgar, but what the hell; he was Olivier; he could do as he pleased. Branagh has a similar refusal to recognise boundaries. His four most recent films as director are The Magic Flute, As You Like It, Sleuth and Thor- Shakespeare, Mozart, a remake of a popular movie that starred Olivier (can't get away from him, can we?) and a superhero yarn.

Meanwhile, on TV, he's playing the Swedish policeman Wallender.  Here he's seriously good.  No need to wince, unless it's at the Bergmanesque horror of it all. Wallender is an obsessive: when he's on one of his cases- all of which he takes so very personally- he doesn't eat, he doesn't sleep, he doesn't shave. Branagh underplays him- but unlike Olivier- who had ways of signalling to the camera that he was underplaying and we should admire him for it-  does it without actorly tricks. 

There are some actors who never turn in a bad performance. Everything around them may be turning to dust but they stand firm. Michael Caine comes to mind- Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton. That's what makes them great-  that they're reliable. You hire them and they'll give you quality every time. And then there are the loonies- and they're much rarer. Olivier made an ass of himself almost as often as he took the stage by storm, but it was that willingness to go where angels fear to tread that made him- unassailably- the head of his profession. And now there's Branagh. He does mad things. It was mad to go head to head with Olivier over Henry V, mad to film the full text of Hamlet, mad to play the steam punk villain in Wild Wild West with such reckless abandon. The head of his profession? No, acting doesn't have that kind of structured hierarchy any more; then you played Hamlet in the West End and you were king; now there are far too many platforms to shine on for one man to dominate them all- but certainly special, cherishable- a rare talent, bordering on genius. And he's only 50.  His Lear is still to come and also- no doubt- all manner of other brilliant, masterful, wince-making and totally bonkers pieces of work. 

Too Silly, Even For Me

Ailz is watching Day of the Triffids on i-player. I can hear the screams. I am prepared to be scared by many things- ghosts, giant sharks, feral kids, bug-eyed psychopaths, smiling nazis- but I absolutely refuse to be scared by man-eating vegetables- because such things patently DO NOT EXIST.