The 10 Best Kenneth Branagh Films

As Belfast prepares to celebrate its next Freeman of the City, we count down his greatest contributions to cinema in front of and behind the camera

Sir Kenneth Branagh is a man of many talents. Actor, director, writer; the Belfast native has spent nearly three decades honing his craft. He long ago distinguished himself as an auteur of the highest order, as comfortable staging Shakespeare as he is directing, and appearing in, mega-budget blockbusters. As Belfast City Council, in partnership with Film Hub NI, prepare to stage a one-day pop-up film festival as part of celebrations marking Branagh's elevation as a Freeman of the City, we profile his top 10 movies, most of which will be screened across a host of venues on January 30.

10. Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Boasting a truly outrageous moustache, Branagh directs and stars in this shiny update of Agathe Christie’s Poirot mystery, though his appearance is, fortunately, far from the film’s only distinguishing mark. This is a pleasingly rendered slow-burning thriller, which benefits as much from its regard for vintage Hollywood tropes as it does from the sure hand at the controls. The director marshals a line-up bristling with star power and, as with Cinderella, regular Branagh collaborator Haris Zambarloukos’s cinematography paints in gloriously rich colours, capturing transcontinental opulence and sweeping Euro vistas along the way.

Showing at Queen's Film Theatre, Belfast at 12.45pm - sold out.

9. In the Bleak Midwinter (1995)

Branagh directs this spirited comedy from his own script, a return to form following the financial and critical failure of the demented Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Perhaps typically, Shakespeare forms a crucial pillar of the story, which centres on a struggling actor’s decision to stage a community production of Hamlet in a local church. Shot in monochrome for slyly dramatic effect, In the Bleak Midwinter serves as a satire of thespian pretentions, as well as a ripe behind-the-scenes depiction of acting’s least glamorous trappings.

Showing at First Presbyterian Church, Belfast at 8.45pm - book tickets.

8. Cinderella (2015)

Branagh, that most august of thesps, is in the director’s chair for this beautiful, if strikingly mainstream, fairytale adaptation. Dazzling, luscious and grand, his Disney adventure is not a retuned, rebooted version of a classic but a straight adaptation of something as familiar to us all as cinema itself. Nothing here will change the world or mould a genre. That matters not. Just go with its cheeky flow, the kaleidoscope of colour and willing performances, and there are delights to be had.

Showing at Belfast Castle at 7.00pm - book tickets.

7. My Week with Marilyn (2011)

A charming Michelle Williams stars as Marilyn Monroe in Simon Curtis’s elegant drama focusing on the experiences of film-maker Colin Clarke, who spent time escorting the legendary siren around London, in 1956, while she shot The Prince and the Showgirl opposite Laurence Olivier. Eddie Redmayne displays predictable boyish grace in his portrayal of Clark but it is Branagh who steals the show as the preening, arrogant Olivier, an acting heavyweight disdainful of his complex co-star’s myriad insecurities and whims.

Showing at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast at 2.30pm - book tickets.

6. Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

One of the most lucrative Shakespeare movies ever made, this glossy ensemble piece features a glitzy cast (including his then wife, Emma Thompson) in luscious Tuscan surroundings. Helming proceedings, as well as starring in them, Branagh turns in an eminently accessible take on well-worn material. Sporting a tan and sun-kissed mane, he injects style, energy and vigour into the already knowing original dialogue. He even accomplishes the not inconsiderable feat of successfully casting Keanu Reeves as a Shakespeare villain.

5. Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)

This adaptation of Doris Pilkington Garimara's book, directed by Phillip Noyce, chronicles the travails of the 'lost generation' of mixed-race Aboriginal children in 1930s Australia. Noyce's film is a visually stunning one, benefiting from a trio of winning performances by its youthful leads. Branagh, too, stands out as A. O. Neville, the government's Chief Protector of the Aborigines, and the man responsible for removing 'half-caste' youths from their families, ostensibly to train them as domestic servants and labourers, but ultimately as a means of eradicating their native bloodlines. A character unlikely to elicit affection, he is, however, the human face of a truly cruel and ill-advised policy.

Showing at Cultúrlann Mcadam Ó Fiaich at 7.00pm - book tickets.

4. Dead Again (1991)

Branagh stepped away from that familiar Shakespearean milieu to direct Dead Again, his much praised sophomore feature. Appearing in the main role, again alongside Thompson, Branagh masters a taut thriller that sees the couple playing dual roles across distinct period settings. In spite of his association with classic material, Branagh has never shied away from more populist fare. His work here, both in arranging a serious, compelling mystery and girding credentials as a leading man, marked him out as a talent of some renown.

Showing at Carnegie Oldpark at 7.30pm - book tickets.

3. Hamlet (1996)

Both director and titular prince, Branagh would seal his reputation as film-making’s foremost interpreter of Shakespeare with an astounding four-hour retelling of Hamlet standing, a testament to the scope of his ambition. A sprawling cast populates this mighty project, which sees its backdrop shift to 19th century Denmark while retaining the playwright’s Elizabethan dialogue. In spite of the theatrical pedigree, this is an archly cinematic project. Shot on 70mm film and deploying, amongst other methods, long-take tracking shots, Branagh’s stately picture soars, luxuriating in every detail of the massive mirrored sets and lavish costumes.

2. Dunkirk (2017)

Christopher Nolan’s astonishing war epic is a charge of pure cinematic power quite unlike anything seen before, his combination of propulsive plotting and relentless tension framed by giant, screen-filling vistas of ocean, sky and windswept shoreline. A triptych of intersecting narrative arcs — each covering a different span of time — is driven to an end point by the metronomic score, and it is in the most expansive of the these that Branagh excels as the naval commander overseeing the British forces’ escape efforts. Lending authority to a role that essentially sees him standing on a pier for a week, Branagh’s calmness under fire is one of the few elements of tranquillity in an otherwise raging storm.

Showing on board HMS Caroline on January 30 and 31 (both screenings sold out) and at Belfast Met at 1.30pm on January 30 - book tickets.

1. Henry V (1989)

Branagh's directorial debut came in 1989 with this traditional interpretation of Shakespeare's history play. Such was the quality of his work on both sides of the camera (he also fills out the title role), Oscar nominations for best director and best actor surely followed. Opening to critical acclaim, Henry V is now widely considered a benchmark for the Bard on the big screen, no matter its subsequent challengers. Branagh brings grit and gravitas to the bear. Infusing his film with a brooding atmosphere, he dares to lend the original scale and spectacle. Indeed, he lives and breathes every word, inhabiting the sacred text as few others can.

Showing at Strand Arts Centre at 8.30pm - book tickets.

For full details of all Branagh in Belfast screenings visit www.filmhubni.org/whats-on. Kenneth's Freedom of the City event will be held in the evening of January 30 at the Ulster Hall. Belfast residents can apply for free tickets to attend by filling out this online form. The closing date for applications is Friday, January 19 at 5.00pm.