Ystad, the town Wallander calls home, is a couple of miles down the road, and Branagh’s house looks over the pristine waters of the Baltic; a perfect spot for the ruminative cast of mind that comes with playing Wallander but which, since turning 50 last December, seems also to be Branagh’s default setting.“It’s definitely the age where a kind of mental stocktaking kicks in,” he says, taking a sip of tea.“There’s a refusal to knuckle under, which is something I admire enormously,” he says. It’s like Steve Redgrave, winning that fifth gold medal at the Sydney Olympics, which had me in floods of tears; the unbelievable effort, and the lack of heroism that becomes its own kind of heroism. In the Nineties, he married Emma Thompson, and the pair became lightning rods for what the media saw as a kind of overreaching luvvie-geddon, in which smugness (casting all their Footlights friends in the ensemble comedy Peter’s Friends) was trumped only by hubris (Branagh publishing his autobiography, Beginning, at the age of 29). In the late Eighties, he was the new Olivier, emulating the be-knighted colossus by forming his own theatre company (Renaissance) and staging his own (Oscar-nominated) movie version of Henry V.
He didn’t want to be some old fossil, just trotting out the classics.” Olivier, like Branagh, was a man who was admired by everyone he worked with (the testimonials to Branagh could fill volumes, from Judi Dench – “You can trust Ken with your life” – to Rob Brydon, his co-star in The Painkiller, the comedy they recently appeared in at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre: “Ken’s brain works 10 times faster than the rest of us”).
“I suppose I did, but in the end, what it came down to was, is it a good part? One thing that struck me about the screenplay was that, in our world today, not many people have actually seen a Monroe film.
She’s just an iconic figure, like Chaplin, that you can summon in three strokes of a pen. “I came into the business 30 years ago, when he was still alive and still the world’s greatest actor.
Too much fear paralyses you.” And what about opprobrium? She said, ‘I’ll tell you what I woke up with — the worst f---ing reviews of my career.
At the height of his mid-Nineties’ ubiquity — playing Hamlet, directing himself and Thompson in the noir pastiche Dead Again, directing a remake of Frankenstein and playing the title role opposite Robert de Niro, then moving in with co-star Helena Bonham Carter — the levels of vitriol he attracted were inordinate, even by British standards; one critic wrote that he and Thompson were “determined to shove their gorgeousness down the public’s throats”. Branagh shifts in his chair, hoisting his shoulders into a vaguely combative stance. But the public loved it, and we got on with it.’ “Unfortunate remarks stay with you for a day or two if you admit them,” he adds, taking a sip of tea.
My generation was very aware of his work, and part of the excitement of doing this was to draw attention to him.