Branagh stands so prominently because he is not prominent in any way: he submerges himself in every role.
I had the privilege of meeting Kenneth Branagh last week at the Evening Standard Drama Awards. Not just meeting him, in fact, but eating his dessert. (How many people could – or would want to – claim that?)
Branagh had been nominated for Best Actor, for his role in Chekhov's Ivanov, where he inhabits a very lonely space, a depressed man drowning in debt who pushes away his virtuous wife and torments his well-meaning friends. Despite being one of the great stage performances, Branagh lost to Chiwetel Ejiofor, who was Othello. Ejiofor deserved it, but so did Branagh, and Branagh was nothing but gracious afterwards.
Branagh stands so prominently in the canon of great British actors precisely because he is not prominent in any way: he submerges himself in every role. Whereas it is impossible to distance the person from the performance with so many other actors, Branagh folds himself into his character.
Last night's Wallander on BBC1 was an example. Based on a series of Swedish crime novels, Branagh played the lonely, depressed (perhaps a theme here?) police detective. His acting was natural and unassuming, quietly taking you into his psyche. Amid a production of great subtlety, Branagh stood out (if this is not an inappropriate metaphor) for his humanity and insight. And this is a crime drama!
Branagh will soon be off the stage, but if you can get a ticket to Ivanov, or have the time to watch Wallander on the iPlayer, I urge you to do so: Ken is king.