Literary Review - December 2005 / January 2006
the spectacle of someone getting on too fast and displaying professional confidence without paying for it the hard way set the derision mechanism in motion. Praise for his ventures became increasingly grudging, and comment on his personal life and fondness for employing old chums increasingly snide. When he took leave of Shakespeare for some less than triumphant work in Hollywood, his English critics seized their chance to put the boot in. Not so his American critics, who saw Branagh not as an overreaching upstart but as a man of talent getting on with his career. The picture of Branagh that emerges from this book is of a working-class Belfast boy who arrived on the scene fully formed as an actor and unshakeably confident of his mission to popularise Shakespeare; a confidence he promptly demonstrated by running an unsubsidised theatre company at a profit, and grasping the art of filmmaking at the first attempt. Not all his subsequent work has measured up to his opening standard, but he has never been seriously thrown off course and has already filmed more Shakespeare than any previous director, while remaining a freelance actor who will give himself body and soul to other people’s projects. White has talked to Branagh’s past colleagues, from whom the overwhelming opinion is that he is a nice chap, a magnificent leader, and an artist-entrepreneur who has opened many new eyes to Shakespeare and given fruitful employment to many actors. The most revealing comment on the Anglo-American issue comes from Christopher Godwin: ‘He has a lot of qualities that the British hate in Americans – his naked ambition, his relentless chirpiness, his optimism. And people in Britain hate him even more because he found commercial and critical success in Hollywood with Shakespeare.’ Even allowing for the partialities of the acting profession, you close this book feeling that White has upheld his case and that it is our undeserved good luck that its subject is still around. If the biographer’s role were simply that of a character witness, then White could be said to have done the job. If it is to tell the story of a particular individual’s development, then he has left it unfinished. The raw materials are there, and if you join the dots what stands out is the theme of leadership. Branagh figures simultaneously as a man of innate authority and a specialist in leadership roles. The pattern runs through his career from the filming of Henry Vto his 2002 television appearance in Charles Sturridge’s Shackleton, where, besides playing the explorer, he also responded to the hazardous Arctic conditions by becoming a morale-boosting leader to the whole production team. The other side of the heroic coin is Branagh’s poor showing as a villain. White quotes him on Iago (driven by the sense of rejection), and Richard III (driven by the longing ‘to be like everyone else’), suggesting that he sees negative characters as decent people undone by one of life’s dirty deals. Evil as
such is not on the agenda. Perhaps Branagh got under the skin of Heydrich in the television film Conspiracy in 2001, but from what I recall of his Richard III at Sheffield later that year, it lacked all sense of danger. No doubt there are better ways of joining the dots, but they barely join at all in White’s narrative, which fanfares Branagh in to an endless chord of C major and amounts less to a story than to a chronological sequence of rigidly formulated production notes (first plans, fundraising, rehearsal, press response, box-office take), punctuated with progress reports on the career so far. On film, White is well informed and clearly writing from personal observation. On the theatre there is no telling whether he has seen the shows or not; also he has placed himself in the awkward position of characterising the English critics as biased while relying on them to describe what it was like on the night. Frequent allusions to ‘booming’ and ‘gushing’, and sentences like ‘the pundits of the Press were no less enthused’, do nothing to get him out of this trap. The reader’s trust in his theatrical know-how is further undermined by the reference to Ian McDiarmid as someone who would ‘help to run’ the Almeida, and to Love’s Labour’s Lost as an ‘obscure’ comedy whose minor-key ending ‘can sound a jarring note’. But there I go, falling into the English disease. Mr White, you have written an honest book about a good man. Welcome to the club.
LITERARY REVIEW Dec 2005 / Jan 2006