Classic Ellis: Ken Branagh, February 1995

Ken Branagh had had another lousy fortnight. (LA, London, Paris and Sydney in nine groggy days) and his smile when I met him (cocktails, Greater Union, jet lag, a harbourside roof) was a tad forced. He was nice to me nonetheless, pleased that my ten-year-old son had liked Henry V and full of cautious praise for its author, an Englishman of a certain local repute. And he is an unexpected pleasure to look at, a beautiful man, like a Michelangelo archangel in designer stubble.

He came and he went, having survived without imploding intimate dialogues that began, ‘Did you find our projection facilities to your satisfaction, er, Kenneth?’ and was later seen on a film set in deep fraternal colloquy with Dennis Whitburn, the dread fate of many unwarned blow-ins who thereafter learn fast.

I’d like to have said a bit more to him (though less, of course, than Dennis), like, mind how you go, have a nice life, don’t care too much, keep working on the stage. He’s a stupendous talent of possibly Wellsian portent and the barracuda pool he’s just dived into is deeply anxious that he be power-munched down to his wishbone with vigour and swiftness and his spreading bloodstains flushed away lest his chromosomes prove infectious.

This is a quaint and torrid way of saying that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a good film (though that’s not the point) and if Jane Campion, say, had been its writer-director it would have been hailed as a masterpiece of resuscitated nineteenth-century femino-Gothic sensibility (which it is) by fools too frightened to say aught else, and any faults it might seem to have are those of Mary Shelley, and how well and how tactfully Ms Campion has worked around them.

But they’re not saying any of that, no way, because the word is out and the fix is in – and Branagh is in the cross-hairs of an industry that is always gangsterly and murderous in the face of many-tentacled talent, as Von Stoheim, Chaplin, Renoir, Preston Sturges, Welles and, lately, Woody Allen found. These arty bastards, you see, who write and direct and act, all at Academy Award level, put honest tradesmen like us and Ray Stark out of work. Because they can do everything they don’t need anyone to mediate and the true trade of Hollywood is not making things but mediating, mediating between septumless brain-dead egomaniacs and Caligula, their agent. In such a crazed metropolis a mild-mannered, punctual, economical, profit-making and Oscar-smelling Proteus like Branagh is as welcome as a breeze from Three Miles Island. He has to be stopped. He will be. If this film works he may be fucking unstoppable!

So the word went out, Frankenstein is a turkey, pass it on. He has to be stopped! Frankenstein DOA, Frankenstein is neck deep in doo-doo, so the millions who therefore never see it will believe that’s what it is. That’s how it works. Fashions are confidently declared and the film journalists leap like a chorus line into appropriate, sneering posture, ta-daa. And competing homo-erotic rubbish like Interview with the Vampire minces past without a dissenting murmur because, well, it comes from the system, doesn’t it, and Branagh is not part of the system, and he must be bloodily expunged.

It’s just possible he was set up, the way Puttnam was, Sir Puttnam sorry (hello David), to slaughter himself and, expiring, bleed all over a canvas far too titanic for a mere puny Englishman, as Puttnam with Columbia and later Hugh Hudson with Revolution did, but it’s also (yes) possible he (yes) misjudged the public mood for patched faces and ripped hearts held high above the butchered bosoms of brides on wedding nights of the full moon and for this, maybe, he should be chidden but not for accurately making Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein which was what he set out to do and then with tireless British precision and Irish brio did. Casting Helen Bonham Carter as the aforesaid mutilee was a needlessly Brit-fond foolishness perhaps when a young Pfeiffer or a Meg Ryan maybe was more the go (in horror movies, for preference, butcher blondes), but this is not the point. The point is that a company town that exalted Reds, and Rocky, and L.A. Story, and Dances with Wolves because their actor-managers were their own dull kind of tapdancing mover and shaker, and cast out Chaplin, Von Stroheim, Welles and Allen and Sturges because they appeared arty and mutinous and self-willed and, well, talented, is not a town whose judgments we should cretinously mimic, ever. Just see the movie and yourself decide, okay? The foremost talent of the English-speaking cinema may not have absolutely stuffed up, you never know. You never know.

It’s too late now, I guess. What sheep you are entirely.

Leave a comment ?


