Entertainment & Arts

Arise Sir Ken: Kenneth Branagh profiled

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Media captionSir Kenneth: "I feel very humble, I feel elated"

A look at the career of actor and director Kenneth Branagh, who has been knighted this week in the Queen's Birthday Honours.

Few will be surprised by the news that Kenneth Charles Branagh has been made a Sir at the age of 51.

Indeed, from the moment the Belfast native first made his mark in the early 1980s, he has always seemed to be an actor knight in waiting.

Comparisons to Laurence Olivier - who was knighted himself at the age of 40 - have pursued Branagh throughout his career, and are likely to do so again in the light of this latest elevation.

Yet Branagh can be said to have invited those comparisons, not least by choosing to portray the great man on screen in 2011's My Week with Marilyn.

The "new Olivier" tag first attached itself in 1989 when Branagh released his film of Henry V - a Shakespeare history play that "Larry" had famously filmed in 1944.

By the time of its release, however, its 28-year-old director and star was already established as a rising talent on television and the stage.

On his knighthood, Branagh said: "I feel humble, elated and incredibly lucky.

"When I was a kid I dreamed of pulling on a shirt for the Northern Ireland football team. I could only imagine how proud you might feel. Today it feels like they just gave me the shirt and my heart's fit to burst."

Born in Belfast in December 1960, Branagh spent his early years in Northern Ireland before moving to Reading with his family when he was nine.

Having adopted an English accent to avoid being bullied, he first showed a talent for acting in school productions of Toad of Toad Hall and Oh, What a Lovely War.

Image caption Branagh starred with his first wife Emma Thompson in Fortunes of War

Seeing Derek Jacobi play Hamlet on stage was a pivotal moment for the teenage Branagh, who went on to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

Even before graduating he had landed his first lead role, in a 1982 Play for Today entitled Too Late To Talk to Billy.

Set in Belfast during the Troubles, Graeme Reid's drama cast Branagh as its troubled title character - a role he would reprise in two follow-up plays.

After leaving Rada, the young actor boosted his profile further by acting in the West End production of Julian Mitchell's Another Country.

Having initially turned down an approach from the Royal Shakespeare Company, Branagh agreed, at the age of 23, to play Henry V at Stratford-upon-Avon.

The actor got rave reviews for his performance, following it up with roles in Hamlet (as Laertes) and Love's Labour's Lost.

Yet a career in the RSC was not forthcoming, Ken opting instead to found the Renaissance Theatre Company in 1987 with producer David Parfitt.

The same year saw Branagh star in the BBC mini-series Fortunes of War, opposite actress Emma Thompson.

"Ken" and "Em" remained a couple both on and off screen, tying the knot in 1989 as his Henry V film reached cinemas.

Image caption Branagh played Hamlet on stage prior to playing the part on film

Downbeat, gritty and mud-flecked, the Shakespearean drama saw him Oscar nominated the following year for best actor and best director.

Its success prompted a flurry of film-making from the feted polymath, who would fill both roles again on the thriller Dead Again, ensemble comedy Peter's Friends and Much Ado About Nothing, another Shakespeare adaptation.

Thompson appeared with her husband in all of the above. By 1994, though, their marriage was on the rocks.

Their break-up coincided with his film of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a costly Gothic horror that was greeted with stinging reviews.

For a man confident enough to pen an autobiography in his twenties, such a public reversal of fortune must have been galling in the extreme.

Yet Branagh did not appear overly stung by the negative reaction and bounced back two years later with a four-hour movie of Hamlet, casting himself in the title role.

The years that followed would see Kenneth step away from directing in order to focus on Hollywood acting assignments.

These included lead roles in Woody Allen's Celebrity and Robert Altman's The Gingerbread Man and a villainous turn in Wild Wild West opposite Will Smith.

Image caption Branagh (pictured with Stanley Tucci) played Reinhard Heydrich in Conspiracy

On the small screen he made a chilling impression as Reinhard Heydrich, architect of the Nazis' so-called "final solution", in HBO drama Conspiracy.

He also had renewed success on stage, both as director of comic farce The Play What I Wrote and as the star of a sell-out Richard III at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield.

In 2002, Branagh won an army of younger fans by playing flamboyant professor Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

The following year saw him marry Lindsay Brunnock, an art director with whom he worked on 2002 drama Shackleton.

2003 also saw Ken return to the London stage, for the first time in a decade, in the National Theatre's production of David Mamet's Edmond.

And it was not long before he made a return to directing too with fresh adaptations of Shakepeare's As You Like It, Mozart's The Magic Flute and the 1972 film Sleuth - another project with a Laurence Olivier link.

In 2008 Branagh made his first appearance for the BBC as Kurt Wallander, the angst-ridden detective created by Sweden's Henning Mankell.

He followed that Bafta-winning venture by taking on another property with a Scandinavian connection - namely Thor, the Marvel superhero based on the Norse mythological figure.

Some were intrigued when he was selected to direct such a high-profile, comic book blockbuster.

Image caption Branagh's association with Olivier continued in My Week with Marilyn

Speaking to the BBC news website, though, he attributed his hiring to his "experience in dealing with heightened language and the dynastic sagas of the great and the good".

Earlier this year Branagh received Bafta, Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for his work in My Week with Marilyn.

Yet such recognition seems trifling beside his latest honour, which sees him join the enobled ranks of such friends and collaborators as Sir Derek Jacobi, Dame Judi Dench and the late Sir John Gielgud.

So what next for Sir Ken? In the past, Branagh has spoken of his desire to be an artistic director of "a group or a theatre, or maybe a building".

A more pressing concern, though, is his proposed film of 2008 novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, to be shot next year on the titular Channel Island.

He is also set to direct a new film based around Tom Clancy's CIA analyst Jack Ryan, starring Chris Pine of Star Trek fame.

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