It's difficult to imagine now, but there was a time--call it in the early 1990s--when Kenneth Branagh was the biggest young celebrity in Britain. He wasn't yet 30 when he directed and starred in Henry V in 1989, but people were already comparing him to Laurence Olivier. As a director, he had an eye for imposing images and unpredictable performers. His marriage to and divorce from co-star Emma Thompson set off a London tabloid frenzy, yes, but it was cut from a better cloth than the usual football wife scandal. Branagh was going to go places as an actor and a director.
And he has. Just not the places most people expected. Case in point: his new movie Thor, which has opened to solid reviews this weekend, is about a blond superhero with a hammer. If the thought of the ex-next great Shakespearean actor tackling such a project sounds silly, well, that's been a Branagh specialty over the past 15 years. Some of his goofiest contributions as an actor and director include:
Dead Again (1991)
The mashup of gothic horror and Raymond Chandler is probably Branagh's best movie as a director. It's also insane, jumping back and forth between past lives, phony psychics, Robin Williams, and an unsolved string of scissor murders from decades earlier. As with future projects, it also expects us to ignore that the Bogart role is being played by Kenneth Branagh. (Maybe the filmmakers hoped the audience would be too busy admiring the stark black-and-white imagery to notice.)
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Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
Branagh is not a snob. Sometimes this works in his favor, like on Thor. Other times, it stops his films cold. Casting Keanu Reeves as Don John and--even worse, surprisingly--Michael Keaton as Dogberry. Despite the rest of the film--including Branagh's own monologues, and his back-and-forth with then-wife Thomson--being spectacular, the Dogberry-Don John business was a pretty serious flaw. It was Branagh's worst casting decision until...
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994)
...his very next movie, when he tabbed Robert De Niro as Frankenstein's monster. For a "literary" adaptation of Shelley's novel, there's an awful lot of thunder, lightning, and campiness from John Cleese. Again, give Branagh credit: he's genuinely fine with his monster having a New York accent.
It's widely agreed that Branagh contributed the one of the worst Woody Allen impressions in the history of Woody Allen movies. Unnoticed--possibly because Celebrity is terrible and depressing and nobody ever watches it--is the level of detail he brings to the role of Woody surrogate. Branagh did his homework, and that's the problem. He's a perfect storm of tics, mannerisms, and an indeterminate American accent.
The Gingerbread Man (1998)
The one John Grisham adaptation that didn't mint money in the 1990s was also the one Grisham movie to be directed by Robert Altman, and star Branagh as a fast-talking Georgia defense lawyer. Branagh, as usual, marinates himself in local color (baseball hats and soul patches) and spends an inordinate amount of time running around in thunderstorms. The whole endeavor was bad enough for PolyGram briefly to take the $25 million film away from Altman in the editing room, only to give it back after the director very publicly complained.
Wild Wild West (1999)
Branagh entered the Christopher Walken-supporting weirdo phase of his career as Dr. Arliss Loveless, a Confederate mad scientist bent on controlling the American west with giant mechanical spiders. It's still Will Smith's only flop. We believe Branagh's romantic subplot with Salma Hayek contributed to that in some small way.
Love's Labour's Lost (2000)
If you've asked yourself, "Why doesn't Hollywood make more movies from lesser Shakespeare comedies where the actors burst into Cole Porter songs (without dubbing)," here's your answer. The combination of Shakespearean dialogue and singing and dancing would be enough to give the most accomplished of actors pause. We can only imagine what it did to Matthew Lillard and Alicia Silverstone, Branagh's girlfriend at the time.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
Branagh played foppish Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Gilderoy Lockhart in the franchise's sophomore outing , but what he really wanted to do was direct the third installment in the series. He lost out to Alfonso Cuaron. On the plus side, he was allowed to wear a jaunty red wig.
Branagh's claustrophobic, dead tech remake of the 1972 Laurence Olivier-Michael Caine mystery does away with the original's playful spirit for a Pinteresque look at England's class system. This makes more sense when you realize the script was in fact written by Harold Pinter. But why? It's a remake. Based on a play. A light, breezy play with lots of gadgets and accents and disguises. Nobody else in Hollywood would try to spice up such material with lingering shots of gorgeous minimalist furniture and a live burial inside a glass elevator. But that's Kenneth Branagh for you.