Kenneth Branagh has been so successful in so many areas that it can sometimes be easy to take him for granted. He blasted off with his directorial debut, “Henry V” (1989), which earned him Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Director, and has continued to expand his resume with a mixture of refined dramas, commercial blockbusters, and acclaimed thrillers.
Incredibly, Branagh is having one of his best runs yet. His autobiographical drama, “Belfast” (2021), is nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, making him the first person in history to be nominated in seven different categories. His latest release, “Death on the Nile,” is now in theaters, and the high-concept mystery, coupled with the star-studded cast, is the perfect example of Branagh’s head-spinning range. Simply put, he can do it all.
In the hopes of giving Branagh his proper due, we’ve decided to come through his four decades of directing and determine which films best showcase his talents. Here’s what we came up with:
10. “Murder On The Orient Express” (2017)
It’s fitting that we kick off the list with the first installment of Branagh’s Hercule Poirot franchise. “Murder on the Orient Express” was a tall order for the filmmaker, given that it had already been adapted into a classic whodunnit back in 1974. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of that earlier adaptation, but as a tribute to a genre we rarely see these days, it gets the job done.
Branagh has fun as the fussy Poirot, and he chooses to play up the self-aggrandizing to such a degree that it feels like a sly parody of earlier portrayals. The ensemble cast is memorable, with Johnny Depp and Michelle Pfieffer appropriately hamming it up as the victim and the ringleader, respectively. Ultimately, it feels like sturdy ground to build on if Branagh even decides to adapt a less famous Agatha Christie novel or push the Poirot character into less obvious territory.
9. “Cinderella” (2015)
Another remake of a celebrated film, “Cinderella” has quietly gained a reputation for being one of Disney’s best live-action adaptations. Branagh’s decision to flesh out characters who were merely peripheral in the original proved to be solidly effective, especially when it’s applied to Cate Blanchett’s evil stepmother. He doesn’t undercut the message of the original so much as strengthen it by having more three-dimensional characters enact the familiar beats.
That’s not to say that Branagh doesn’t bask in the more commercial elements of the story as well. The romance between Cinderella (Lily James) and the Prince (Richard Madden) is wonderfully sweet and devoid of the sort of irony that’s become commonplace in so many Disney remakes. It feels like a genuine connection is made, and Branagh takes the extra care to ensure that we aren’t just running through the motions. Not a masterpiece by any means, but a surprisingly earnest take on an otherwise fanciful tale.
8. “Thor” (2011)
Branagh’s affinity for Dutch angles was never more apparent than in “Thor.” The first installment in the Marvel franchise is loaded with tilts and exaggerated camera angles that play up the confusion of the titular hero (Chris Hemsworth). This directorial flourish hasn’t aged all that well, but other choices proved surprisingly prophetic as we all gear up for the fourth “Thor” installment.
The emphasis on secondary characters, namely Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and Darcy (Kat Dennings), has aged like wine when considering their roles within the MCU. Branagh also had the foresight to spotlight Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and while the character would be allowed to flex his chops more in later films, the core of his mischievous appeal is found here. When compared to its inferior sequel, “Thor: The Dark World,” it becomes apparent that Branagh’s deft touch makes a sizable difference.
7. “Peter’s Friends” (1992)
“Peter’s Friends” is a refreshingly low-stakes drama from Branagh. The film is a British riff on “The Big Chill” (1983), in that it follows a group of college friends who reunite after a decade apart. Very little happens in terms of plot, but the cast, made up of stars like Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, and Imelda Staunton, have so much chemistry that it scarcely matters.
Branagh’s direction is appropriately easy going throughout. He lets the actors chew the scenery as they see fit and displays a surprising amount of eclecticism when compared to the airtight structure of his Shakespeare adaptations. “Peter’s Friends” is an outlier in Branagh’s career, but it’s the sort of outlier that only strengthens his case as a filmmaker.
6. “In The Bleak Midwinter” (1995)
“In the Bleak Midwinter” is an interesting release, primarily because it seems to be in conversation with some of Branagh’s earlier films. It has the ensemble charm of “Peter’s Friends,” with the plot following a group of eccentrics who try to put on a play at a church, and the inescapable influence of Shakespeare, as they wish to put on a production of “Hamlet.”
