When you look back over the directorial career of Kenneth Branagh, the man behind the camera for this week’s adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, it provides an interesting picture of the last three decades of Hollywood.
Coming up in the late 1980s, Branagh leveraged his stature as a premiere interpreter of William Shakespeare’s works to steady work as both an actor and director. He came up when serious dramas were still a box-office draw, but just at the tail end of that system. While his strongest work has almost always been the projects he felt the most personally passionate about he also never really accumulate the reputation of auteur that was attached to those only slightly younger than him who made splashy entrances in the early 90s.
In the last 10 years or so, Hollywood has increasingly turned to franchises for box-office success and hired directors both old and new to helm them. That’s lead to some commentary on how directors are essentially disposable in a system that prioritizes the directional leadership of creative councils and producers who oversee vast swaths of intellectual property. Branagh has been swept up in that wave, with all four of his films since 2010, including Orient, being franchise entries or adaptations of existing IP. He’s currently in pre-production on an adaptation of Artemis Fowl.
His directorial filmography fits nicely into three (alright two and a half) categories that provide an overview of what kind of work he’s made for himself as well as what’s been offered to him over the years.
The Shakespeare Adaptations
Over the years Branagh has seemingly made it his personal mission to bring as much of Shakespeare’s work to film audiences as possible.
It’s hard to overstate just how nervy a move it is to make your debut feature effort an adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s Histories that stars yourself. But that’s the kind of self-confidence Branagh had in 1989 when he told the story of the King of England circa 1415 and his war with France, a war that ends with Henry marrying Katherine (Branagh’s then-wife Emma Thompson), daughter of the French King.
The trailer contains all the drama and adventure you’d expect from the story. Henry is presented as a fearless leader who not only demanded everything from his people but also rebelled against the system and who loved Katherine deeply. There’s fighting and dancing and hugging and other stage-level emotions along with quite a few moments from the St. Crispen’s day speech. It ends by presenting the movie as a “bold new film” from the director/star.
Much Ado About Nothing
Branagh’s second big-screen Shakespearean adventure lightened things up by turning to a Comedy. Again, he not only handles directing duties but also starring, taking on the role of Benedick, compatriot of Don Pedro (Denzel Washington), with whom he’s returning from war. There he once more matches wits with Beatrice (Thompson, who in the intervening years became a huge star in Howard’s End and other films) and gets involved in all the plots and intrigues common to the genre.
That lighter spirit is on display immediately as the trailer opens with shots pulled largely from the first moments of the film itself. It’s sold as a mix of adventure, romance and comedy before Branagh’s previous two films are cited and we see both the conflict between Beatrice and Benedick as well as the troubled romance between Hero and Claudio. The production design is a star in and of itself here before the rest of the cast is listed, along with the introduction of Kate Beckinsale. There’s precious little of Keanu Reeves here, thankfully.
Just three years later Branagh took on what might be the most ambitious project of his screen career, an unabridged telling of the Prince of Denmark. Even more so than with Much Ado About Nothing, Branagh assembled a group including troupe regulars such as Derek Jacobi and Judi Dench and high-profile others, including Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Jack Lemmon and more.
The “To be or not to be” soliloquy is presented early on in the trailer before we see the lavish production of the movie, with the additional value proposition of seeing it in 70mm. A fair amount of time is devoted to simply naming the all-star cast that was assembled. There’s little other dialogue, just visuals that make it clear the setting has been changed to something more in line with War and Peace than Dark Ages Denmark.
The Franchise Turns
It hasn’t always been about the Bard for Branagh, who has also taken on a number of work-for-hire projects over the years. That volume has increased in the last six years for the reasons stated above.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Branagh’s first foray into Other People’s IP (putting Shakespeare aside) was an adaptation of a classic monster story. Taking on the role of Victor Von Frankenstein, Branagh’s version, starring Robert De Niro as The Creature, was far more faithful to the source book than most previous films. It was gritty and filthy and morally ambiguous, with exaggerated visuals and heightened emotions from all involved. In the wake of the recent news Universal’s “Dark Universe” franchise may be teetering, it’s worth noting this was intended by Sony to be the second of a series of more realistic monster movie updates following Bram Stoker’s Dracula two years prior.
All of that sturm and drang are clear immediately as the trailer starts and Victor announces his intention to cheat death, something his friends and family aren’t on board with. We see the creation of the Creature ending with Victor intoning “…It’s alive.” From there on out it’s a fast cut of houses catching on fire, people being dragged away to execution and one storm after another besieging the landscape before the Creature asks Victor if he ever considered the consequences of his actions. It’s clear this isn’t your father’s Frankenstein.
One of the first and few movies Branagh didn’t pull at least double duty on, working here solely as a director and not also an on-screen lead. While the project had been in development for many years with other directors attached, Branagh’s experience with Shakespeare was no doubt seen as a plus in telling such a melodramatic story of troubled heroism and family dynamics.
Branagh’s name is virtually nowhere to be found in the trailers for the God of Thunder’s cinematic introduction. While the movie was sold effectively, there’s nothing here that could ever identify it as part of Branagh’s filmography. It’s all about the character.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
Paramount likely had Branagh’s success with launching Thor in mind when they hired him to reboot the Jack Ryan franchise with a new star (Chris Pine) and a new beginning point for the character. Branagh returns to the familiar role of double-billing, this time not as the hero but the antagonist Ryan goes up against in his attempts to save the world from an attack on the U.S. economy.
Things aren’t that much different in the trailer for this attempt at reviving Tom Clancy’s central character. Because he costars, Branagh is more present on-screen but not named explicitly as the director. Instead the movie is labeled as coming “From the director of Thor.” The emphasis is on the espionage and chases that make up the story as Ryan is resold to the audience not as an analyst but a field agent who needs to get his own hands dirty to save the day.
The Personal Projects
Just as the Shakespeare adaptations have been crowded out by franchise projects, Branagh’s few forays into wholly original stories dried up early on in his career. That’s a shame since they present such an interesting picture of what he was, and may still be, capable of.
Branagh’s sophomore directorial effort sees him starring as private investigator Mike Church, who reluctantly gets involved in the case of an amnesiac woman (Thompson). As the threads unravel and the mystery of who she is exposed, connections between the two of them become clear. A taut, efficient and chilling thriller in the true Hitchcockian tradition, the movie holds up. It also features one of the all-time great cameos from Robin Williams as a surly psychiatrist-turned-grocery store stocker.
The dual nature of the filmmaking and the story itself is immediately on display in the trailer, starting with footage from the past and intercutting it with the mystery consuming Mike and Amanda. There are jump scares and hints as to the past lives that everyone is dealing with and the search for answers not only in the past but also in the present. It’s a romantic thriller that’s being sold here and damn does it work.
Admittedly, this one falls into a grey area. Branagh directed but the script came from Rita Rudner and her husband Martin Bergman. The story follows six university friends who reunite at the house owned by Peter (Stephen Fry), who wants them all there to hear news he has to share and enjoy one last weekend together. Each one brings their significant other, which causes additional drama and comedy as all these personalities navigate around each other.
While the director’s previous movies are cited as the trailer opens it’s clear that it’s more of a comedy being sold here. From there on out we get glimpses into the various relationships, both former and current, between the characters as it sets up something like The Big Chill but with Brits.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.