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Shakespeare, Cinderella, Thor … and Oscar: A Tribute to Kenneth Branagh

When discussing Kenneth Branagh, it’s hard to know where to begin — or end.

The famed British actor, writer and director is currently enjoying box-office success with the long-delayed whodunit “Death on the Nile,” while his most recent film, “Belfast,” stands nominated for seven Academy Awards. Starting with screen versions of Shakespeare in the 1990s, Branagh went on to direct adaptations of Mary Shelley, Mozart, Agatha Christie, and Tom Clancy; he handled entries for Disney and Marvel, starred in one Harry Potter film, another for Woody Allen and two for Christopher Nolan — also playing such real-life characters as FDR, Laurence Olivier and Ernest Shackleton. He is next slated to direct a biopic of the Bee Gees.

Born in 1960, Branagh burst onto the cinematic scene in 1989 with a blazing adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Henry V” — a bold move, considering the esteem accorded to Olivier’s gold-standard 1944 version. Branagh went on to helm no less than six adaptations of the Bard, all but one of which he also starred in. These include 1992’s lovely “Much Ado About Nothing” with Denzel Washington, Emma Thompson, Keanu Reeves, Kate Beckinsale and Michael Keaton; “Othello” with Laurence Fishburne; and the 1996 “Hamlet,” starring Julie Christie, Kate Winslet, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Jack Lemmon and Charlton Heston, among many others. At 242 minutes, Branagh’s “Hamlet” remains the only version ever filmed without a single cut to the original text. The actor also directed 2018’s “All Is True,” in which he played Shakespeare opposite Judi Dench.

Having established his creds with the Bard — along with lots of stage work — Branagh went on to write, direct and/or star in more than 60 films and television features.

Some highlights:

The actor played Gilderoy Lockhart in the second Harry Potter film (“Chamber of Secrets,” 2002). He put together a handsome version of “Frankenstein” with Robert De Niro, Helena Bonham Carter, Aidan Quinn and John Cleese, then co-starred with a staggering cast in Woody Allen’s 1998 satire “Celebrity” (look it up!). He directed and starred with Chris Pine in a 2014 Jack Ryan thriller, oversaw the acclaimed 2002 Australian adventure “Rabbit Proof Fence” and did a remake of the two-man mystery “Sleuth” with Michael Caine and Jude Law (Caine switching roles from the better-known 1972 version). Branagh appeared in “Valkyrie,” “Dunkirk” and “Tenet,” adapted Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute” and reached new heights of box-office glory with the first “Thor” (2011) and the dazzling live-action “Cinderella” (2015) — one of my favorite films from the past 10 years.

His 2017 screen version of Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” also tallied strong receipts, leading to its current follow-up “Death on the Nile.” Surrounded by a strong cast in both films, Branagh played Christie’s resolute Belgian detective Hercule Poirot; he has since spoken of a possible “cinematic universe” featuring other adaptations from the massive Christie canon.

Branagh initially trained at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and has been president of that institution since 2015. According to Wikipedia, while a student at RADA in 1980, the young actor was hand-picked to read a Shakespeare soliloquy before Queen Elizabeth II; 32 years later, Sir Kenneth was knighted by that same monarch.

Branagh was married to actress Emma Thompson from 1989-1995; they made six movies together. He also penned a 1990 autobiography entitled “Beginnings.”

“Belfast” holds Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay, among other nods. These latest honors make Branagh the first person to be Oscar-nominated in seven different categories.

Branagh’s lauded black-and-white Irish memoir goes up against such stiff competition as “West Side Story,” “Dune” and “Licorice Pizza,” while his screenplay and direction vie with the likes of Steven Spielberg, Jane Campion and Paul Thomas Anderson.

The Oscar ceremony airs March 27.