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Branagh and Thompson ascending to screen royalty


He's slight and wan and has a shapeless, doughy face like a pre-adolescent boy.

She has a horsy mouth, a perpetually wrinkled brow, and it's hard to decide what's sharper -- her nose or her jaw line.

But put Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson in a movie, give TTC them characters and a story to tell, and watch the sparks fly.

Catch their current act in the Branagh-directed "Much Ado About Nothing," in which the married couple play Shakespeare's sharp-witted battling lovers, Beatrice and Benedick, and you'll see the most intoxicating kind of movie magic.

Ken and Em are, in fact, poised to become something truly rare in popular movies: a royal couple.

Here's a husband-and-wife team who not only initiate, star in and direct their own films, but who also are much in demand to appear in other moviemakers' productions.

Just try to name another married couple who have this sort of enviable profile. Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne ruled the American stage for nearly four decades but never translated their Broadway successes into significant film careers.

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward's long personal and professional collaboration has brought them close to the status of Hollywood "royalty," although their careers essentially are those of actors-for-hire.

Woody Allen and his then-paramour Mia Farrow spent the '80s turning out comedies (and a couple of middling dramas) that tickled the fancies of intellectuals but failed to put a dent in the box office. Besides, we all know how badly that ended.

But Mr. Branagh and Ms. Thompson could end up with a higher profile than any of the above. Since they were first seen together on the silver screen in 1988 in Mr. Branagh's directing debut, "Henry V," these two stage actors from the British Isles (he's Irish, she's English) have established themselves as the thinking moviegoer's great hopes.

Mr. Branagh has won two Oscar nominations (Best Actor and Best Director for "Henry V"), and Ms. Thompson was named Best Actress (for "Howards End"). Not bad for a couple age 32 (Mr. Branagh) and 33 (Ms. Thompson).

They've collaborated on three more films ("Much Ado," the Hitchcockian thriller "Dead Again" and the British "Big Chill" clone "Peter's Friends") and made frequent solo appearances in other films. On top of that, Mr. Branagh directs and manages his own London theater company.

So Mr. Branagh and Ms. Thompson have pretty much cornered the market. Although neither fits the admittedly shallow definition of a "beautiful person," they exude an unpretentious, just-folks aura that makes them terribly endearing. You cannot imagine carrying on a conversation with, say, Laurence Olivier, but Mr. Branagh and Ms. Thompson seem so very approachable.

Take, for example, Ms. Thompson's delightfully down-to-earth mugging at last winter's Oscar contest. Her slightly out-of-it bemusement at the whole affair was right on the money, and it was easy to identify with this visitor to Tinseltown.

Furthermore, Ms. Thompson seems to know that she's not conventionally gorgeous and is perfectly happy with that fact. The trick is that she's such an intelligent, superbly gifted actress that if she is called upon to play a beautiful woman -- voila! -- she's beautiful.

As for Mr. Branagh, he runs the risk of being declared a smart-alecky kid. After all, this is a guy who has been compared to Orson Welles as a "boy wonder" of the movies.

Here again, Mr. Branagh dispenses of all traces of pretentiousness. In conversation he's salty and ribald and admits that, except when it comes to Shakespeare, he's hardly what you'd call an intellectual. In many regards he's still just a Belfast bloke with little taste for high culture.

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