By , April 29, 2012 6:36 pm

What the hell happened to Kenneth Branagh?  I mean, this guy was the successor to Sir Laurence Olivier—heck, you could argue that as a director, as a visionary of Shakespeare, his first films bested Olivier.  The man made the only uncut, thoroughly kick-ass four-and-a-half hour Hamlet produced by a major studio.  Though mocked at the time, Branagh’s Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar may be the most deserved winner in the history of the category:  In the words of Boston Review critic and Harvard Law professor Alan Stone, Branagh’s “prodigious accomplishment” was in “interpreting in detailed stage directions every scene in a way that invites our understanding.”  In other words, Branagh made sense of the world’s most confounding work of art.  His Much Ado About Nothing with then-wife Emma Thompson featured cinema’s most artful and spirited verbal sparring since Burton and Taylor.  Branagh’s debut was no less impressive:  In his Henry V, Branagh created a specific counterpoint to Olivier’s jingoistic, post-World War II Churchillian ideal, embodying Henry W. L. Godshalk’s notion that Henry’s refusal to accept responsibility for mass death in the name of the crown makes him both the perfect Christian king and Machiavellian manipulator.

How do you get from creating “nothing less than a monument to the highest art of the Western canon” to directing “Thor”?  Here’s my theory:  We all have a limited store of genius, so the process of creating Hamlet sapped Branagh of his remaining artistic strength while its success created an extraordinary hubris.  The result is a director who thinks he can turn Love’s Labour’s Lost (probably in the bottom five on the Shakespeare Power Rankings) into a 30’s-style musical with Alicia Silverstone and Mathew Lillard.  And that was it.  Rather than making sense of Shakespeare’s texts, Branagh now seems to think that “pushing the envelope” is artistic posture appropriate to his talents.  This is how you cast Bryce Dallas Howard as Rosalind and turn As You Like It into a dark war movie for HBO.

So what’s the former great man’s idea for Thor?  Thor is Henry V.  Yep, Henry…The…Fifth.  Branagh deserves our respect, so let’s hear him out:

“I think Henry V was an interesting example because, as a young man he was reckless and he kept bad company. People thought he’d make a terrible leader. His father was angry at him but he turned out to be a terrific leader. But he had to earn that privilege, earn that place by losing a lot of friends, losing power, losing family and making sacrifices. They’re both stories of how you find yourself. A rite of passage. Both are a good identity story and very relatable.”

If you’re thinking, “My goodness, this sounds like a high school freshman’s C+ essay that he half-plagiarized from SparkNotes,” then you and I are on the same page.  Without diving too far into the Marvel myth, I’m not sure if Branagh means Loki to be the Earl of Cambridge and Jane Foster to be Catherine of Valois, but that’s not how it comes off.  It may be that Branagh has entered his post-war Orson Welles phase, where the man who made film into high art got paid for turning Macbeth into a voodoo-influenced violent b-movie.  Imagine Hollywood throwing millions in special effects at Orson Welles to direct a ‘roided out Othello, and that’s the kind of insane and depressing spectacle we’ve got here.

The special effects lack the irony of the Fortinbras’ CGI army in Hamlet, and Hemsworth seems more capable of leading a Gold’s Gym than protecting humankind from Asgard.  His instantaneous transformation into a hero lacks context or sense, and Natalie Portman plays Jane Foster like a low-rent Queen Amadala.  Anthony Hopkins can’t lift this material from the muck if he doesn’t care to try.

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