After Laurence Olivier, modern film audiences probably associate Irish writer and director Kenneth Branagh most closely with the works of William Shakespeare. Branagh’s breakout film was 1989’s Henry V, which he adapted, directed and starred in, and he went on to direct and/or star in four more film versions of the Bard’s plays: Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Hamlet (1996), Love’s Labour Lost (2000) and As You Like It (2006). He also played Iago in a 1995 version of Othello which he did not direct, and has also directed and performed in numerous stage versions of Shakespeare’s works as well.
So it seems to make sense that Branagh would actually play Shakespeare himself, which he does in All is True, a new film he directed from a script by British comedian and author Ben Elton. The film focuses on Shakespeare’s final years, in which he returned to his family home in Stratford after the burning of the Globe Theatre in London effectively forced him into retirement. There he tries to reconnect with his wife, the former Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench), as well as his two daughters, all of whom are haunted by the death of the Shakespeares’ youngest child, a son named Hamnet, several years earlier.
There is much we don’t know about Shakespeare, including the exact circumstances of his death and whether many of his sonnets were inspired by his possibly more-than-friendly relationship with the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen), as some evidence suggests. These events and more all come into play in All is True, a thoughtful, funny yet intimate look at the twilight years of a man considered the greatest writer of his age.
Den of Geek spoke about the film and Shakespeare with Branagh, whose directorial credits also include Marvel’s Thor, Cinderella, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and last year’s surprise hit Murder on the Orient Express, in which he also played Agatha Christie’s famed fictional detective Hercule Poirot — a role he’ll reprise shortly in Death on the Nile.
Den of Geek: Do you feel like it was inevitable that you actually played Shakespeare at some point?
Kenneth Branagh: I don’t know about inevitable, but I’m very glad to have done it and it sort of sprang into life in a very natural way — a long, long conversation with Ben Elton across the years about working together; always wanting to see him, a comic writer, write a drama. I always like comic actors, I enjoy working with comic actors who do dramatic works, I think they bring some tone to it that is very detailed and full and warm and humane, and I knew that he would do that with a story like this, and so he produced this great sitcom, Upstart Crow, about Shakespeare; very funny, and I was asked to be a guest in it. And during that, we spoke, and I pitched to him the idea of this sort of chamber piece that was about this time in Shakespeare’s life when he goes back to Stratford.
I was, in my own life, trying to make a Shakespeare garden which could come in various forms but basically, often is just putting the plants in their period and the plays in an order — I’m no gardener at all but it was a starting point for me. So I was enjoying that, and then pitched this to him and he responded well and it just happened. Sort of natural momentum, you know? It came from quite a deep place rather than a kind of pushy place, just sort of emerged and when I saw what he did, he responded swiftly and we had a good relationship in the back and forth of the script editing. Very enjoyable. It just seemed to gather its own slow, strong momentum.
People throw the term “personal film” around a lot, but this really seems to fit the bill.
Totally. Because I was able to do what I wanted in terms of big decisions like, “Okay, no artificial light; we’ll go with natural daylight and at night we’ll use candles. We’ll do lots of scenes in one take, we’ll have quite extreme angles, try and place ourselves there in some sort of dynamic way.” There was no need to explain to anybody, to sell anything to anybody, you somehow earned the right to do that. Plus, we were going to be making it quickly and for a low budget, so quite big decisions like that were important to make, it’s how you allowed yourself some time. Again, that was unimpeded, so it was very, very personal.
Were there blanks that you and Ben had to fill in in terms of Shakespeare’s life, and how did you determine what to use to fill in those blanks in a way that you felt was satisfactory?
Well first of all, we were glad that this elusive nature of what we know about him is there. So anybody’s going to have to make that sort of stuff up. But at the same time, there are quite a lot facts; the sexual scandals are all recorded, the death of Hamnet is all recorded, the way the Globe burnt down and on the date it did is all recorded with corroborating evidence.
So essentially we wanted to think, if you come home…Ben’s got three kids and he’s a very, very successful writer and performer. His kids and family are entirely indifferent to that when he’s around the dinner table so he knew that Shakespeare coming home would not necessarily be granted the great acclaim and accord inside the family circle.
