With ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ chugging around the corner, it’s time to take a look at director, Kenneth Branagh’s previous directorial departures.
Kenneth Branagh is an acclaimed actor, who everybody seems to know; whether that be from his recent role in the war epic ‘Dunkirk’, or from his more child-friendly time as Gilderoy Lockhart in ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’. But, like many acclaimed actors, he’s made a quite a few films from behind the camera, instead of starring in front of it. His upcoming movie, ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ both stars and is directed by Branagh. To prepare for this, let’s take a look at some of his most significant creations from the director’s chair.
Henry V (1989):
For this list, I decided to limit myself to just one Shakespearean-inspired flick, and Branagh has directed a fair few. ‘Much Ado about Nothing’, ‘Macbeth’, and ‘Hamlet’ are just a selection of this literature-loving looney’s odes to the renowned playwright. But, from this vast range, which better to settle on, than his directorial debut. ‘Henry V’ chronicles the story of the titular King, who commences on the conquest of France, in the 1400s. In addition to directing, Branagh also plays the film’s lead (which will become a reoccurring theme in this list). Despite this, he manages to give the most effective, and intriguing performance of the movie, while also directing a star-studded cast of acting aficionados; including Dame Judi Dench, and Emma Thompson. This film pulled in two Oscar nominations for Branagh’s acting/directing, and also scored an Oscar for the period perfect costume design of the movie. With direct dialogue from the original play, some of the best Shakespearean acting to grace the silver screen, and effective management of acting and direction from Branagh, this film was the perfect way to kick off his directing journey.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994):
Horror is a genre that has an absurd abundance of cult classics. You know the type: films which aren’t good in a traditional sense, but are poor to the point of being entertainingly awful. ‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’ is one of those movies. As you probably expected, Branagh plays a vital part in the movie, in the form of Victor Frankenstein. Once again, he was clearly not being satisfied with just staying behind the camera. Branagh himself isn’t actually the issue with this cult classic; in fact his educated intonation is an infectious highlight of this monstrous mess. The real issue is Robert De Niro, as ‘The Creature’. De Niro plays Frankenstein’s monster, which they’ve weirdly renamed ‘The Creature’ – and maybe for good reason. ‘The Creature’ is a mish-mash of astoundingly bad acting, awful practical make up, and an accent which makes old bolt-neck sound like he’s from downtown New York rather than a castle in rural England. If you were to extract ‘The Creature’ from the movie, like the performance parasite that it is, it may slightly improve the quality but would lose its so-bad-it’s-good appeal. So, although the film appeals to horror nuts with a penchant for the goofy, this movie is generally dragged down by this dire depiction and the other odd creative choices, which made audiences line up outside Branagh’s castle with a torch in one hand and pitchfork in the other.
With comic book culture at an all-time high, Disney is tossing Marvel movies at the legions of super-fans every few months. But if we were to travel back to 2011, MCU additions were a lot sparser. Yes, believe it or not, there were sometimes yearlong gaps between the films which is shocking when compared to the superhero cookie cutter production line of today. So, with quantity being sacrificed, the quality of the movies should be higher, right? Yeah, sort of… As we’ve seen previously, Branagh isn’t great at handling these big budget productions. But, in this case he uses Marvel’s ludicrously large budget, to forge a film that is most definitely worthy. With excellent performances from acting aficionados, a strong origins story, and an amusingly comical tone, Branagh made the best ‘God of Thunder’ movie to date. (Although that mantel is about to be smashed, by Taika Waitiki, with ‘Thor: Ragnarok’.)
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014):
With the wildly popular ‘Spy’ sub-genre blowing up in the 2010s, with the likes of ‘Jack Reacher’, ‘Skyfall’ and ‘Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol’, it seems that every studio wanted to jump on the chrome-coated bandwagon and get their own slice of the Spy pie. ‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’ is a film trying way too hard to fit into the ‘popular group’ of the action genre. As a result, the film is void of any of the charm or style of Bond, lacking the enigmatic themes of Bourne, whilst being too dull to stand up against the ‘Mission Impossible’ movies. The single ray of light in this otherwise pitch black film is actually Branagh himself. Although his directing style is relatively bland, his acting, and his accompanying Russian accent are well structured within his character. It almost makes up for Keira Knightley’s offensively inaccurate American impression. However, it would take a whole lot more than that to save this forgettable film. Generic is an astronomical understatement for this movie.
For this last submission, Branagh got involved in Disney’s fantastical foray into live action recreations of their classic tales. Since the release of a whole batch of these realistic re-tellings, I can safely say that ‘Cinderella’ stands up as one of the strongest from this ongoing series. When compared to the live action version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’, which had all the charm and style of a wooden spoon, ‘Cinderella’ really shines. Whether that’s because of Branagh’s superior directorial style, or the fact that it doesn’t have Josh Gad’s insufferable face squashed into each frame, is debatable… The most memorable role within the movie is Cate Blanchett’s evil Stepmother, whose cruel charisma adds a jolting shard of reality into this otherwise picture perfect fantasy land. Other outlandish depictions of your favourite fairy-tale figures, come from Helena Bonham Carter as the ‘Fairy Godmother’, and Derek Jacobi; who is wasted in the generic role of the ‘King’. As a whole, the film is a fresh take on an old classic, but lacks a consistent tone, due to its pantomime-esque feel.
Overall, it’s fair to say that Branagh hasn’t had the best run in terms of directional work. This is mainly due to poor casting, or a lack of originality. But, if he carefully crafts the tone, and utilises his arsenal of experienced actors, just as he did in his blockbusting success ‘Thor’, then I still have hope for ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ being a cinematic success; rather than adding another Frankenstein to Branagh’s pile of cinema catastrophes.
‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is showing at the Phoenix Cinema, in Leicester, from the 3-16 November.