Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1960 of working class parents. Moved to England when he was 9 yrs. Studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Early successes in West End theatre and TV before joining Royal Shakespeare Company where one of his early roles was as King Lear and HV. KB became disatisfied with working at pinnacle of traditional English acting and left to found his own troupe - the Renaissance Theatre Company as actor-manager. Took with him some of the leading Shakespearean actors and actresses, allowed them greater freedom than they had in RSC, eg. allowing actors to direct. Cheekily wrote his own biography, Beginnings, at age of 28 in order to fund his company. Radical attempt to make Shakespeare commercial by seeking funding from the City. Thatcherite entrepreneurial actor/director.
Came to international attention with adaptation of HV. Other films include: Dead Again (1991) a film noir thriller, a light comedy Peter's Friends (1992), a film of a Chekhov short story Swan Song (1992), next major adaptation of Shakespeare Much Ado About Nothing (1993) with well-known Hollywood actors like Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton and Keanu Reeves and his wife Emma Thompson (since separated). While being recognized as a commercially clever adapter of Shakespeare's plays for a popular audience, critics have often criticised him for emhasizing cinematic style over intellectual substance.
Made in conjunction with the BBC which contributed $9m to its funding. Shakespeare's play adapted by KB who also directed film (like LO). After meteoric rise to fame in stage performancs of S's plays in England KB at age of 28 KB turned to make popular and profitable movie of HV. Thatcher's urging that British arts be self-financing taken up by KB.
Whereas LO wanted to show pageantry and glory of English victory at Agincourt, KB's aim was to stress devastation of war. On the battle itself, it was to be:
The greatest tracking shot in the world. That was my theory anyway. It was certainly bloody long. After the close-up carnage of Agincourt, I wanted to reveal as much of the devastation as possible. On our limited location, we had not only built a 500-foot tracking platform, but designer Tim Harvey and his team had constructed a terrifying battlefield, where our 300 extras would mingle, wounded and dead, with horses and large numbers of dummy horses and people. To the accompaniment of a single voice starting the Non Nobis hymn, the exhausted monarch would march the entire length of the battlefield to clear the place of the dead. As they marched, the music would swell to produce a tremendous climax. (Quoted in Alan Roberts review "Henry V: Once More Unto the Screen.")
Harks forward to devastation of Somme in 1916. Links brief mention in play of HV crossing Somme River to battle of that name some 500 years later. Perhaps accommodates need of audiences in 1980s for bloodier representation of battle. In another interview given to promote the film when it was released in USA KB says:
All the blood-and-guts was quite deliberate. In fact, if eyewitness accounts of the Battle of Agincourt are to be believed, we were rather modest in our representation of it. It was very unpleasant, undignified, inelegant butchery.
The rain had been on for 10 days and nights prior to the battle. The vastly superior French force got involved in a giant traffic jam and, in fact, many of the French people died through suffocation when they fell on top of each other and in their heavy armour couldn't get up. (Review by Sally Ogle Davis, "Under the Lion's Skin: Young Kenneth Branagh continues to Defy Critics of his remakable Career," The Weekend Australian, December 23-24, 1989.)
Although KB shows HV to be a calculating politician and gives a more realistic account of battle than did LO, ultimately (according to one reviewer, Peter Greenaway) KB gives a traditional "full-blooded, charismatic" performance of H's big speeches. See Chris Fitter's article on changes KB made in film from stage production. Watering down?
Concerning Branagh's film, the critic Fitter claims that:
Branagh's Henry, though thrilling entertainment, gives us a work whose center comprises, as in the tradition of United States versions of the Vietnam War, a young male rite-of-passage movie rather than a critique of institutional power and class injustice...
Kenneth Branagh has done us, as lovers of Shakespeare, a quite wonderful cultural service, in giving us a Shakespeare that is genuinely popular, intelligent and enthralling, unforgettable if also unfaithful... But he has done the ordinary people of the English-speaking world... an irresponsible political disservice, in whitewashing traditional autocracy and the logic of imperialism. (pp. 274-5).
Literature/Film Quarterly, 1992, vol. 20, no. 4. Series of articles on Branagh's film.
Chris Fritter, "A Tale of Two Branaghs: Henry V, Ideology, and the Mekong Agincourt," in Shakespeare Left and Right, ed. Ivo Kamps et al. (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 259-75.
Peter S. Donaldson, "Taking on Shakespeare: Kenneth Branagh's Henry V," Shakespeare Quarterly, 1991 Spring, vol. 42, no. 1, pp. 60-71.