Kenneth Branagh, that is. See what I did with the title, there?
I’ve loved Kenneth Branagh and his art ever since my mom made me read Much Ado about Nothing and watch his exuberant 1993 adaptation when I was in middle school. I love his non-Shakespeare stuff too; in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, he makes the cringe-worthy Gilderoy Lockhart funny and even likeable.
A few weeks ago, I watched Branagh’s 1994 film Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein twice within the space of four days. I wanted to show it to the book club I’m faculty advisor for, but first I wanted to watch it (it had been quite a few years since I’d seen it) to make sure I could show it to the students in good conscience, considering that it’s rated R. I decided that I could, but I prefaced our group viewing with a warning about why it’s an R-rated movie (mostly what the MPAA calls “thematic elements”–it is, after all, about a guy who sews and splices dead human body parts together). Then I gave them another warning: There’s nothing subtle about this movie. There’s weeping! Screaming! A huge house fire! A bombastic soundtrack! Dramatic gestures and facial expressions! I told the students that I think part of the reason for this lack of subtlety is that it’s an adaptation of a novel from the Romantic period, a novel full of heightened language and unabashed displays of emotion. (If I had a dollar for every time in the book that Victor Frankenstein flings himself into or out of a conveyance, or his eyes gush with tears…) The dialogue in the 1994 adaptation is actually pretty understated, but the Romantic emotionalism appears elsewhere in the cinematic elements I mentioned above.
But I don’t think that’s the only reason for the heightened–well, the heightened everything of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, because the same over-the-top qualities appear in other Kenneth Branagh films. I think the reason is that Branagh, like many film actors and directors from the UK, was first a stage actor and is still actively involved in live theater. (More on this later.) But unlike many others, Branagh has continued to bring that stage sensibility to the films with which he’s involved. Everything is bigger on the stage because there’s no camera or audio equipment to swoop in and catch the flicker of an eyelash or a quiet sigh. Over the years, the film industry has taught us to valorize intimacy and subtlety, and to view “stagey” as a derogatory term. Kenneth Branagh’s films often challenge those conventions. Just watch his wild and colorful Much Ado about Nothing, with its triumphant Patrick Doyle score, and compare it with Joss Whedon’s snarky black and white 2012 adaptation, with its smooth jazz score.
I thought about this more last night when I re-watched Thor (2011), which Kenneth Branagh shocked Hollywood by choosing to direct. (The one that really shocked me was Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit–I’m still not sure what Kenneth was doing there.) Because I’m preparing to write an essay about the Thor movies (I’m sure I’ll say more about this in future blog posts), I was taking notes and paying particular attention to the Shakespearean allusions and the stage conventions that appear in this first film. I noticed that the dialogue, at least in the Asgard scenes, is very different from the snappy, jokey language typical in superhero movies. This is a Shakespearean family inheritance drama. Stakes are high, voices are raised, accusations are flung, tears are shed. I think that may partially explain why some die-hard Marvel fans didn’t care for this movie–it didn’t fit their expectations.
Anyways. I’m not very good at creating memes. My point is that there are some fantastic actors in this movie, so we can’t attribute all that yelling, nor those facial expressions (!), to bad acting. In fact, several of them are also stage actors, and my guess is that they were totally on board with Branagh’s unconventional choice to make a superhero movie look a lot like a live production of Henry V. (I chose that particular Shakespeare play for a reason, since Branagh on numerous occasions has compared the two stories. See this fascinating article for details.)
I’ll close this post by saying that next Monday night, my parents are going to see Kenneth Branagh in Harlequinade, a very meta comedy about a troupe putting on A Winter’s Tale, at the Garrick Theatre in London. (You know that part in the Bible that says, “Thou shalt not covet thy parents’ theater tickets”?) If this rambling post has been accurate, they will be watching Kenneth Branagh do on stage what he has been doing on film (and directing others to do) for years now in defiance of Hollywood convention. Stick it to ’em, Kenneth.