5 Must See Early Kenneth Branagh Films That Aren’t Shakespeare Movies
Kenneth Branagh is perhaps best known by modern audiences for his role in Dunkirk and as the director of the original Thor, though fans of Harry Potter surely know him by Gilderoy Lockhart. The actors has been making movies since the late 1980s, and in fact, earned the highest praise for his directorial and leading role debut in the Shakespearean adaptation of Henry V. Indeed, the 90s and early 2000s became a sort of revival of Shakespeare thanks to Branagh as went went on to several more critical favorites.
Meanwhile though he was busy with other projects and put together an impressive little list of films in the decade that fell under the shadow of his epic Shakespeare films, each more diverse than the other. Often directing and starring in these movies, his style always felt built for the stage, emotive, strongly-acted, character-driven and prone to swings of humor and drama tied to authentic human experiences. While his Shakespeare films rightly remain his legacy, here are five other important movies with Kenneth Branagh you ought to see.
Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)
Directed by Phillip Noyce, and based loosely on a true story, the film is set in 1931 Australia and follows three young aboriginal girls who escape a re-education work camp for “half-castes“, people born of half white and half aboriginal parents. It is a time of great social injustice, terrible racism and bigotry, where native Australians are considered less than human. These three girls take to walking for nine weeks along the 1,500 miles (2,400 km) of the country’s famous rabbit-proof fence, trying to return to their homes, relying on the kindness of strangers to survive while hunted by authorities. Branagh plays A. O. Neville, or “the Devil” as the girls call him, he the official Protector of Western Australian Aborigines who firmly believes that stripping these people of their native identity is bettering them. While these girls are the heart of the film, Branagh’s presence is always looming, his performance twisted not with the tropes of a maniacal madman, but with narrow-minded passion of a man wholly misguided. A great film.
The Gingerbread Man (1998)
Directed by the legendary Robert Altman and based on a manuscript by 90s crime writing phenom John Grisham, the film is a juicy tale of intrigue and danger set in the deep South. Branagh is Rick Magruder, a lawyer with a sordid reputation who becomes involved with a beautiful young woman named Mallory Doss (Embeth Davidtz). Her father (Robert Duvall) is abusive, so she claims, and as such, she convinces Rick to put him on trial and has him institutionalized. He escapes however, and appears to come after Rick and his children from a failed marriage to Leeane (Famke Janssen). But not all is as it seems. Co-starring Daryl Hannah, Tom Berenger, and Robert Downey Jr., this is a pulpy thriller to be sure, with a threatening hurricane closing in on the climax and lots of seedy performances, you’re meant to be guessing throughout. Branagh is terrific in the lead, a flawed character with his own haunts that make Magruder a compelling watch. This is classic late 90s fair and well worth a look.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)
Directed by and starring Branagh, this will mostly likely be the most divisive on this list, as the film divided audiences right from the start. It’s a huge film, an aggressively bombastic adaptation that has no room or time for nuance, instead, taking to the famous story with all the ambition of a high production stage play, which is just what Branagh does best. It thrives on making everyone in the back row of the balcony hear every word spoken, and as such, for fans of the book, loses much of the subtlety, however, I still think the movie is very watchable, once you accept this conceit. The creature, played by Robert De Niro is completely convincing and Branagh is really good as the doctor, obsessed with the lovely Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter). It’s an exuberant spectacle to be sure, yet never lacking. It suffers because it draws comparisons that long set a standard, and perhaps Branagh was mistaken in steering the ship so far off that course, but as an experimental retelling, this makes for a unique and controversial night at the movies.
Dead Again (1991)
Directed by and co-starring Branagh, his follow-up to Henry V may not appear to be anything close to resembling a Shakespeare story on the surface, yet is filled with all the ingredients of such, with romance, betrayal, murder, and sorta kinda ghosts. It tells a story in two parts, one of a couple in the 1940s and another in present times, both played by Branagh and his then real-life wife Emma Thompson. In the past, the woman is robbed and murdered, her husband convicted of the crime, revealing to only one person a dying confession. In the present, the woman has amnesia and the man is a detective, trying to discover her identity. Along the way, this second couple meet a hypnotist (Derek Jacobi) who has an unorthodox idea, which leads to an encounter with a disgraced psychiatrist named Cozy Carlisle (Robin Williams), and things only get more twisted from there. A bold, brash, throwback to the Golden Age, with hyperbolic performances and a rousing (Golden Globe nominated) score by Patrick Doyle, this is truly an unusual treat. Branagh’s skillful and energetic direction make for a thunderous sophomore effort, and one best seen with the lights out and a big bowl of popcorn.
Peter’s Friends (1992)
Directed and co-starring Branagh, his next film is a surprisingly small and intimate drama that does everything it can to be anything but epic. It tells the story of a group of Cambridge University mates, all members of an amateur comedy troupe, who ten years after graduation arrive at Peter’s newly inherited country house. He plans to sell the house after their weekend together, and uses the time to try and tell them all something rather important, but as the hours pass and entanglements and long-festering emotions arise, things become complicated. With an ensemble cast, including Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, Rita Rudner (who co-wrote the script) and Alphonsia Emmanuel to name a few, Branagh deftly lets this once again feel like a quiet stage production, the dynamic characters and their relationships driving the very emotional story without the scale and setting of his earlier two films. Influenced by The Big Chill to be sure, it is a strikingly effective and touching story filled with good humor and genuine sentimentality. If you’re a fan of Branagh and want to see where he began, this is where you should start.