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Although he had not yet earned his honorific Sir, he already was considered Shakespearean royalty, having directed and starred in Henry V and Hamlet. But in director Michael Kalesniko’s How to Kill Your Neighbor’s Dog, chosen to screen as that year’s closing-night film, he stepped into a more contemporary role, playing a struggling and caustic British American playwright living in Los Angeles who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a young girl living next door.
“It’s a very gentle comedy with wonderful repartee,” festival director Piers Handling enthused. “It’s just the perfect end to a festival.” For his part, meeting with the press, Branagh downplayed his serious credentials, saying: “It’s easy to pull on a pair of tights and do a lot of tragic acting. People will say, ‘Oh, look — real tears! Isn’t it marvelous? He got so worked up!'”
On the other hand, in the case of comedy, Branagh argued that the ultimate goal is to be funny and real at the same time. “In that way, it’s a lot more brutal.” The film was greeted with mixed reviews, clocking in at just percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
“A wordy wisp of a comedy,” proclaimed the New York Post’s Megan Turner, while The New York Times’ Stephen Holden offered a more positive assessment, writing, “It is a tribute to Mr. Branagh’s considerable comic skills that he succeeds in making a potentially insufferable character likable by infusing him with the same sly charm that Michael Caine musters to seduce us into cozying up to his sleazier alter egos,” although Holden added a word of caution: “Sadly, it is the very qualities that distinguish Dog from run-of-the-mill comedies that may doom it at the box office. Audiences conditioned to getting weepy over saucer-eyed, downy-cheeked moppets and their empathetic caretakers will probably feel emotionally cheated by the film’s tart, sugar-free wit.”
That proved prophetic, for the film — produced at the cost of $7.3 million — went on to receive just a token release, grossing a meager $73,510 worldwide. Branagh should find himself on surer footing this year as his latest directorial effort, Belfast, is unveiled as a gala presentation. With the Focus release, he has re-created his own boyhood in Northern Ireland amid the Troubles of 1969, enlisting a cast that includes Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe, Ciarán Hinds, Judi Dench and 10-year- old newcomer Jude Hill. On its way to Toronto, the black-and-white memory piece made a stop at the Telluride Film Festival, where it already has been enthusiastically embraced by both critics and audiences, setting itself up as an instant Oscar contender.
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Sept. 10 daily issue at the Toronto International Film Festival.
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