  1. It’d be great to team Branagh with Kevin Spacey. I have read that Spacey is doing a remake of the “House of Cards” for American TV. Branagh would be a great Urqhuart.

    • American remakes of English or French stuff hardly ever work, maybe Kevin Spacey can make them work…
      Branagh is not what I had in mind when I read the Mankell’s Wallander stories, but he has convinced me that he is Swedish and that he IS Wallander.

  2. Never Enough Ellis

    I first saw Branagh in the superb adaptation of Manning’s Fortunes of War. He inhabited his role in a way that was utterly compelling. An extraordinary talent.

  3. So pulling it all together :

    King Henry V is now a Swedish police officer who is trying to bring Julian Assange to trial; however, Assad of Syria aided and abetted by the veto of China and Russia, slaughters many of his own citizens in a crisis created by Israel, aided and abetted by the USA which invaded Iraq illegally supported by John Howard who successfully demonised the asylum seekers who fled the war zones created by the Russians USA and Israel and whom Bradley Manning exposed doing what they do and whose stolen documents Assange published to the Americans’ chagrin and the Swedish policeman portrayed by the actor who played Henry V hasn’t yet been able to extradite Julian Assange . . .

    • . . .

      • Thank you for your comment William; says it all really.

        I went to your site today and turned up this gem :

        “the study of these inherent properties of mind is still in its infancy but, in principle, they can be studied ‘rationally’ and ‘scientifically’. Human nature — the province of the disciplines of psychology, sociology and political science — is more problematic. It may not be amenable to what Chomsky calls “the human science forming capacity”. This is a point he has made forcefully more than once:

        … it is quite possible — overwhelmingly probable, one might guess, that we will always learn more about human life and human personality from novels than from scientific psychology. The science-forming capacity is only one facet of our mental endowment. We use it where we can but are not restricted to it, fortunately.”

        (Rukmini Bhaya Nair)

        The entire article is very worthy. Thank you.

      • Further on in the paper :

        “Since the linguist believes she studies ordinary language structures that are ephemeral but reproducible, the qualities valorised in linguistics are seldom originality and expressiveness but rather replicability of analysis, evidence that the explanatory tools and methods proposed will extend to a large set of cases and can be used repeatedly by all. This is the sense in which linguistic methods are egalitarian: they are wilfully blind to social, non-structural distinctions between privileged texts and plebeian utterances.

        Chomsky responded to the rather common-place metaphor of wilful blindness

        that I had used with a far more vivid metaphor of his own, remarking that this was

        “an odd way to put the matter”. It amounted, he added,

        … to saying that a chemist studying H2O is wilfully blind to the wonderful feeling

        of drinking a cool glass of water on a hot summer’s day. It’s just that the chemist

        has nothing to say about the latter.”

        Wonderful stuff; thanks again.

    • Where is your conceptual continuity?

      If you’re trying to say something that you don’t want to state openly because you think it might be unpopular then maybe it had been better to leave well alone.

      The link between Branagh and Wallander is well enough established but the Wikileaks link to Syria relates to CIA activities and Russian and Chinese interests quite apart from having anything to do with Israel. I may be wrong. Have I missed something, or are you just riffing on the usual suspects in an effort to be lighhearted.

  4. and it’s a pity. and repeat. and so it goes. and repeat. and repeat. and so it goes. and it’s a pity. and so it goes. and repeat. and so it goes. and repeat. and so it goes. and it’s a pity. and so it goes. and so it goes. and so it goes. and so it goes. and repeat. repeat. and so it goes. and repeat. and repeat. and repeat. and so it goes. and repeat. and so it goes and repeat. and repeat and repeat. and it’s a pity and so it goes and so it goes and so it goes.

    • A strange similarity to T.S. Eliot in the above.

      Please do some more.

      • Thank you but no.

        Shrunk and White. The Elements of Style. Fourth Edition. Page 17.

        “But when this device, or any device, is too often used, it becomes a mannerism.”

        And detrimental.

        But here above your own words were used, your own phrases, your own wishes embraced, and so it is good.

        In those words and phrases are wishes, such as Henderson “and so it was” or “and so it is” (can you remember?) and now Henderson is remembered by those words, that phrase. And very, very famous. Can you remember?

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