Well known for playing some of Shakespeare’s most flawed characters on stage and screen, Kenneth Branagh is now searching for the emotional truth behind a famous detective. Here, he talks about embodying and directing Poirot. “I was incredibly concentrated in both ways: as Poirot I was listening and looking for the lie, and as director, I was in a way, listening and looking for the lie. Both things operated at the same time.” By Sarah Price.

Actor and director Kenneth Branagh

Kenneth Branagh.
Kenneth Branagh.

Kenneth Branagh wants to be transported, lost in narratives. He searches in stories for moments of connection and involvement, for junctures that are raw. In storytelling, he believes, the role of intuition is strong and you cannot help but to draw on your own experience. You need to tell an emotional truth, he says. You need to place the viewer inside the story, in a point of feeling or a point of view.

Branagh sits in a ground-floor room of a Sydney hotel, with his back to the window. Behind him, water laps at the cobbled edge of the harbour’s foreshore. The glare from the window is so bright that he appears shrouded in haze, like an apparition. He is dressed in a dark blazer and jeans. With his face shielded by the light, his expressions are not easily discernible, but when he speaks there is striking clarity in his voice. Listening to Branagh is a treat: the richness, warmth and erudition of his words, the perfectly finished but relaxed vowels. In his voice are the echoes of some of the characters he has played: Shakespeare’s Henry V, Hamlet and Macbeth; Commander Bolton in Dunkirk; Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein; the BBC’s Detective Wallander; Laurence Olivier in My Week with Marilyn; and Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Branagh is in Australia to promote his latest film, an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Heavily invested in the film, he is both director and actor, playing Christie’s fastidious Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. “I was incredibly concentrated in both ways: as Poirot I was listening and looking for the lie, and as director, I was in a way, listening and looking for the lie. Both things operated at the same time.” When you work in two roles, directing and acting, he says, you end up having more extensive conversations with the other actors and allowing them quite a say. “By the time you come to the end of a film you have no idea whether all the best ideas were remotely anything to do with you. Either way it doesn’t matter; it’s a team game. I direct: I point and shape and move. But I didn’t make it – I’m not the originating artist.”

He read Christie’s novels, studied her life and considered her character. “The prolific nature of her output has meant she’s gone through waves of popularity and of being out of fashion. Where somehow it seems that because she’s produced so much work it was easy, and therefore must be glib or superficial, insubstantial.” Her turn of phrase is more impressive than people give her credit for, he says. Her “well made-ness” is sometimes dismissed and her craftsmanship made to seem ordinary. “What surprised me in preparing for the picture and in reading her biography was that it felt like she’d dealt with a lot of real life. She was independent, pioneering, intrepid. Her early life seemed to be at odds with the image of the ‘cardiganed Miss Marpleish’ spinster who wrote only from the imagination. I had the sense that her understanding of human beings was a dirtier and sometimes grubbier affair based on her own experience. I simply felt that, in the description and the distinction of the characters, more than imagination was at work. Personal experience came to bear, and that gave a more human and humane quality to the material. There always seems to be a dark centre.”

In preparation for certain scenes, Branagh talked with his cast about dead bodies. Had anybody pressed cold steel into flesh? Rung a chicken’s neck? Seen an autopsy? He resisted premeditated or calculated rehearsing, and shot some of the material without telling the actors what they were going to see. Often, the first time the actors came onto the set it was to do a scene they had not rehearsed. Branagh would shoot almost immediately. “I wanted the storytelling in each of the characters to be as fresh and as unencumbered as possible. The actors were trusting enough to say: ‘You shoot us while we react to this.’ That gave a certain high-pitched febrility. We were always trying to get a quiver underneath it, always trying to make a happening occur.

“It’s like the Italians say about architecture: ‘You want something imperfect in there.’ When I worked with Dante Ferretti on Cinderella he gloried in showing me the bits that were off skew. I wanted that in the human life of the film. What I encouraged was to let the flaws in, to let them be caught.”

Playing the genius Poirot, Branagh sought to release more of the famous character’s compassion and kindness. “I particularly enjoyed what you might call the bruised compassion of Poirot. I noted that Christie had said she admired his understanding of human frailty, and I enjoyed that as well. I liked that in a way, he himself, and through him, the audience are being invited to consider what is the emotional truth here, and is it permissible if we acknowledge that underneath is all this pain caused by the poison of deep grief, by loss on this kind of very impactful scale. Where does that lead us?” Poirot, he explains, is a man with a fixed moral compass, challenged in the film by notions of good and evil, and where conscience lies.

Have our own notions of heroes and of leaders changed? “It is a bleak time in terms of political life,” he says. “I don’t know whether we need to have lower expectations or more realistic expectations of what is possible for individuals to express – or whether we have to be more understanding about flaws or more realistic about the systems in which people operate.” Perhaps, he says, the standards to which we attach people are part of an old model that may not work in the world we live in. “And yet, everything that swirls around that, which are human attitudes – greed or ambition or human cruelty, competition, avarice or envy – maybe they haven’t changed from Nineveh to here.

