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Film studies: Not much ado about anything Branagh does now

Just between you and me, what has happened to Kenneth Branagh?

"Has he died?" asked my editor.

"Worse than that," I said. "But, if you don't mind, I was talking to our readers."

She ignored the philosophical quicksands in that possibility. She was hot for the gossip. "What's worse than death for an actor?" she said.

"Going cold," I said. "Now, I'm not arguing this for myself, you understand, because I wasn't in Britain to take advantage of it, but I'm prepared to accept that in the days of the Renaissance Theatre Company, he was the genuine article - a terrific young actor and director. Though I have seen the TV serial he did, from the Olivia Manning novels, Fortunes of War - remember that?"

"With Emma. I loved it."

"Me too. I thought these are two wondrous actors. And I admired his Oswald in a TV version of Ghosts."

"And Henry V," she said. "Surely Henry V?"

"To be frank," I said, "I still prefer the Olivier version. Branagh tried to modernise the play. His king was a young officer out of National Service. But Olivier felt like the early 15th century. Branagh's film was naturalistic - Olivier's was an illuminated manuscript."

"Well," she sighed, "he and Em just seemed so perfect for a while. It was nice. But then it faded away."

That's a kind way of putting it. But it is true that Branagh was once spoken of as the heir to Olivier, circa 1945 - the daring film-maker, and the Oedipus and Mr Puff in one night at the Old Vic.

"And Larry and Viv, of course," said my editor - she had the shine of food rationing and Picture Post in her eyes. She was dreaming of a legendary happiness, no matter that it seldom settled for long on the nervy couple themselves.

Since his perfect moment, Kenneth Branagh - not yet 40 - has directed the atrocious Dead Again and the irrelevant Peter's Friends. He did a decent, sunny and moderately merry Much Ado About Nothing. But then he turned Mary Shelley's Frankenstein into one of the greatest travesties of misplaced style. His Hamlet, finally, was no more than very long. As an actor, he did a conventionally nasty Iago opposite Laurence Fishburne's Othello - stealing the picture, but Iago always wins that one. Swing Kids - where did that one come from? And then The Gingerbread Man. There's no rhyme or reason to it.

"But he's in Woody Allen's Celebrity," remembered my editor. "Yes, and shabby, implausible and one more hapless Woody would-be. It's the women who make Celebrity remarkable. And there's another horror you don't know about yet: The Theory of Flight, with Helena Bonham Carter."

"I can't see when it opens."

"Perhaps the actors bought it back and burnt it."

"But aren't he and HBC a couple?"

"So I believe."

"She's not Em? Is that it?"

"No, she's not. But she was very good in Wings of the Dove - sexy, intelligent. You felt her soul and her social problem. I had hopes for her."

"Perhaps you could say something about actors who marry - or whatever," she wondered.

Now, there is a subject. Between you and me - my editor's gone to lunch - to know, let alone love, an actress is a great riddle. That part of us that desires happiness for everyone in life - as a matter of principle - should be very careful when it comes to actors and actresses. I tend to support the notion that they should not be allowed out in society, so that they can infect civilians. Very often in life that sort of sanction does apply - so they go with other actors. It's as if they knew that only fellow-sufferers, ghosts in the same half-world, could tolerate or forgive the sheer absence of actors.

I mean, you can have one in your arms, but they're not there. They're playing themselves. You've got the body, but it's only warm laundry. Their spirits are off in that dark corner where they watch and scheme it all out. It's all the more extraordinary because we think of actors as love models and sex goddesses. Ideal romantic figures. A lot of people think of love and sex as behaviours learnt from movies.

"Been burnt, have we?" My editor takes seven-minute lunches.

"A columnist in this area should come with experience," I said.

"I was thinking," she said. "That Em hasn't done much lately. Apart from Primary Colors."

And that's true. Is she just enjoying life? Meanwhile Branagh opens this summer in America in The Wild, Wild West. It may be a big film commercially. It could rescue him. And he appears from the trailers to be a very broad, rather hammy villain. It's hardly acting as you might have expected. Who knows, he might become "colourful". And I wonder whether the whole thing might not be fit for a sad, comic script by Miss Emma Thompson.

Kenneth Branagh season: National Film Theatre, SE1 (0171 928 3232) to 31 May. 'Celebrity' opens on 18 June.