Friday, March 4, 2011

Friday Night Relaxer: King Colin Conquers Ken (and the rest of the English acting world)

On Monday during the Oscars telecast, film and music journo, Lynden Barber wrote, what I thought was a pretty incisive tweet:

Colin Firth is the Brit actor that Branagh was hyped up to be early in the latter's career 

It’s true. Let’s go back to 1989. Ken Branagh had just done Henry V; here’s how Time Magazine described him:

He is the most accomplished, acclaimed and ambitious performer of his generation. In 1984 he dazzled audiences as the youngest actor ever to play the title role in Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC ). He starred in the Masterpiece Theater mini-series Fortunes of War. He built his own repertory company and led it through sold-out seasons in London and the provinces. He has written two plays and an autobiography, Beginning. He even married his leading lady, TV star Emma Thompson. No doubt about it: Branagh has conquered Britain.
So not exactly damning him with faint praise.

That year he was nominated for Best Actor for Henry V (he lost to that other great English Actor – Daniel Day-Lewis).

Let’s compare him to Colin Firth – who was also born in 1960.

At that stage Branagh was directing and acting in great Shakesperian roles. He was going to be the new Olivier. Firth on the other hand at this stage had had some large roles in small films (A Month in the Country – a film in which Branagh had a supporting role and Apartment Zero), and also in some TV series, but he didn’t get anything like the review Branagh got for his acting in Fortunes of War. In 1989 he got the lead role in Valmont, that film which lost out to Dangerous Liaisons in the race of which film adaptation of the play Dangerous Liaisons would be the big hit (incidentally Valmont co-starred Annette Benning – she recovered as well).

Had you asked back in 1989 which of the two would be most likely by 2010 to be called A National Treasure, picking Firth would have had your film-knowledge chops seriously questioned.
And yet, Firth has now won 2 BAFTA Best Actors in a row (only the second person to do that), and has a Best Actor Oscar (Branagh hasn’t been nominated for an Acting Oscar since Henry V). Firth is now a “serious actor” and also rom-com gold standard (Mamma Mia! Bridget Jones, Love Actually), and Branagh’s last two roles were in the woeful The Boat that Rocked and as a standard German officer in Valkryie. Sure he may have been the best thing about Tom Cruise’s Nazi film (because there’s no doubting, Branagh can bloody-well act!), but when was the last time you heard Ken Branagh was going to be in a film and you got excited just by that thought?

Here’s Branagh’s film credits in the last 15 years:
Now look, they’re not all bad. Conspiracy is an excellent small film about the drawing up of the Final Solution (also starred Firth). Rabbit Proof Fence is obviously good. But take his role in Harry Potter – it was a bit of a joke role. At least Ralph Fiennes in the Harry Potter films is playing a character who is going to be remembered.
But he’s also a director I hear you cry! Well you think back in 1989 people were expecting this role of films from his camera:
I’m saying Dead Again showed things were a bit amiss, and Peter’s Friends almost sealed his fate. Sleuth made a mere $4.8m worldwide, Love’s Labours Lost made about $300,000. These are not films which have connected with audiences. And they are certainly not what we were expecting back in 1989 when he did this:

Now let’s look at Firth in the same time:
Now conversely, not all are great. No one is hoping for Hope Springs 2, or The Last Legion Again. But in that time he’s been in three Best Picture films, part of the Bridget Jones success, the St Trinian’s fun, the Nanny McPhee joy, and also the Mamma Mia phenomenon (in which he played a gay character, and yet I still bet most women watch not caring and assuming he could be theirs) .

Here’s the other thing – look at the number – thirty two films. Branagh by comparison has been in twenty in that time. That doesn’t sound like a big difference, but compare it since they both were in Conspiracy. Since then Firth has done 23 films to Branagh’s 6.

Branagh is hardly a working actor anymore. And he does not pick roles with the smarts of Daniel Day-Lewis (who since My Left Foot in 1989 has only been in nine roles! But, geez, look at his strike rate!):
The odd thing is that Branagh could have had Firth’s career. Branagh would have been excellent in many of Firth’s roles. The English Patient would have been well within his wheelhouse; he would have eaten up the Shakespeare in Love role.
But of course the one role that Firth has that differentiates himself from Branagh, and which in so many ways led to everything else, (especially the realms of rom-com gold standardom) is this:

It is amazing what one great role can do for your career. Take another English actor also born in 1960 (in fact one day before Firth), Hugh Grant.

