Thor was 'irresistible' says Kenneth Branagh
Noted Shakespeare director and actor Kenneth Branagh talks about his latest film - a comic-book blockbuster about Marvel superhero Thor.
Rada graduate Kenneth Branagh was already an established stage and television star when he directed and starred in his 1989 film of William Shakespeare's history play Henry V.
The critically acclaimed result earned him Oscar nominations for his work both behind and in front of the camera, a best director award from Bafta and a slew of other honours.
Branagh's association with the Bard continued with big-screen versions of Hamlet, Much Ado about Nothing and several other plays.
Away from Shakespeare, though, he has had mixed fortunes, typified by the drubbing he received for his unsuccessful 1994 film of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
In recent years he has had better success with his acting performances, being praised for his starring role in the BBC TV series Wallander and in stage plays such as Chekhov's Ivanov and David Mamet's Edmond.
Yet he has now made a spectacular return to directing with Thor, a comic book blockbuster inspired by Marvel's hammer-wielding warrior.
The project, he says, was "daunting but exciting and, in the end, sort of irresistible".
Branagh acknowledges he might not be everyone's first choice for a film about the Norse god of thunder who first swooped into the Marvel comics universe in 1962.
However, he suggests his experience of "heightened language, period drama and the dynastic sagas of the great and the good" stood him in good stead.
"Marvel were terrified about it sounding too solemn or too ornate or too self-conscious," he says.
"They didn't want Thor to be some sort of sword and sandals thing that would be out of step with a modern audience."
One way to avoid this, Branagh argued successfully, was to set part of the story in contemporary America.
Thus we see the headstrong and belligerent Thor - played by Australian actor Chris Hemsworth - banished from the distant realm of Asgard by his father Odin to modern-day New Mexico.
Stripped of his powers and his mystical hammer Mjolnir, he joins forces with a sceptical astrophysicist - played by Natalie Portman - to stop his nefarious brother Loki wreaking havoc in Asgard and closer to home.
"The decision to be on Earth for a large part of the story was absolutely mine," says the director, whose film follows previous Marvel-inspired fantasies Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk.
With a reported budget of $150m (£90.7m) - Branagh will not specify the exact figure - Thor marks a significant step up from his previous, more modestly funded features.
For all the pressure he was under, though, he says there was no compulsion to make his film fit within the wider framework of movies Marvel is currently assembling.
The idea is for the various superheroes introduced in individual vehicles to come together as a single fighting force in 2012 release The Avengers.
Branagh, however, says he had more than enough to worry about with introducing Thor to concern himself with the bigger picture.
"We had so much to concentrate on in forming the origin story of Thor that it simply wasn't possible to consider anything else," he says.
"Over in the Thor fiefdom we got on with our own thing and were effectively given quite a lot of leeway."
Partly because of Sir Laurence Olivier's earlier film of Henry V, Branagh was, at the beginning of his career, often compared to the late actor.
Those parallels are sure to be revived with the release of My Week with Marilyn, an upcoming drama that will see him play Olivier himself in his 1950s heyday.
Partly funded by BBC Films, it focuses on the making of The Prince and the Showgirl - the film that united Olivier and Hollywood star Marilyn Monroe, with fractious results.
According to Branagh, the movie "paints a very fascinating picture of how difficult it is to make films sometimes and how difficult it is for artists to collaborate".
"This souffle of a light comedy becomes a battleground as they clash in styles and temperaments and in their relationship to punctuality.
"If I'm honest, it probably wouldn't have been the first part I would have necessarily jumped at," he says with disarming candour.
"But I try to make all my decisions based on the script, and the role of Laurence Olivier was a really beautiful celebration put together with affection and respect."
The Belfast-born performer concludes our chat with an impassioned defence of the arts in the face of swingeing government cutbacks.
"The arts are an absolutely vital part of the nation and a vital part of the lifeblood of our civilisation," he says with a fervour of which Shakespeare and Olivier would be proud.
"Importantly, conspicuously and evidentially, it is also an absolutely cut-and-dried economic success story."