Kenneth Branagh's Career, From the Bard to Agatha Christie
10/1/2020 • 4 min read
It's almost time to take a vacation in Egypt with a new movie version of Agatha Christie's classic murder-mystery story, DEATH ON THE NILE. This film is a follow-up to 2017’s surprise smash MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, directed by Kenneth Branagh. The filmmaker is in the director's chair once again for DEATH ON THE NILE, and he also returns to star as Agatha Christie's most iconic creation: The Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.
Branagh has stocked DEATH ON THE NILE with a whos-who of A-list actors, including Tom Bateman, Annette Bening, Russell Brand, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Rose Leslie, Sophie Okonedo, Jennifer Saunders, and Letitia Wright. This movie also marks the latest turn in Branagh’s varied and surprising career as both a director and actor.
If you know Branagh's work, you'll understand why we're excited about this new chapter. If not, follow along as we run down his incredible winning streak. We'll break it down into three distinct categories. Obviously this isn’t everything he’s done, but it’s a good start. (And it should be noted that he’s done a ton of television, mostly for British TV). Ready to go on the Branagh tour? We promise it’ll be a lovelier cruise than the one in DEATH ON THE NILE.
Branagh had appeared in a few movies (including 1981’s Academy Award-winning CHARIOTS OF FIRE) and TV shows but he was mostly a supporting player, and far from a household name. On stage, however, he was drawing raves, beginning with productions in his native Northern Ireland. Then he became famous for interpreting the work of William Shakespeare, thanks in part to a televised version of his single-set staging of "Twelfth Night."
That production the first major stage of Branagh's career in motion. Branagh’s association with Shakespeare adaptations would become a major cornerstone of his career. In 1989, he directed and co-starred in HENRY V, with Derek Jacobi, Ian Holm, Emma Thompson, Judi Dench, and Christian Bale. That movie was a big success, especially for a serious Shakespeare adaptation, and it became a critical darling that was nominated for the Best Actor and Best Director Oscars.
In 1993, Branagh followed up with a version of Shakespeare’s MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, which in addition to Branagh featured Thompson, Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, Keanu Reeves, and Kate Beckinsale, in her film debut. Building on the momentum of HENRY V, this was one of the most successful Shakespeare adaptations ever released. His 1996 adaptation of HAMLET was Branagh’s magnum opus, a 242-minute masterpiece shot on 70mm film and featuring some of the biggest names of the day, including but not limited to Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Charlton Heston and Julie Christie. A commercial and critical hit, HAMLET was nominated for four Academy Awards. He didn’t slow down after that. His next directorial outing was an adaptation of LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST in 2000, followed by AS YOU LIKE IT in 2006 and ALL IS TRUE in 2018, in which he played Shakespeare himself. Talk about full circle!
In between directing and starring in most of the major Shakespearean adaptations of the past few decades, Branagh has done admirable work as an actor. He plays all sorts of roles, from a sweaty Southern lawyer in Robert Altman’s THE GINGERBREAD MAN to a Woody Allen surrogate in Allen’s CELEBRITY to a disabled scientist in WILD WILD WEST. He starred alongside Tom Cruise (VALKYRIE), Jude Law (SLEUTH) and Daniel Radcliffe (HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS).
More recently he played key roles in a pair of movies for Christopher Nolan (DUNKIRK and this year’s TENET) and had a vocal cameo in AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, one of the biggest movies ever made. He even starred in a Shakespeare adaptation that he didn’t direct – Oliver Parker’s OTHELLO. Branagh is a true actor’s actor, able to slip into any role seamlessly, no matter the character. And if you only know him from his Shakespearean roles or the Agatha Christie adaptations, there are a whole bunch of quality Branagh performances left to discover and enjoy.
Unlikely Blockbuster Director
While Branagh has long directed films that aren't rooted in the work of the Bard, including the awesome 1991 supernatural thriller DEAD AGAIN and a rambunctious adaptation of MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (with Robert De Niro as the monster), something unexpected has happened in the last decade. Branagh has become one of the top directors of large-scale Hollywood blockbusters. In 2011 he outmaneuvered several other heavyweights to get the job directing one of the foundational features from Marvel Studios, THOR.
Drawing on his own background, Branagh gave scenes in Asgard real dramatic weight, and he was nimble enough with the fish-out-of-water comedy to make Thor (Chris Hemsworth) a hero we could believe in. Things kept going from there. In 2014 he was tasked by Paramount to revive the Jack Ryan character from THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER in JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT. (In which he also appeared as a slippery Russian baddie). In 2015 he directed one of the best of the Disney live-action adaptations of animated classics, CINDERELLA.
Branagh's first Agatha Christie adaptation, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, was an old-Hollywood blend of star talent and murderous intrigue. Now, his return to Christie's enduring mysteries, DEATH ON THE NILE, looks set to continue his run as an accomplished filmmaker with style to spare.
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All images courtesy of 20th Century Studios, unless otherwise indicated.