We knew that Anne Hathaway could not read or write and neither could Judith; Susanna, yes. Although we knew that he had gone back from London to Stratford across those 20 years — probably once a year, there seems to be evidence for us making that assumption — he was an absentee father and husband, so we knew the family drama was what we were after, and we thought, “Well what are those girls going to say to him now he’s back, and he doesn’t really know what to do with himself?”
At one stage we were going to call it Shakespeare’s Garden, because that’s where I wanted to start, but it became a bit of a side issue. We thought the things that would throw the spanner in the works and would unleash all of those things that we could take a legitimate jump with were the death of Hamnet — no cause of death recorded, but the death itself recorded and the fact of two, three other kids dying in a period where kids only seemed to die in groups of dozens and dozens. So legitimate question mark over that.
Then the Earl of Southampton, and the idea that not only the possibility of infidelity, but bisexuality or homosexuality was brought into play. If you looked at the extravagant dedication at the front of the sonnets and of the narrative poem Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare seems to go much further than other artists at the time needed to in order to secure patronage. A big sort of suck-up paragraph was all you needed but didn’t have to go over the top. He did. And then the sonnets themselves seemed to have this coded history and “There was a boy, there was a girl, which did he love most? And who was that person?” Very passionate, personal thing.
Both of those things — the mystery of his son’s death and, in a way, the mystery of whether a man described as “gentle” and “modest” could have had the great love affair in London that comes home to roost as he’s trying to put back together the marriage that he did stay in right through to the end. Those were the two departure points, and they were both Ben’s idea.
Questions of sexual identity, family scandal, religion and politics — you set this in 2019, you’ve got an HBO drama.
Yeah (laughs). I think that one of the things I really admire about what Ben did was let the women be central to it, living through the paradox or the irony that mother and daughter are illiterate and intimate with the greatest writer of the age. Ben sensibly assumed that that would not render their passion or their voice any quieter as a result of that. In fact, it might fuel it with frustration at not having been expressed up until that time and on basic human issues like Anne Hathaway’s consideration that the publication of these sonnets, albeit privately, is such humiliation.
This small town Stratford was tremendously gossipy — they were always snitching on each other about things, so I think that was something to overcome and he puts those women at the center of the drama, I think in a way that makes it feel quite contemporary. Unforced, I think.
Did playing the man himself give you any sort of different perspective on him or his work?
One thing I really enjoyed about playing him was at the beginning of the film to be quite quiet. My observation of really talented people, later in their lives, is they become very economic with their efforts, very focused. Like great athletes, they use the energy for that 100 meters or for that marathon, then won’t mess about too much beforehand. They’re quite contained, quite still, quite meditative.
I imagine that about Shakespeare as well. Certainly the plays themselves that he writes have an economy at the end that I think is very tangible. I think what it produced was almost a sense that he himself was bewildered in the way that, I guess, geniuses can be, by “Wow, I did all of that. I guess I did all of that. But here I am, slightly ignored in my own hearth and home, where I’m just the bloke who wasn’t around much, by two people who can’t actually read my plays. So they couldn’t even tell me, ‘I loved that bit in Hamlet, dad.’”
The other thing I supposed I was touched by was the fact that he needed to buy that coat of arms, that 20 quid, or 5000 dollars these days, was important to him. It was important to him that the world said he was, “William Shakespeare: gentleman,” not, “William Shakespeare: son of a glove maker who went bankrupt and was disgraced in this town and was mayor but is now seen as a disreputable.” I think that sort of sensitivity was quite human, if we had any sense that he was arriving back in Stratford wise and reflective, compassionate and generous, a sort of cross between Buddha and Jesus Christ — no. Still, on one level, a grubby little guy with the usual family challenges, and some issues with self confidence.
Are you doing Death on the Nile next and is it making its way through the Disney/Fox transition?
Yes. Seems to be. I always said I’d take everything with a pinch of salt but we will be shooting in late summer and a beautiful script by Michael Green.
All is True is out now in New York and Los Angeles, and expands to more cities this Friday (May 17).