The multitalented, Belfast-born Kenneth Branagh has made his mark internationally as an actor, writer, producer and director for film, television and the stage.
After a string of acclaimed theatrical performances, the 50-year-old’s first ambitious film project was his 1989 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V with which he firmly established his cinematic credentials.
The most striking aspect of the extensive list of credits he has garnered in his multi-hyphenate roles since are the examples of the many classics in literature and music he has tackled.
Not only the many Shakespeare adaptations – including of course his astounding epic rendering of Hamlet (1996) with an all-star cast – but also his overblown yet underrated adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), his short films based on Chekhov plays and a film version of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute to name but a few.
Cultural and intellectual snobs may argue that such an eclectic list at a glance ought to have disqualified Branagh from tackling a comic-book adaptation. But really, who better to tackle such a textured tale of family intrigue, banishment and redemption, traits so common in almost all of Shakespeare’s works?
The character of Thor intrigued Branagh when he was a young boy. “It rained a lot in Northern Ireland and could sometimes seem greyish,” the director says in the film’s production notes. “The colour of the Marvel Comics covers would pop out from the book shelves, and The Mighty Thor was the one I was always drawn to.
“I liked its primal qualities – the connection to something ancient, the weaponry, the Stonehenge feel of the lettering, and the character’s sheer physical heft. He’s the first in line to fulfil that cliché of never asking anybody else to do what he wouldn’t do himself. In fact, half the time you’ve got to try and stop him from doing something you might never consider.”
As producer Kevin Feige explains, Branagh was the obvious choice to direct, based on his critically and commercially acclaimed Shakespearean adaptations in which Branagh’s skills in adapting literature and telling intricate stories came to the fore.
J. Michael Straczynski, who was the writer of Marvel’s Thor comic from July 2007 until November 2009, was thrilled that it was Branagh who was to direct the Thor’s big screen incarnation. “With his classical training and his grounding in language, Ken has the ability to make this both lofty and accessible. He can bring these gods down to where a person can understand them.”
Branagh’s reputation for being an actor’s director must have also been a factor. The stars of Thor are unanimous in their praise of their leader. Anthony Hopkins, who plays Thor’s majestic father Odin, readily admits that while he was not a fan of the Thor comic books, he certainly was a fan of its director.
“My agent phoned and asked if I wanted to play Odin, and so I met with Ken, whom I’d met a few times before. He’s such an engaging personality, brilliant man. A great actor and a great director.
“He’s one of those unstoppable guys who believes that if you put your mind to it, you can do virtually anything. And he puts himself out there – that’s his personality. I think this has been one of the better times of my life in working on this film. ”
Chris Hemsworth, who plays the title role, is also full of praise. “He pushes you in every single direction your character might go. Six or seven takes, each a different version of what could be done with that scene – ‘Try this and smile through the whole thing. Okay, now give me vicious.’ It’s like forging metal. He would keep working it until it became as strong as it could be.”
If fans of the Marvel Comics universe where surprised at the leftfield choice of such a revered Shakespearean director, the man himself certainly wasn’t.
“Thor’s got everything that I love,” Branagh says. “A hero who is a reckless, headstrong young man who has to confront his past and deal with a complicated relationship with his father.
“There are a lot of savage Europeans hacking each other to death at various points and actually, it sounds very much like Henry V to me. So, you could say that I started in superhero films – the only difference in my previous ones, is that people talk funny!”
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