From Front Room to Screening Room: The Man Who Made


Part 3: The Director

"I retrace a connection to visual images back to my front room in Belfast."

Bill Branagh, five years older than Kenneth, looked after his little brother-- which for Ken meant a lot of telly, and trips to the Capital theatre, a fifteen minute walk from his house. Big "heavily musical" movies, sweeping epic films, gangster films, and thriller were his favourites. "I always liked being scared a bit."

"The first play I ever saw was A Christmas Carol, starring Joseph Tomlety, a famous old Irish actor, at the Grove theatre in Belfast. I went with Bill and I was struck by how magical it was."

To a young boy, early Belfast life reflected a sense of community and happiness. "Everybody got on. It sounds cliched, but there was a real sense of community. We had a large extended family--my mother was one of nine, my father one of five. Life in Belfast was very grounded and family-oriented, and Bill and I were thrown together--we shared a bed when I was six, seven, eight. I remember being in bed next to him, and whichever book he wasn't reading for school I'd pick up. So I was introduced to Shakespeare through him. We were both very taken by the story of Animal Farm, although we couldn't quite work it out. I remember being struck by the phrase 'All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.' You could see that was true for some people in Belfast."

Later, the landscape would change--barricades and vigilantes appeared at the end of city streets. "My mother had just got pregnant with my sister when things became quite intense in Belfast, especially around our era - the Troubles. One night Bill came running up our street saying: "Get in the house, get in the house!" We heard a terrible buzzing noise. Just as he was dragging me in, I saw a sort of cloud at the bottom of the street, which turned out to be a huge bomb. Bill pushed Mum and me under a table in the back room. We didn't know it then, but the terrible noise we'd heard was the mob outside, who were picking up the iron gratings from the drains at the side of the roads and throwing them through the windows of the Catholic houses. I was hysterical, Bill was peeping out the curtain and Mum was saying: "Get down, get down!" A couple of hours later, there were barricades at the top and bottom of the street, while the men divided themselves into vigilante groups. Our street had turned into a war zone overnight."

Was his attraction to stories, films, and theatre an escape from all that? Branagh acknowledges it played apart. "Maybe the whole acting game was a way of hiding or escaping from it. When I try and do my psycho babble analysis of it, I feel that only now do I have a strong sense of who I am in the way that I did in Belfast." But more than escape from the troubles facing neighborhoods, Branagh feels that there is a unique "Irish character" which responds to things that are "larger than life." Love of music, words, and "being enlarged by emotions that are exaggerated versions of what we feel." A sort of romantic version of life, up there on the screen.

Realizing the visual images which anchor his films, and which seem to excite and drive him as a director, remains a challenge, of course. But at no time was it more challenging than his first time 'round.

"No, this really is what I want. I still don't know how we should do it, 'cause I don't know. I've never done anything like this before. But you'll have tell me more than you can't do this." ---Branagh, insisting on the four-minute tracking shot after the battle of Agincourt.

Branagh had a strong, if not fully articulated, vision of his Henry V. The battle montages begin with the awful expectation of the English and their battle cries. Arrows fly, man hack away at each other, horses topple into the mud. Long lenses jam soldiers into the frame; the men are blood-splattered, mud-caked, yet fight on. This relentless hacking away in a field soaked with mercenary blood, where you cannot see beyond your own sword, makes us feel the isolation, the exhaustion of each soldier.

Branagh knew exactly what he wanted to follow this action. "Naturally cinematic," and "dramatically appropriate," the final tracking shot across the field of Agincourt was purposeful. Now we could see the scale, scope, and meaning of the battle, which for frames had been obscured by the immediate physical demands of battle. He knew this felt right from his understanding of playing Henry on-stage for so long.

"This moment in the drama deserved a big wide moment, in which emotionally through the music it grew, and offered a kind of massive relief for the audience. After an intense period--in cinematic terms running time is about 15 minutes of "action-action-action"--a sort of great sigh. An emotional sigh, a release that needed somehow to have something expansive and big, and musically building, and cinematically building. So the shot got wider, more things were in it, you somehow got a chance to see characters that had been in the piece before, here, in the aftermath of the battle. And so, my theatrical background said, 'Stick, stick, stick with it. Stick with it. Stick with it. And let these interpreters translate in ways that somehow meet your vision.'"

Part 1: The Story of Shakespeare's Henry V

Part 2: Behind the Scenes--Making Henry V

Part 3: The Director--From Front Room to Screening Room

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