IN a warmer, less clipped style of speech than one normally associates with a classically trained British actor, Kenneth Branagh says his filming of ``Henry V'' was his opportunity to make Shakespeare easily accessible and relevant to today's audiences. It was not, he maintains, part of an acting contest with Laurence Olivier - the famous actor to whom the talented Branagh often gets compared - ``because the man is unbeatable,'' he says. ``The only competition I'm in is with myself. And that's what I want to address myself to, rather than the completely futile - utterly futile! - chasing of glittering prizes or this so-called `mantle' that's hanging about.''
Kenneth Branagh, at age 28, is considered by many to be the most exciting British actor of his generation. In 1984, he won unanimous praise from London critics for his portrayal of the title role in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of ``Henry V.''
And now, ``the next Olivier'' tag, which he earned then, continues to stick. Branagh's current film, ``Henry V'' [reviewed in this section Nov. 16] - which he adapted for screen, directed, and stars in - is an impressive achievement, as was Olivier's.
His own acting troupe, the Renaissance Theatre Company, founded only two years ago, already boasts a string of stage hits, and his autobiography, called ``Beginnings,'' which leaped quickly onto Britain's bestseller list, reveals a talented writer.
Not that he seeks comparisons with Olivier. Branagh adamantly insists, ``Olivier has always been an inspiration for me, but also for millions of other actors, and always will be. If you are interested in classical theater, you're bound to be doing the same parts as he did. And, if you want to work in film and try to do what we at Renaissance have been doing - to build a bridge between what's considered art and culture and a truly popular medium like the cinema - then you are, once again, going to cross the same tracks as Olivier.''
The parallels with Olivier are striking: Having established his acting company, Branagh has become, like Olivier, an actor-manager. The aim of both was, in part, to shake up the British theater establishment's rigid way of doing things. In addition, both men put ``Henry V'' on film in the dual capacity of auteur and star. And Branagh, like Olivier, has the knack of inspiring fellow actors and rallying them around him.
There, however, the similarities end. Where Olivier cut a dashing, matinee-idol figure, Branagh is the archetypal common man; while Olivier was the epitome of Englishness, Branagh is a Belfast-born, working-class lad who, after his family moved to England when he was nine, spoke with an accent so thick he was mercilessly ridiculed. That accent is now all but gone.
British actor Richard Briers, who plays Bardolf in ``Henry V,'' says, ``Kenneth has got the most extraordinary determination I've ever seen in anyone. I was with people like Peter O'Toole and Albert Finney at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts many years ago. I mean, they were pretty determined people, as is proven by their careers; but I've never seen this quality in a young man so pronounced.''
Branagh ``has a `reputation,' if you know what I mean, within the business,'' says Mr. Briers, who will visit the United States with the Renaissance in January.
``First of all, he's a brilliant director, not just a very good actor. And he's willing to pick up the phone and speak to people.''
As for brazenly doing a ``remake'' of ``Henry V,'' Branagh gives the following reasons: Olivier's film was made during World War II.
It was intended to be a morale booster for the British people, and some of passages, such as the traitors' scene (which Branagh has reinstated), were taken out at the specific request of Winston Churchill, who believed that anything depicting troubles or dissension within Henry's army would be, by implication, deleterious to Britain's war effort.
``Because of all this,'' says Branagh, ``Olivier took a profoundly different attitude to the whole thing. Questions about the central character as a portrait of leadership and the way that war is waged, which I think Shakespeare puts forward, Olivier didn't need to address at that stage.
``Also, `Henry V' seems to be a good example of looking into the flesh and blood of people in positions of great authority.'' With the earlier film, it wasn't necessary for anyone to worry about whether Henry was right or wrong, explains Branagh. The point was simply that England wins. The reflective qualities of ``Henry V,'' he says, have long been under-explored.
When it came to making his film version - despite the enthusiastic support of some big names in British theater, including Paul Scofield and Derek Jacobi - the project was fraught with difficulty. Someone less tenacious than Branagh would have given up. The actor was juggling eight theater performances a week, intense financial negotiations, and meetings to plan ``Henry V.'' Potential investors all but laughed when they learned that Branagh, who had never directed a film, was to be in charge.
But finally the necessary 4.5 million pounds ($7 million) was raised. And ``Henry V'' came in under budget, one day ahead of its tight seven-week schedule. (Olivier took six weeks to shoot just the Battle of Agincourt.)
If the response of British critics is anything to go by, Branagh may well have achieved his aim: to reinstate the Bard to his rightful place as a truly popular entertainer.
The ultimate test for the film, Branagh believes, lies with his parents and people like them, to whom Shakespeare is wholly unfamiliar. ``I'm interested in doing work that they might like and wouldn't be intimidated by,'' he says, ``and that they don't feel they need a degree in order to enjoy.''
Americans will have a chance to see Branagh on stage next year, when the Renaissance Theatre Company makes a world tour with ``King Lear'' and ``Midsummer Night's Dream.''
The still-tentative schedule includes the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, Jan. 8-March 4, 1990; the Globe in Tokyo, March 21-April 7; Lisbon (theater not yet decided), April 30-May 6; Budapest, May 8-15; Belgrade, May 15-16; Zagreb, Yugoslavia, May 18-19; and Chicago, May 23-June 3.