Kenneth Branagh opens up about the inspiration he felt working alongside award-winning director Christopher Nolan
Kenneth Branagh on the war drama Dunkirk
Kenneth Branagh may be one of British cinema’s biggest imports, but that doesn’t mean the five-time Academy Award nominee and Dunkirk star is immune to being in awe of the film’s director Christopher Nolan.
“Chris has found a way to take an independent approach to popular movie-making that is unique in modern cinema,” says Branagh, who plays Commander Bolton in the much-anticipated war epic that releases Thursday. “He makes films that are extraordinarily complex and often challenging, and yet millions of people not only go to see them, they see them again and again.”
According to the veteran actor who has appearanced in Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993) and Hamlet (1996) and directed films like Thor (2011) and The Magic Flute (2006), regardless of how popular Nolan’s films become, he remains an “artist and an auteur”.
“I think for that reason he has become a heroic figure for both the audience and the people working behind the camera.”
Branagh admits he first came across Nolan’s work when he sat down to watch Memento back in the year 2000, and like many of his fans, he was left with plenty of questions due to the film’s timeframe-jumping.
“I had the classic Christopher Nolan experience of watching that film with a few other people, then spending an hour of intense conversation trying to work out what it meant, being certain that we did [understand], and ultimately understanding that we didn’t.
“We ended that hour knowing just one thing: that we were going to see the movie again. It was imaginative, intelligent and unusual, as all his films since have been.”
While many of Nolan’s films, including Memento, 2010’s Inception and 2014’s Interstellar, concern themselves with the mental challenges faced by the lead characters, the challenges facing those in Dunkirk – the thousands of trapped allied soldiers rescued from the shores of Dunkirk in 1940’s Operation Dynamo – are somewhat more physical.
“Standing on that mole, battling the elements and embracing the variables becomes ingrained in the DNA of the character,” Branagh reveals. “The tide is a variable; the weather and even the sun could be deceptive. When the winter kicks up across that Channel, it is bitterly cold. It’s four seasons in a day, with every possible condition, sometimes all at once.”
Branagh is careful to keep the the cast’s struggles with the elements in perspective.
“That was only a distant hint of what it might have been like in reality,” he says. “For the real people who stood on that mole, home was so close they could see it – just 26 miles away – and yet they were stuck in this kind of hell.”
He admits that focusing on the reality of the experience was very important to Nolan and the rest of the cast. “They didn’t win medals, it wasn’t considered a victory, but, nevertheless, it was a miraculous deliverance. It delivered us to the world we’re living in now.”
The man who hails from Northern Ireland and began his acting career on the stage, adds that the movie has taught him about the bravery of the Dunkirk evacuees in a way he had never previously fully comprehended.
“Growing up in Ireland, I often heard people use the expression ‘Dunkirk Spirit’, but it wasn’t until I started learning about the Second World War that I came to understand what it meant,” he says.
“It has to do with never giving up, no matter how impossible the odds. An entire nation united in an epic, courageous, impossible evacuation effort to bring some 400,000 trapped soldiers home from enemy-occupied lands. That spirit transformed a potentially catastrophic defeat into a ‘miracle of deliverance,’ as Churchill called it.”
The operation was huge, involving hundreds of boats from tiny fishing vessels to the Royal Navy’s finest, and Branagh says that has successfully captured the epic nature of the event in his movie.
“What is so striking about it was the sheer scale of the event, and how deftly Christopher reveals the enormous scope and high stakes of this battle through the eyes of the people fighting it, or just trying to
keep themselves and each other alive.
“They may be on the beach; they may be in the air; they may be on ships crossing the Channel, but each is experiencing just one tiny piece of this massive, chaotic operation, and it can be quite a narrow one.”
He adds that in Nolan’s screenplay and in his execution of the film, the revered director “brings all those personal moments together to immerse the audience in a visceral experience of war, while giving us a broader perspective on the event than any individual character has in that moment”.
As one of the older characters in the film – many of the soldiers at Dunkirk were barely even adults – Branagh’s Commander Bolton himself offers a different perspective to that of his younger comrades.
“Bolton is from a generation that had been in the First World War as well. So, to come out of the war to end all wars and find himself here, you can feel an older generation of Brits saying, ‘What have we come to again?’ I think that’s a perspective Chris was interested in expressing through this character,” he says.
“When Bolton is on that mole, he can see into the far distance the massive numbers of people involved, and feel an incredible sense of youth exposed, at risk and in danger, and the role his generation played in setting them up to be cornered on this strip of beach.”
These personal moments are clearly key to Nolan’s script, and Branagh notes that, although the movie is an epic in every sense of the word, it is simultaneously a very personal project.
“What I witnessed on Dunkirk was the hands-on, detailed approach Christopher Nolan takes to even the smallest aspect of this giant operation, which is entirely under his control,” he says. “You can see what an enormous undertaking it is just by walking along that beach, which was packed with extras – and his vision permeates all of it.
“Regardless of the scope, it feels like a highly personal film that he has chosen to make on a vast scale.”
Dunkirk is in UAE cinemas from Thursday