“Maybe we need to think differently: whether the alleged democratisation of the internet, the kinds of voices that are being raised across various issues right now, the way the world of social media works – can a different kind of system work? Can a different kind of model place different kinds of heroes in situations?”

When you are making a film, there is a range of living variables that come into play, Branagh explains. A sort of “beautiful chaos” can come along when all the art forms are brought to bear. “There’s at least three films you make: the one you plan, the one you shoot and the one you edit. Sometimes they organically morph, one into the other, and they evolve with some sort of creative integrity.” His own directing process is to start as clearly as he can with the writer. “Coming from the theatre I have that basic instinct that my job is to serve the writer. Although I know the director to some extent is the auteur, I’ve learnt over the years that I do not require that. Almost always I have chosen or inherited a writer I want to stay with. I want to work with them in the quite literal sense that I’ll direct them – not to do it for them, not to do it with them, but to offer a way to move their work, given that I am going to interpret it and act it.”

It sounds like a contradiction, he says, that you would try to listen to your instinct, but over time it is something he has sought to do. “You try not to second-guess it. You try not to somehow perfect it. You work on a lot of films and you realise, as someone once said to me: ‘You never finish a film, you abandon it.’ It is not a question of making the perfect film but about making the most perfect film you can at that time. There’s perfection and then there’s fanaticism. I’ve worked with people who work in the latter way, and it’s a constant restlessness and self-torturing, unstoppable agony. I don’t want to live in that space.”

Shifting in the chair, Branagh raises his foot to rest on the coffee table then swiftly pulls it away. You get to a moment, he says, where the film is released and there’s a little window of opportunity. “Maybe it will have a chance to flourish, but otherwise the bulk of your experience is the previous two years. So it is good to choose things that keep you very passionately engaged. If it’s all strategic and you’re waiting for: ‘Can we get a sequel? Is it going to take $100 million?’… That’s where madness lies, and you have a lot of time to kill when you work out whether you’ve scored a bull’s-eye.”

Promoting films is a weird parenthesis of high-end luxury, he says. You get to go places, but only to sit in a hotel room. “Sometimes you forget you are in Sydney. You need to go and do something or you are just in another room.” On the promotional tour of an earlier film in Milan, during a 20-minute break in his schedule Branagh went in search of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. The image haunted him. Later, it was intuition that led him at the end of Murder on the Orient Express to put all the characters at one long table under the tunnel, with the darkness falling away. “I’ve learnt over the years not to worry about it too much, then not really explain it, just to say: ‘That feels to me it is an intuitive response to the story, and I’m just going to go with it.’ ”

When considering which roles to play, Branagh responds intuitively to those that provide a complexity and depth of character. “If you have any say in the matter, I think you are increasingly aware that this is your life. But sometimes there’s a more sort of superficial interest that most actors have in just being different. If you’re not a leading actor of photogenic beauty – that’s essentially how most people would like you to look – then it’s playful and enjoyable to look and sound a different way. I like characters who have a moral journey to go on, characters with a sort of moral fortitude.

“I’ve been obsessed as an actor, on the stage and then in film, playing Hamlet. You know it’s not a million miles away from Murder on the Orient Express. It’s a ghost story, it’s a thriller, but it’s also an existential debate about the purpose of being alive, and whether being human is very good, or anything other than an entry into a veil of tears that will eventually close around you in some darkened way. I enjoy those questions.”

Pulling at the stiff cuffs of his shirt, Branagh crosses and uncrosses his legs. He explains that he has noticed with hindsight “there are parts that can really affect you”. In Conspiracy he played Reinhard Heydrich, a high-ranking German Nazi official who was one of the architects of the Holocaust. “I found it was a horrible experience. On a daily basis it kept somehow sublimely reminding me of how appallingly humans can behave, and how cruel and thoughtless they can be. It felt like the process of playing a character who seemed to be without a soul. It took hope away. I got pretty careful after that. It reminded me: ‘There’s a powerful subliminal influence here that I’m not aware of.’ ”

Since playing Poirot, Branagh admits that he has become a bit of a “neat freak”. He laughs, “I became very particular, laughably enough, about my breakfast. Partly to blame was the moustache. As soon as that bloody thing was on, life was difficult.”

It is amazing how moments in your life come to play, he says. Some suddenly land with a very square fit in another moment of creating a character. “You’re often unaware of the amount of bleed that goes on from who you are into what the character is. Sometimes the more you appear to have gathered elements of disguise – the accent or the mask or the wound – the more it can release a vast amount of you into the character. If you search for something that is emotionally direct and meaningful, you just can’t help draw on all the things you are.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 25, 2017 as "Star-spangled Branagh".

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Sarah Price is a Sydney-based writer.

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