Tag Archives: 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).


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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.


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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).


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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).


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