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Kenneth Branagh is an award winning actor and director, whose most significant contributions to film have been his productions of several of Shakespeare’s plays. As an actor, he has received critical notice for his portrayal of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the HBO production Warm Springs, and received an Emmy for the role in 2006.
Branagh was born in Belfast, Ireland, where he spent the first nine years of his childhood. In 1970, his family relocated to England. He quickly picked up an “English,” as opposed to Northern Irish, accent so he would fit in with his school mates. His facility with accents must be noted, as he has performed with many different types of accents in his film and stage career.
He says that he was first inspired to act at 15, when he saw a performance of Hamlet featuring Derek Jacobi. This interest would direct his early adult years as he was accepted at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts at 18. Graduating in 1982, he quickly became a member of the Royal Shakespeare Academy, where his performances brought him rave reviews. Branagh became disenchanted with the Academy, and began his own Shakespeare Company, the Renaissance Theatre Company (RTC) five years later.
Though the RTC first struggled, it soon became recognized for its sterling productions, and for its ability to attract some of the UK’s best known actors. Dame Judy Dench and Derek Jacobi both starred in early RTC productions, and would work with him in Henry V.
In 1989, Branagh released his film directorial debut, Henry V, in which he plays the title role. He received Oscar nominations for director and actor, and won the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award for Best Director. That same year, he married actress Emma Thompson.
The couple worked together on several films, prior to divorcing in 1995. Branagh’s next film, Dead Again in 1991 features Thompson in the leading female role, and is an homage to Hitchcock. His Hollywood debut is a thriller, laden with foreshadowing and use of black and white photography for half the film. He also plays the film as two characters, and neither have a British accent.
In 1992 he directed Peter’s Friends, which received both censure and praise. 1993 brought a return to Shakespeare with the production of Much Ado About Nothing. Several unremarkable films followed the success of Much Ado, particularly Frankenstein and Branagh’s turn as Iago in Othello, which he did not direct. He was more praised for the 1996 Hamlet, which was not a box office success, as most moviegoers were impatient with the four hour production.
Public sentiment had also turned against Branagh after his divorce from Emma Thompson, and a string of films released in the late 90s which won him little notice, with the notable exception of A Midwinter’s Tale, which is about a cast attempting to put on a production of Hamlet . The film is darkly funny with many “in jokes” for those involved in theater.
2002 marked a recovery when he played the wacky Professor Lockhart in the second Harry Potter film. He also lent his voice to several narrated documentaries, including Walking with Dinosaurs. Most recently he has worked in several miniseries, and his work in Warm Springs .