Here was Grant’s film CV till 1993:
Major rom-com star? Not likely! Impromptu is a lovely gem, but Maurice? In which Grant plays one of two Cambridge “chums” who find themselves preferring each others company to that of girls. Nice film, but it suggested Grant was going to be more on the edgier side of things – something Bitter Moon suggests as well.
And then came Four Wedding and a Funeral. And here’s what came after:
Not many risks there; a few stinkers, but also a some very often watched films: Sense and Sensibility, Notting Hill, About a Boy, Bridget Jones, Two Weeks Notice, Love Actually that’s actually a Cary Grant like run of solid romantic comedy films. It also contains a hell of a lot more memorable roles than Branagh has ever had.

Firth, Grant and Branagh are now all over 50. Given their careers you would think Grant will be the one to struggle most with the move to older roles (Cary Grant did it, but he did it with suave; Hugh Grant’s persona seems to be more suited to a 30s early 40s kind of guy). Branagh of course will fit nicely into older heavier roles – but will he?

Sure he may stick with directing – he’s behind the camera for Thor which comes out later this year. But in terms of directing heavier roles, perhaps he should look over his shoulder at the two year’s younger Ralph Fiennes, who has completed his first directing gig doing Shakespeare's Coriolanus (in which he also stars). Fiennes also is rumored to be the next James Bond villain – the type of role you’d think Branagh could play as well. In fact looking at Fienne’s career since he came onto the film world, and you see another career that one would’ve thought Branagh-likely back in 1989:
Thirty four films. Some horrible (Maid in Manhattan), but many very good and very interesting, even if small – eg his role in In Bruges. (He also has the honour of being the avatar of a certain blogger).

Branagh of course is hardly struggling to make ends meet, but it just shows that for even those actors supposedly at the top, you can’t take a career for granted – though given Firth’s recent run, he probably can have a bit of a relaxer.

And may you all also have a relaxing weekend.


Andrew said...

Interesting thesis and a good read. I really like Fiennes best of the three actors whose careers you review. I must thank you for reminding me of his turn in In Bruges. I'm off to YouTube to watch that scene where he's buying (or was it selling?) the gun.

Minty said...

An excellent article, but you forgot Branagh's TV series "Wallander", which is probably the best thing he's done in the last few years.

Gordicans said...

Comparisons are odious (especially between people of equal merit).

Pip said...

Sorry Grog, I got as far as the Lake Scene and was distracted...

Nicholas Gruen said...

Thanks for a great review Grog. Lots of work too - all those links.

When I saw Branagh's Henry V at the time I thought it was marvellous. And I love the Crispian's Day speech - which I occasionally try to read to my uninterested kids.

But when I looked at it again, I thought it was pretty bad. The initial 1/3 or so of the clip is very odd. It's as if the actors aren't really concentrating. It's smug and there's nothing much happening emotionally. There would be lots of emotions to call on if you were an actor. The anxiety, fear and dread before a horrible battle. The potential elation which comes out later.

Anyway the speech gets going but a lot of that is the genius of Shakespeare, not Branagh. And note the corny music in the background. Music always has to be watched like a hawk.

Not saying you shouldn't enjoy it and let it contribute to your experience, but it puts you in a kind of trance - a trance in which you can think that what you're watching or listening to is profound - when it's not.

(I remember listening to Savage Garden's 'Affirmation' and thinking it was really pretty profound stuff, until I made myself go through the words and it was clear that there was some good lines - and some awful ones.)

On revisiting this I thought (to my surprise) Branagh's speech in that scene is similar - good and bad, and pretty much never great.

mary cunnane said...

A bit of personal reminiscence about Branagh.
In 1982 I saw the very young KB on stage in the West End in Another Country and was greatly impressed. A few years later, as a publisher at W.W. Norton in NY, I read that he was - rather incredibly for one so young -- writing his autobiography. We secured the US rights and published the aptly titled Beginning just when Henry V was released. I still remember the long queue of people waiting to meet him at his first book signing in Chicago (where he was appearing in King Lear with Emma Thompson.)

To my mind Henry V stands as a considerable achievement and is still thrilling to watch. It was made with, the ardour of youth and intelligence -- and on a shoe-string budget. The long tracking shot at the end which follows Henry carrying the dead boy was filmed, I learned,in an open field next to the M4 with cars streaming by.)

