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Tenet’s Kenneth Branagh doesn’t quite know if he’s the movie’s villain or not

By Jacob Oller
Kenneth Branagh in Tenet

Christopher Nolan's patented twisty take on genre is tackling spies and time travel next with Tenet, a movie so elaborately and circuitously twisty that it's caused stars like Robert Pattinson to short-circuit when asked simple things like what the film is about.

"What the f*** do I say? I have no idea," Pattinson explained in the same interview that he declared that there's "no time traveling" in the film. A week later, the latest trailer for the film revealed that time "inversion" allows its key players to "communicate with the future." That's including protagonist John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman) and Kenneth Branagh's opposing force — the latter of which seems to have come up with (or at least mastered) the concept. But Branagh isn't even sure he's the movie's villain ... and it doesn't seem like it's just in a "no villain sees themselves as evil" kind of way.

Speaking to Total Film, the prolific actor/director (he just helmed Artemis Fowl) spoke about his role in the film in such roundabout terms that he could be trying to Incept curious fans.

Asked if he was the film's antagonist, Branagh replied that "Given the nature of it, as Chris to some extent sort of reinvents the wheel here, a lot of people start engaging with John David Washington's character in both expected ways ... so you might expect me to be an antagonist ... but then [the story] doesn't quite follow what you might expect as the story plays out."

Any genre fan who's tackled a Mission: Impossible film is no stranger to the shifting allegiances of a spy thriller, but making the person in all the trailers — who's doing all the press and is ostensibly the secret agent in charge of stopping World War III — the villain seems like a suspension of disbelief too far for even Nolan fans. Then again, twists are twists and fans coming in from Memento, Inception, and Interstellar should expect some rug-pulls. But then Branagh continues and it seems like maybe even he's not so sure how everything ended up.

"I kid you not, I read this screenplay more times than I have ever read any other thing I have ever worked on," Branagh said. "It was like doing the Times crossword puzzle every day, I would imagine. Except the film and the screenplay didn't expect you, or need you, to be an expert."

It's clear that Branagh's character will use "inversion" plenty, but that may mean that audiences (and perhaps the actor himself) might be guessing until the very end if the assumed moralities of its cast will be subverted.

"In the playing of it, and in the scenes, he keeps upturning, or playing forward and backward, our expectations of what the character should be," Branagh said. "So my conversations with [Nolan] about my character were constant, because the character's evolution was not set. It was a series of constant surprises."

Well, Nolan fans love a surprise. And Tenet, if anything, will be a major shock to the system for its moviegoers — who might be returning to brick-and-mortar theaters for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic shut everything down. Along with Pattinson, Washington, and Branagh, the film stars Elizabeth Debicki, Michael Caine, Himesh Patel, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Clémence Poésy, and more.

Tenet is still currently on track for a July 17 release.