Born December 10, 1960 in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the middle child of a Protestant working class family, Kenneth Branagh moved with his family to Berkshire, England when he was nine to escape “the troubles”. Educated at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), he was asked by the principal when he was 19 to perform a soliloquy for Queen Elizabeth II on one of her visits to the Academy.
Branagh’s early successes on the stage were in his native Northern Ireland, but by 1983 he was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) starring in Henry V which he later adapted for the screen. Dissatisfied with the RSC which he found too large and impersonal, he soon formed his own Renaissance Theatre Company, which would eventually include Prince Charles as one of his royal patrons. Simultaneously with his theatrical career, he made his film debut in an uncredited role in the 1981 Oscar winner, Chariots of Fire and subsequently appeared in various TV productions.
Acclaimed for his first credited screen role in 1987’s A Month in the Country opposite Colin Firth, Branagh’s second film was the same year’s High Season. His third was 1989’s Henry V for which he received Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Director, the first and second of an eventual five nominations in five different categories, a record for an actor. That same year he married actress Emma Thompson with whom he co-starred in 1991’s Dead Again, 1992’s Peter’s Friends and 1993’s Much Ado About Nothing. He received a third Oscar nomination for the 1992 short subject, Swan Song, the same year Thompson won the Oscar for Best Actress.
Separated from Thompson, he lived with actress Helena Bonham Carter, who played Thompson’s sister in Howard’s End, from 1994-1999. He was divorced from Thompson in 1995.
Branagh received his fourth Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay for his 1996 film of Shakespeare’s Hamlet which he also directed and starred in. His film as an actor continued with such films as 1998’s The Gingerbread Man, The Proposition and Celebrity, 1999’s Wild Wild West, 2002’s Rabbit-Proof Fence and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. He earned an Emmy nomination for his performances in 2001’s Conspiracy and 2002’s Shackleton. He married his present wife, actress Leslie Brunnock, in 2003.
In 2007, Branagh directed a remake of Sleuth and in 2008 starred alongside Tom Cruise in Valkirie. Further Emmy nominations came his way for 2005’s Swarm Springs and 2010’s Wallender. 2011’s My Week with Marilyn earned him his fifth Oscar nomination, this time as Best Supporting Actor.
More recently, Branagh has starred in 2017’s Dunkirk and his own remake of Murder on the Orient Express, 2020’s Tenet and his forthcoming remake of Death on the Nile. He remains a force on both sides of the camera at 60.
HENRY V (1989), directed by Kenneth Branagh
Shakespeare’s play about the young English king who embarks on the conquest of France in midst of the Hundred Years’ War in 1415 was famously filmed by Laurence Olivier in midst of World War II, released in the U.S. to great acclaim in 1946, earning Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Actor, Art Direction, and Score with Olivier receiving an honorary Oscar for producing, directing, and acting in the film. Branagh’s bravura adaptation proved even more popular earning Oscar nominations for Actor and Director both for Branagh, and Costume Design which it won. Derek Jacobi, Ian Holm, Brian Blessed, and Emma Thompson co-star.
DEAD AGAIN (1991), directed by Kenneth Branagh
Branagh’s love of Hitchcock proved to be as mesmerizing as his love of Shakespeare in this superb thriller about a private investigator asked to determine the identity of a woman who has lost her memory. It leads to a discovery of a past life in which the woman, the wife of a composer, was murdered and her husband, arrested, convicted, and executed for that murder. The woman is played by Emma Thompson both in the present and in the past in flashbacks. The investigator and the composer are both played by Branagh signaling that he is the reincarnation of her accused murderer. Derek Jacobi heads a strong supporting cast.
HAMLET (1996), directed by Kenneth Branagh
Shakespeare’s most famous play was filmed numerous times, the 1948 version becoming the first non-Hollywood film to win a Best Picture Oscar for its producer, Laurence Olivier, who also won for Best Actor. Branagh’s four-hour-two-minute production condenses the play’s acts but contains all the play’s dialogue. It was nominated for four Oscars including Art Direction, Costume Design, Score, and Adapted Screenplay for Branagh despite no word of the play’s dialogue having been changed. Brangah’s Hamlet was supported by Kate Winslet as Ophelia, Julie Christie as Gertrude, Derek Jacobi as Claudius, and many more.
MY WEEK WITH MARILYN (2011), directed by Simon Curtis
Who better to play Laurence Olivier in this film about the making of The Prince and the Showgirl than Branagh, who had already played Olivier’s most famous roles both in front of and behind the camera in Henry V and Hamlet? Based on notes of an Olivier employee, played by Eddie Redmayne, the film chronicles the tension between the 1957 film’s producer-director-star and his executive producer and star Marilyn Monroe, played by Michelle Williams. Judi Dench co-stars as Sybil Thorndike. Both Williams and Branagh received Oscar nominations for their performances.
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, directed by Kenneth Branagh (2017)
Branagh’s first Agatha Christie adaptation was of Christie’s frequently filmed 1934 novel, most famously filmed by Sidney Lumet in 1974, which received six Oscar nominations and a third career Oscar for Ingrid Bergman. Branagh gave himself the role of Christie’s famed detective, Hecule Poirot with an all-star supporting cast including Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Olivia Coleman, Leslie Odom, Jr., and Daisy Ridley in roles played in the 1974 version by Lauren Bacall, Wendy Hiller, Rachel Roberts, Sean Connery, and Vanessa Redgrave. The lesser-known Miranda Raison has Ingrid Bergman’s role.
KENNETH BRANAGH AND OSCAR
- Henry V (1989) – nominated – Best Actor
- Henry V (1989) – nominated – Best Director
- Swan Song (1992) – nominated – Best Live Action Short Film
- Hamlet (1996) – nominated – Best Adapted Screenplay
- My Week with Marilyn (2011) – nominated – Best Supporting Actor