The great doors swing open to reveal the caped figure of King Henry V, sexily backlighted. His bishops and courtiers gaze at him like apostles at the unseen Jesus in some old biblical epic. And finally the monarch of Britain -- and of this robust new movie -- shows his face and speaks. It is an entrance angled to register awe for Kenneth Branagh. But how much awe can a 28-year-old actor, little known outside Britain and directing his first film, expect to inspire? Branagh recalls that when Judi Dench, who plays Mistress Quickly, first saw this scene, "she laughed in my face and said, 'I've never seen an entrance like that! Who do you think you are?' " He retorted, "The film is not called Mistress Quickly the Fourth." No, but it might be called King Ken.
He doesn't look like a Shakespearean matinee idol, this thin-lipped Irishman with puddingy skin and a huge head piked like a pumpkin on his stocky frame. He lacks conventional star magnetism: the athletic abandon, the flaming sexuality, the audacity of interpretation that risks derision to achieve greatness. Expect no swooning teenagers to queue at his stage door, no desperate fan to write him suicide notes. Anyway, he would reject that form of hero worship, for his personality radiates shopkeeper common sense. He is a model of Thatcherite initiative in a British arts scene of radical distemper.
In short, Branagh seems as remote from Laurence Olivier as, say, Sandra Bernhard is from Sarah Bernhardt. Yet the English press praises him -- damns him too -- as "the new Olivier." If the label is unfair to both men (at 28, even Olivier was not yet "Olivier"), it is correct to suggest a family resemblance. For, like Olivier, Branagh has a resume to match his notoriety.
He is the most accomplished, acclaimed and ambitious performer of his generation. In 1984 he dazzled audiences as the youngest actor ever to play the title role in Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC ). He starred in the Masterpiece Theater mini-series Fortunes of War. He built his own repertory company and led it through sold-out seasons in London and the provinces. He has written two plays and an autobiography, Beginning. He even married his leading lady, TV star Emma Thompson. No doubt about it: Branagh has conquered Britain.
This week he invades U.S. movie theaters (in New York City and Los Angeles, with a dozen other cities to follow next month). He will buck the odds as he did when making his film -- as Henry V did on his French campaign -- and with no smaller an appetite for success. Did Olivier make a landmark film of Henry V when he played in and directed it in 1944? Then the new Olivier would do it again -- bloodier and maybe better -- in hopes of luring the unlettered moviegoer for whom Shakespeare is a synonym for Sominex.
Just to make the challenge sporting, Branagh would plan his film while starring in three roles with his Renaissance Theater Company. And he would shoot his Henry, for a pinchpenny $7.5 million, in seven weeks, less than a third of the time Olivier took. On the first day, the novice director didn't know to shout "Action!" until someone poked him in the ribs. How could he make a decent film under so daunting a shadow?