And I beg to differ on the music, which is not corny -- but beautiful -- to my ear. It was composed by Patrick Doyle, who also did the score for KB's Much Ado About Nothing.

Finally, well worth watching are KB and ET in the 1987 TV series, The Fortunes of War, based on Olivia Manning's The Balkan Triology. It was their first appearance together.

Greg Jericho said...

Oh Nicholas I have to take issue with you! I think Patrick Doyle's score is amazing! (and agree with Mary - love the Much Ado score as well - "Strike Up Pipers" is excellent).

Yep Shakespeare does a lot of the work, but by the time Branagh is finished with his speech, I'm about ready to enlist!

Minty - yeah, I left out TV (except Pride and P) - mostly because I wanted to look at their respective film careers.

Pip, I doubt you are alone there.

Gordicans - odious? I'm not suggesting Branagh is better or worse an actor than Firth - I think KB is a great actor. I am more just interested in how their respective careers have gone.

Jaeger said...

I can't watch Jane Austin films without thinking of Red Dwarf's "Pride & Prejudice World".

aidan said...

Branagh just doesn't have the gravitas. At the beginning of that Henry V scene he is terribly hammy.

Compare his leadership to that of, say, Russell Crowe in Master & Commander. Not even close.

Anonymous said...

While many film 'stars' have made their breakthrough via one film (Hugh Grant, as you point out), how many stars have made their film stardom breakthrough via TV? Apart from Firth I can't really think of any.

There are some actors who started out in TV and got a name (Clooney, Depp) but arguably they weren't film stars until their films succeeded. No one thinks of either of Clooney as 'the one from ER' anymore.

There are some more minor stars who have moved into (and been successful in films) based on their TV roles and are still best remembered for their TV roles (Sarah Michelle Geller, for example); but they are rare and not at the Firth level - SMG is remembered for Buffy because her films since then just haven't been as strong as Buffy; whereas Firth has won many awards and is still remembered as Darcy.


Bells said...

one of the funniest things Firth has ever said about Mr Darcy is that he could become an astronaut and the headline would still read 'Mr Darcy lands on the moon.'

I imagine it's a burden and a blessing, being Mr Darcy.

The thing about Hugh Grant is that he hates his romantic lead roles but probably deep down know what we all know. it's what he does best. But even as Daniel Cleaver, it was a romantic lead with bite.

Kenneth - ah kenneth. The worst thing that ever happened to him was divorcing Emma. She's worth 20 of him and he knows it - he came out looking very bad and though I hate to reduce an actor to his personal life, it does play a role in public perception.If you look like a twat, the career can suffer - and it has.

Excellent point about DDL. minimal roles, most of high quality. He's a hero, for sure.

Anonymous said...

Became film famous on TV: George Clooney, Johnny Depp, more recently Katherine Heigel and Patrick Dempsey. Jennifer Aniston. Helen Mirren.

The Shadow said...

I caught some of Wallander the other night and Branagh was certainly very impressive. Acting is a combination of a lot of factors and only when they all line up do you get a quality experience. Perhaps the stars aren't quite right for KB?

Dermott Banana said...

A wonderful post Grog, and I have to agree with most of it.
I recently had cause to revisit Branagh's Henry V and the St Crispan's Day speech and was disappointed with it. He shouts most of it, and I think it could have been done with more heart than he displays. Re-watching it made me think he was racing through the lines, which was disappointing because I remember it as a highlight from all those years ago.

Ryan said...

Article on Branagh by Joe Queenan in the Guardian yesterday touching on similar themes:

Best line: "This is how Daniel Day-Lewis ended up with the career Branagh was supposed to have; the world doesn't need two Oliviers, and it doesn't need two Day-Lewises. There would be no scenery left on the planet to eat."

Anonymous said...

You've just written a fantastic post about the only two men I'd leave my boyfriend for.

I... have to go away from the computer for a while...

Anonymous said...

aidan said...
"Branagh just doesn't have the gravitas. At the beginning of that Henry V scene he is terribly hammy.

Compare his leadership to that of, say, Russell Crowe in Master & Commander. Not even close."

I agree with this from aidan. Branagh can be awfully hammy, it's true. ..abd he's not as good looking and sexy as Colin Firth.