This year, Belfast-born stage and screen stalwart Kenneth Branagh, who turned 57 yesterday, proved with deft dispatch he could be valiantly heroic in uniform and slyly flamboyant at sleuthing in the ambitious, large-cast big-screen 70mm surroundings of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and his own reimagining of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Clearly, with large chunks of Shakespeare (including a 70mm Hamlet) and a few Laurence Olivier-associated projects (like My Week with Marilyn, Sleuth and a revival of The Entertainer) on his resumé, the man can go big and formidable as needed. Curiously, an early acting inspiration for him was that of a usually larger-than-life performer who boldly went intensely coiled and intimately pitched. An Arena profile by Kevin Jackson 30 years ago revealed: “There was no theatrical side to his family – his father was a carpenter – but his earliest memory of powerful acting stems from those early Belfast years. ‘I remember seeing Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), with Burt Lancaster, and being really affected by it. Some of it was just the story, the whole idea of being in a cage, but I also remember thinking, ‘What a wonderful performance.’” Indeed, in true actor-manager fashion during the summer prior to that conversation, Branagh launched his notable Renaissance Theatre Company with a London production of Romeo and Juliet, playing an outsized swooning lover (to Samantha Bond’s Juliet) at night. During his days for two hectic weeks of that run, he would commute to outlying Buckinghamshire and Berkshire to play gregarious but secretive ex-World War I military man James Moon (a “man in a cage” of sorts) in the gemlike film adaptation of J.L. Carr’s prize-winning 1980 novel A Month in the Country (1987), his film debut opposite pal Colin Firth (playing lead character Tom Birkin, also an emotionally scarred survivor of hellacious combat), who earlier played Branagh’s stage role of Tommy Judd in the film version of Julian Mitchell’s Another Country (1984).
The exquisitely shot (by Kenneth MacMillan) and scored (by Howard Blake) film, sensitively adapted by Simon Gray and directed by Pat O’Connor, is set during a restorative 1920 Yorkshire Country summer, where Birkin and Moon are engaged in respective church art restoration and archaeological excavation projects that hold the promise and potential of revitalization, against the psychological scars inflicted by the awful carnage of the Great War. Resident TT essayist Julie Kirgo writes: “Like Birkin, Moon is a haunted veteran: he also suffers from nightmares, and, although, not marked by twitch or stammer, has to sleep in a trench-like hole in the ground where, he says, he feels ‘safe.’ The friendship between this damaged pair, established via shared meals and chats and smokes – but especially, perhaps, through their mutual appreciation of each other’s work – is wonderful in large part because of the significant things that are unsaid but understood (Moon’s ‘secret’ is unsurprising, unfair, and sadly, curiously relevant in our own time), and finds a marvelous equivalence, towards the end of the film, in the convergence of the twin ‘mysteries’ they’ve set themselves to solve.” The film is largely Birkin’s story, but the character’s camaraderie with Moon is a vital element in establishing a precise tone recognized by The New York Times’ Janet Maslin: O’Connor’s “direction lends it a strong sense of yearning, as well as a spiritual quality more apparent in the look of the film than in its dialogue. As in Cal , Mr. O'Connor is especially good at emphasizing the characters' separateness from one another, as well as their unarticulated longing. The sense of unfulfilled desire and incommunicable sorrow give A Month in the Country great pathos, and the screenplay's trimness does set the stage for a transcendent final scene.” Branagh and Firth are beautifully complemented by the work of fellow players Natasha Richardson, Patrick Malahide and Jim Carter, and it’s a marvel that birthday honoree Branagh’s robust screen career got its start in the quiet, achingly poignant, delicately nuanced surroundings of A Month in the Country on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.