There’s a satirical, self-knowing slant to the film, as the balance of artistry and commerce is a central conflict for its main character (Michael Mahoney). Branagh’s engagement with Shakespeare is fascinating here, largely because it gives him a chance to comment on the works that he so frequently adapts.
5. “Much Ado About Nothing” (1993)
Branagh’s most accessible Shakespeare adaptation, “Much Ado About Nothing” is a romantic comedy of the highest caliber, and the director delights in bringing the various absurdities of the Bard’s original text to the screen. Branagh also distinguishes the film by giving it a warm Technicolor glow compared to the dour cinematography found in some of his other adaptations.
Also, what a cast. “Much Ado About Nothing” is a veritable reading of Hollywood’s A-list at the time, with Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, and Keanu Reeves delivering effortlessly charismatic performances (Reeves’ blowhard delivery will have varying results depending on the viewer). If one is looking for an entry into Branagh’s catalog of Shakespeare, you needn’t look any further.
4. “Dead Again” (1991)
Branagh may have seemed like an odd choice to helm an American neo-noir, but he once again proved himself a chameleon with the riveting “Dead Again.” He plays Mike Church, a PI who tries to help the mysterious Grace (Emma Thompson) regain her memory after a freak accident. As it turns out, Church and Grace knew each other, and their volatile history may include previous lives in the 1940s…
We won’t spoil the mystery, but suffice to say, “Dead Again” is one of Branagh’s most underrated films. He and Thompson have dynamite chemistry, and the melding of modern and classical noir tropes gives the film a visual literacy that rewards repeat viewings. See it as soon as possible if you haven’t already.
3. “Belfast” (2021)
Branagh ironically dug into the past to make his best directorial effort of the 21st century. “Belfast” follows a young boy (Jude Hill) who’s forced to grow up during the beginning of The Troubles in 1969. It’s loosely based on Branagh’s own experiences in Belfast, Ireland, and the film’s unmistakable tactile quality serves to highlight just how much the filmmaker is pouring himself into this particular vehicle.
“Belfast” is filled with beautiful little moments, whether they be courtesy of the main boy or the adults who raise him. Jamie Dornan and Caitríona Balfe give career-best performances as the boy’s parents, and the implementation of music, whether it be a diegetic sing-a-long or a superbly-chosen needle drop, showcases yet another tool in Branagh’s directorial toolbox. The Oscar nominations are well-deserved.
2. “Henry V” (1989)
Branagh announced himself as a generational talent with this directorial debut. “Henry V” is a daunting topic for any filmmaker, let alone a first-timer who also plays the titular role, and yet he managed to make the material feel wholly transcendent. The delivery of Shakespeare’s dialogue was at once faithful and refreshing, familiar yet unpredictable.
Brannagh intuitively understood how to modernize “Henry V” for a modern audience, and he did so by prioritizing the kineticism of the main character’s military acumen and assembling a cast of the finest British actors of the day (Emma Thompson, Derek Jacobi, Ian Holm, Judi Dench, etc.) to play against. The economy of the storytelling is also worth noting. Branagh leaves very little fat on the bone, and the result is one of the most revered Shakespeare films of all time.
1. “Hamlet” (1996)
“Henry V” would have been a highwater mark for most filmmakers, but Branagh sought to top himself with his 1996 adaptation of “Hamlet.” It was a sprawling undertaking, with an international cast and a runtime (242 minutes) that pushed against the accessibility of his previous Shakespeare adaptations. “Hamlet” was far and away the most ambitious film of Branagh’s career; his bid for immortality on the big screen.
The filmmaker is firing on all cylinders here. His command of the material is such that you’d think he was the originator if it weren’t such an iconic tale. His ability to wrangle the disparate acting styles of Julie Christie, Robin Williams, Kate Winslet, and Charlton Heston into a cohesive and compelling whole is mind-boggling, let alone the cunning, ice-cold performance he manages to deliver on his own.
Few men would have attempted an adaptation of this size and scope, and even fewer would have been able to pull it off. Branagh did both, and the magnitude of his achievement won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
Have you seen “Death On The Nile” yet? If so, what did you think? Do you think Kenneth Branagh is going to win his first Academy Award this year for “Belfast?” What are your favorite films directed by him? Let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
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