He doesn’t really believe in fairies, let alone want to steal from them. “I only want to believe in you,” he tells his fun dad (Colin Farrell) as he sets off on yet another mysterious business trip.
“He starts as a good guy, I’d accept that,” says Branagh. “But I think he then runs towards villainy. By the middle of this story, I think the more junior Bond villain Eoin talks about is created in front of our very eyes.”
To make a children’s film about an anti-hero was risky, he agrees, especially for family-friendly Disney.
“It’s something to be acknowledged. Disney were very excited to have an anti-hero, but they also were concerned that you need to find a way to connect to him. Not always sympathise with him, not always like him, but find a way to understand him.”
Branagh has a strong track record with successful anti-heroes, having directed Thor in 2011 whose Loki, the vindictive Norse god of mischief, became a Comicon pin-up. “To be honest, I was astonished at how that character caught the imagination,” says Branagh. “But it was one thing I learned from.
“In that first Thor film, particularly the way Tom Hiddleston played it, we gave that character a depth of feeling, particularly in his relationship with his father … that allowed for the more comic trajectory the character has since taken.
“I thought that was a lesson learned: make sure you have some kind of emotional ballast, some human point of recognition, in order to go on a much more crazed journey.”
Plans for an Artemis Fowl film have been brewing for almost two decades. When Disney approached Branagh to direct in 2015 he agreed on the basis that he could go back to the books and start again. Celebrated Irish playwright Conor McPherson wrote the script.
It’s a far cry from the Shakespeare productions that initially made Branagh’s name and from Cinderella, his last venture into fairytale.
Although the film version does away with the original’s endless arsenals of weaponry – Fowl’s hard-core bodyguard is now gun-free, with only karate moves at his disposal – the Little People have supersonic hardware and invisible forcefields. As wizardry goes, it’s very techy.
“For me there was a kind of connection between a modern youthful sensibility about magic and fantasy stories (and) science,” says Branagh, 59.
“I can remember the first time I saw on an underground train the person sitting opposite me with a pair of headphones on and a small box next to him. It was the first Sony Walkman I’d ever seen; it was the mid-80s.
“A hundred years later, you and I are talking through the medium of Zoom. For a young audience, those scientific possibilities are old hat — and what suggests advanced science now starts to leap into the realm of magic. Science and magic have become close companions, I think, in the modern fantasy world.”
Artemis Fowl is set up for multiple sequels, which Branagh hopes will provide “the chance to take him into very dark places”.
In the meantime, he has been at work on traditional British fare: Death on the Nile, his second Agatha Christie adaptation, in which he directs himself as Hercule Poirot.
He also plays an ambiguous antagonist in Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s heightened spin on the espionage genre optimistically scheduled to open worldwide in cinemas in July.
By all accounts, Tenet is as baffling as Nolan’s 2010 cult film Inception. Working on it, according to Branagh, “was like doing the Times crossword puzzle every day”.
Stephanie Bunbury is a film and culture writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.