Cinema: King Ken Comes to Conquer

A brash British star turns Henry V into an antiwar war movie

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As a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Branagh displayed the salesman's knack of charm and fearlessness -- the seductive intelligence, so crucial to performing, managing and directing. He wrote to Olivier for advice on the role of Chebutykin in Three Sisters. He took notes on playing Hamlet from John Gielgud. He determined to play the Dane at a performance attended by the Queen and Prince Philip. Later, preparing his RSC Henry, he won an audience with Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace to discuss the isolation felt by a national leader. Wooed and won by the young actor, Charles became a patron of the Renaissance.

But there was more to Branagh than blond ambition. Says Hugh Cruttwell, then RADA's principal: "He had all the talent and initiative you can see in full flood now." Other people soon saw it too. Just out of RADA he won the plum role of Judd, the cynical Marxist student in Another Country -- a performance whose laser intelligence and subversive edge announced an actor at the start of a brilliant career. He would fulfill that promise when the RSC's Adrian Noble cast him as Henry V.

"Ken's got the general's gift of being the man you automatically follow," says Richard Briers, who plays Bardolph in the film Henry and will assay King Lear in the Renaissance's tour of the U.S. next year. Branagh needed that royal self-assurance to build a major acting company and mount a large film. He will need more of it to sustain his career at its current velocity. "Quite soon," says Terry Hands, the RSC's artistic director, "Ken must decide whether he will be an admin man or a great actor. If a leading actor is also running the whole show, he's worried about the box office, the creaking floorboard, the divorce of his cast member. All these can sap that tunnel vision, and the performance can become too controlled."

Tunnel vision is no problem for Branagh -- but in the service of the play, not the perks. "I'm not interested in being rich and famous," he avers, "in smoking a big cigar and driving a big car. I want to stay human-size, just as I wanted to make Henry V as manlike as possible." He plans to shoot two films in 1991: a Shakespeare comedy, perhaps Much Ado About Nothing, and a modern story set in Chicago. Meanwhile, he may write a novel. And at night he will read himself to sleep with a good book.

So we ask: What are you reading these days? "Wuthering Heights," he replies. Ah, yes. Hollywood made a movie from that one 50 years ago, and made a star of the actor who played Heathcliff. Larry something. What ever happened to him?

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