A much-loved face rarely off our screens, Sir Kenneth Branagh has directed and starred in some great British films, including Henry V, Murder on the Orient Express and the Harry Potter series.
Now the 59-year-old reveals it was his childhood in Belfast that spawned his love of storytelling.
‘There were a lot of us. My mother had 11 siblings, my father had five, so I had dozens of cousins. We would all meet in each other’s houses and, of course, this is in the pre-internet, pre-large-numbers-of-television-channels age, so when we did meet, the members of the family would start telling stories.’
He affectionately recalls that the tales would grow taller as the gatherings wore on, starting at ancient Belfast and ending at giants and trolls.
He adds, ‘I grew up with a real sense of delight in storytelling, along with a complete lack of concern about whether the story in question was true or not – as they say, the Irish have never let the truth get in the way of a good story!’
It’s a memory he has woven into the most recent film he has directed, entitled Artemis Fowl. The movie, based on the series of young-adult novels of the same name by Eoin Colfer, features a 12-year-old boy genius whose search for his missing father takes him into a secret fantasy world. All good fun for the under 12s, but it does seem a somewhat unexpected choice from a man who has played such powerful roles as Hamlet and epic explorer Shackleton.
‘Not at all,’ he says briskly. ‘I think that part of the journey in life is discovering who you are, and that is often at its most revealing when you are a child. I like to meditate, and part of what meditation teaches you is a self-remembering – which is, basically, trying to find a way to access that part of you that was there when you were small. There was a clarity about the way in which you understood sometimes very complex things, which later in life your own so-called sophistication gets in the way of.’
As for working with the younger actors – in particular Ferdia Shaw as Artemis and Lara McDonnell as LEPRecon officer Holly Short – he says it was nothing short of an education.
‘They were miles ahead of what I would have regarded myself as being at that stage, in terms of their awareness of technology, the quality of their imagination, their ability to process the idea of multiple worlds that a story like this offered up. This is not a generation to patronise, condescend to or really attempt to teach anything to – you listen and you leave it to them to play with the story.’
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the film won’t be getting a cinematic release or premiere and will instead be streamed on Disney+, but Kenneth, who has been isolating in his Berkshire countryside home with his film art director wife, Lindsay Brunnock, and the family dog, is looking on the bright side.
‘I’m walking my dog even more than I used to these days,’ he admits, during the nationwide lockdown. ‘And I do find it amazing when I do so to look up at the sky, or into the trees, and remember that, whatever is this weird sense of isolation that I am feeling right now, it is also being experienced by most other people all over the face of the planet.’
He concludes, ‘We’re all in this together, and I sometimes find that quite moving to consider.’