When thinking of modern Shakespeare, how could anyone not think of Kenneth Branagh? But the Belfast native has had a long and varied career across theatre, television, and film as both an actor and director. He has nabbed multiple Academy Awards nominations and has won two Emmys, a Golden Globe, and four BAFTAs. Having trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts as a student, he has served as its president since 2015 and promotes the careers of other RADA graduates.
For a master class in filmmaking and the Bard, find here the best Kenneth Branagh movies.
Branagh has directed adaptations of five Shakespeare plays, in addition to mounting several productions on stage. His 1989 directorial debut, Henry V, also marked Branagh’s first Oscar nomination for Best Director. He also received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for playing the titular role. The film also stars Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench, and his then-wife Emma Thompson, all of whom he has continued working with throughout his career. Henry V met great critical success and is still considered one of the greatest Shakespeare film adaptations ever.
Branagh’s third film as director boasts an insanely stacked cast: Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Imelda Staunton, Emma Thompson, Phyllida Law, and Branagh himself, to name a few. In the film, six friends who attended the University of Cambridge reunite after ten years following Peter inheriting his family’s estate. The fun and warm comedy deals with the current relationship issues of the characters, and it also sensitively approaches more sincere topics: the loss of a child, illness, and divorce.
Much Ado About Nothing
Much Ado About Nothing, saw Branagh and his then-wife Emma Thompson as the beloved literary couple, Benedick and Beatrice. (They’re the original enemies to lovers, in the best banter-filled way possible.) From the beautiful production design and costumes to the way that it shows how well Branagh can make the Shakespearean language seem natural, the film is a treat for both those who love Shakespeare and those who haven’t engaged with it since high school. Plus, Branagh was the first to realize that Denzel Washington is a great Shakespearean actor, long before he was cast as the titular role in Tragedy of Macbeth.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Branagh really understood the assignment. Despite the changes that Steph Lady and Frank Darabont made in adapting Shelley’s classic novel to the screen, it ranks as the most book-accurate Frankenstein film. The cast is fantastic, from Branagh as Victor Frankenstein to Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth Lavenza to Robert De Nero (yes, you read that correctly) as Frankenstein’s creature. It delights in being as Gothic and sensationalist as possible.
Every Shakespearean actor wants the chance to play Hamlet, so it should come as little surprise that Branagh directed a version of the play in which he played the titular character. The large cast includes Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie, Rufus Sewell, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Judi Dench, John Gielgud, Kate Winslet and Richard Attenborough. With a lovely score by frequent Branagh collaborator Patrick Doyle and gorgeous costumes by Alexandra Byrne, the film also is the only unabridged theatrical film of the play, clocking in at over four hours long.
In 2007, Branagh continued his tradition of adapting plays to the screen with Sleuth. Harold Pinter adapted Anthony Shaffer’s play of the same name, which was previously made into a film in 1972. An older author and the young actor with whom his wife is having an affair play a series of mind games against each other. Michael Caine stars as the older man, having previously played the younger one in the last film. Jude Law gives a fantastic performance as the ever more unhinged Tindle. While the film didn’t receive great reviews, the way that Branagh plays with space to create a claustrophobic atmosphere is fascinating.
Few Marvel films feel as much a part of their director’s normal filmography as Thor does. Though it depicts Asgardian superheroes inspired by Norse mythology coming to Earth, the Asgard sections feel very Shakespearean. Credit that to Anthony Hopkins, who plays Odin, and Tom Hiddleston, a frequent Branagh collaborator, who plays Loki, Thor’s trickster brother. But Branagh did an excellent job setting up Thor’s character, played by Chris Hemsworth, and the world of Asgard.
Considered by many to be the best of the Disney live-action remakes of their classic animated tales, Cinderella is a gorgeous and lush depiction of the fairytale. The cast includes the effervescent Lily James in the titular role with Richard Madden as the perfectly-updated prince. Cate Blanchett, Holiday Grainger, Helena Bonham Carter, and Derek Jacobi round out the rest of the cast. Branagh understands the enduring message of this story: the importance of staying kind in the face of hardship and not becoming bitter against the world. The performances are stunning, the visuals are immaculate, and the all-important ballgown is one of the most memorable dresses to appear onscreen in this century.
Murder on the Orient Express
It makes too much sense that Branagh would set his eye on the character of Hercule Poirot, and his new series of films based on Agatha Christie’s mysteries. He got off to a good start with the 2017 Murder on the Orient Express. Branagh does excellent work as the intelligent, eccentric, mustachioed detective but also crafts an elegant and engaging mystery. Much like his theater casting and his casting of earlier Shakespeare adaptations, Branagh has committed to casting diversely in his Christie adaptations. The fantastic cast includes Penélope Cruz, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom. Jr, Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley, Lucy Boynton, and Johnny Depp.
All Is True
It seemed inevitable that Branagh would one day portray the Bard himself. All Is True imagines William Shakespeare in the last years of his life after returning to Stratford-upon-Avon, following his successful career in London and trying to reconnect with his family. Judi Dench portrays Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife, and Ian McKellen plays the Earl of Southhampton. While the film isn’t perfect, it’s a treat for Shakespeare lovers and a passion project from a man who has devoted much of his career as an actor and director to the playwright’s work.
It feels right to urge everyone to see Belfast. Branagh’s own childhood in Belfast during The Troubles in the late 1960s inspired the film, with a cast that includes Judi Dench, Ciaran Hinds, Caitríona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Colin Morgan, and Jude Hill. The touching story shows the conflict through the eyes of a child while also expressing the power of film on a young mind. It’s a love letter to Belfast – and to Branagh’s family.
The film is nominated for seven Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Ciaran Hinds), Best Supporting Actress (Judi Dench), Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Song, and Best Sound.
Death on the Nile
Branagh returns to Poirot in this 2022 sequel, based on Agatha Christie's novel of the same name. The sullen detective ventures onto a Nile river cruise with a wealthy married couple, played by Gal Gadot and Armie Hammer. But Poirot senses a plot afoot, as the voyagers start meeting with untimely demises. Like Murder on the Orient Express, Branagh indulges in exotic vistas and an all-star cast, that also includes Annette Benning, Jennifer Saunders, Russell Brand, Dawn French, Leticia Wright and Rose Leslie. The movie also adds an intriguing subplot that suggests a romance between Poirot and a blues singer, played by Sophie Okonedo.
A Haunting in Venice
Murder–and Poirot–strikes again in Branagh's third outing as the detective. Following the events of Death on the Nile, Poirot investigates an alleged medium (Michelle Yeoh) one rainy Halloween seance. When supernatural events begin, Poirot must deduce the identity and motive of a murderer. Though featuring a slightly smaller cast than his previous Christie adaptations, A Haunting in Venice also features Jude Hill, Kelley Rielly, Tina Fey and Jamie Dornan, alongside plenty of lush Venitian visuals and creepy camera work.
Nicole Ackman is a writer, podcaster, and historian based in North Carolina. She loves period dramas, the MCU, and theatre. Nicole is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and the Online Association of Female Film Critics and is Tomato-Meter Approved.