Kenneth Branagh: “Working with Christopher Nolan was a masterclass”

Kenneth Branagh plays Commander Bolton in Dunkirk, a Naval officer helping soldiers evacuate. He tells The Big Issue about the scale of the production and watching Nolan work

Sir Kenneth Branagh is an Oscar-nominated director and has helmed films such as Marvel’s Thor and the upcoming adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, in which he also stars as iconic Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. But when it comes to a director being directed by another director, Branagh says it is a complete pleasure, especially when it is a master of the craft like Christopher Nolan.

The film captures the big view – that weight of numbers involved – and the small view

“I once had a conversation with Danny Boyle,” Branagh recalls. “He said his greatest regret as a director is he doesn’t get to see other directors work. So for me [working with Nolan] was a masterclass, where you’re thrilled to say, ‘whatever you like boss’.

“It is a joy to watch and be led by somebody who has an infectious passion who brings you into this big cauldron,” Branagh adds. “Chris is the greatest kind of auteur, so hands on, you are allowed to feel excited about that rather than intimidated.

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“It can be something that inspires your performance rather than dwarves it and you get the sense of the privilege of doing it, the possibility of conveying it to an audience.”

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In Dunkirk Branagh plays Commander Bolton, who is tasked with evacuating as many soldiers from the beach as possible. He stars alongside a cast including Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy alongside relative newcomer to the screen Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles – as well as hundreds of local extras who were drafted in for the film.

“Every morning I went to work I would walk down the mole, past what felt like 1,300 blokes and I would say good morning to them all, ‘Bonjour, bonjour, bonjour’,” Branagh says. “There was a sense of walking the plank, literally going out to an exposed place.

“That weight of numbers of human beings involved in this endeavour, there was this dynamic between this epic situation, you couldn’t have been there and not understood that this felt like a national moment – 400,000 people on a beach – at the same time your bit of it is with half a dozen people around you. The film captures some of that dynamic, you get the big view and the small view.”