Kenneth Branagh talks about his Hollywood comeback

Director Kenneth Branagh with Cinderella star Lily James. Picture: Contributed
Director Kenneth Branagh with Cinderella star Lily James. Picture: Contributed
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KENNETH Branagh’s directing career was drifting until he landed Thor. Now with box office hit Cinderella, he’s back at the top, writes Alistair Harkness

Relief is the key word,” says Kenneth Branagh. He’s talking about the already massive box-office numbers for Cinderella, his lavish live-action adaptation of Disney’s animated classic, which had a $70m opening in the US two weeks ago. Though he already had a good feel for how the film would play with audiences after premiering it at the Berlin Film Festival last month, having moved into blockbuster filmmaking in recent years, he knows that ticket sales are what counts. “The reaction we’ve had is certainly very, very nice – and other times it hasn’t been so nice,” he chuckles. “I’ve been at various ends of the spectrum and this is a nice place to be.”

Sitting in a London hotel room, smartly dressed in dark jeans, jacket and checked shirt, Branagh is in a good position in the film industry these days. A tireless and relentless worker across stage and screen since he first broke through as the 27-year-old writer/director/star of Henry V, at 54 he’s had creative ups and downs and faced audience and critical indifference alike over the years, yet his work ethic has never diminished, and he and Hollywood have finally become a good fit – like Cinderella and her glass slippers.

“I’m very conscious of the fact the directing career has taken some odd turns,” he says. “Maybe there’s enough bulk where I’m now pigeonholed in the ‘eclectic box’.

“‘Oh, it’s another surprise, is it?’” he adds, in mocking reference to way his involvement in the likes of Thor and Cinderella has been reported in the last few years. “But I’m happy with where I am.”

Cinderella certainly seems like an oddly appropriate movie to have made at this stage in his career. Given the latterday success he’s enjoying, it feels that he’s being justly rewarded for his prodigious work rate. His cast were certainly in awe of the fact he was prepping the film while performing Macbeth every night in a deconsecrated Manchester church to sell-out crowds and rave reviews.

Wasn’t he knackered? “Well, I like to think that you have this sort of charge from the complimentary energies. They’re both creative endeavours so one feeds the other. And I was drinking coffee then.”

He’s not today. He’s been off caffeine for three weeks and meat for eight. “I don’t know why,” he says. “There are lots of marvellous philosophical reasons, but I just wanted to not be stuck in habits.”

Cinderella certainly isn’t stuck in old habits. Though not as outwardly radical a reinvention of fairytale lore as Maleficent – the titular heroine (played by Downton Abbey’s Lily James) still falls for the Prince (Scottish actor Richard Madden), still wears the glass slippers and still takes delight in her opulent transformation scenes, pumpkin carriage and all – Branagh was keen to eliminate the passive victim element present in the animated version. “That’s a very compressed story that has Cinderella fall willy-nilly into a marriage race for a character who she doesn’t meet. So there’s a very pageant-like quality to that and part of the challenge was to try and recalibrate her character: to have her respond to all the same things but from a different position – a much more empowered and thoughtful position. That was really the subtle twist in it.”

The film’s success certainly endorses Disney’s plan to launch more live-action films based on the studio’s animated fairytales. “I think in the wake of the domination of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, everyone is now looking for a grand plan,” explains Branagh. “I’m sure at Disney, when you’re living in a world where in the next room is Pixar and the next room is Marvel and down the corridor is LucasFilm you want to get yourself a plan.”

Branagh, of course, was instrumental in helping usher in the Marvel era. Along with the first Iron Man movie, Thor was really the key to establishing the tone of the interlinked comic book movie universe that has, via The Avengers, enabled Marvel to dominate the blockbuster arena.

“It’s amazing because they were sort of ridiculed and seen as amateurs,” he remembers of Marvel’s early days as a film studio. “They’d already sold the shop: they’d sold Spider-Man and they’d sold X-Men, all the best stuff – and here they were with B- and C-list characters like Iron Man and Thor. They have a long memory for those moments of relative isolation and indignity and humiliation.”

It’s hardly surprising Branagh gelled with them and it’s interesting to wonder if he’d been a twenty-something releasing Henry V now whether he’d have been fast-tracked to the position he’s actually ended up in. “I don’t know if that would happen, but I did have a moment like that when Henry V happened,” he says, referring to 1991’s Dead Again, Out of Sight screenwriter Scott Frank’s high-concept detective movie that Branagh directed and starred in with then-wife Emma Thompson. “We did it, I was very proud of it, and it did very nicely. It was number one at the box office for four weeks and there was no question there was a Hollywood moment to go out there and to stay out there. But I came back and did some more theatre and a couple of little British films that I love.”

He says Frankenstein was an attempt to return to that “fork in the road”, but “it just didn’t work”. After its failure, he concentrated mostly on bringing the Bard to the big screen. In retrospect, though, it seems odd his big-screen acting career never quite took off.

Did he just not want to pursue that strand of his career? “To some extent I had other commitments, but I had a go at it; it just didn’t work, frankly. I had a period of making films that just weren’t successful. But I learned a great deal. I did Celebrity by Woody Allen. I did The Gingerbread Man with Robert Altman. These were big talents. I got to be in Paul Greengrass’s first film [The Theory of Flight]. So I got to work with a lot of terrific people, but that moment didn’t quite happen the way I imagined.”

He doesn’t have too many regrets. His one worry in his career was the dwindling audience for films like As You Like It, Sleuth and his adaptation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. That’s why he leapt at the chance to do Thor, then Jack 
Ryan: Shadow Recruit and now Cinderella.

“I wanted to get to an audience because I knew that the work itself would be the same, but I wanted the chance to do something in a form where more people would see it.”

Surely, then, a Bond film would be the logical next step for him, either as a director or in a supporting actor role. Has he ever been approached? He grins. “Either would be nice, thank you very much. I’ll give you my number, you can pass it on to Barbara Broccoli. I’ve always loved the Bond films.”

Cinderella is out now.

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