All Is True: Branagh Directs and Stars In Tale of Shakespeare as a Flawed Man

Over the past three decades, Kenneth Branagh has acted in and directed a wide variety of films, hoping from genre to genre. Last year, he helmed the remake of the Agatha Christies thriller, Murder on the Orient Express, and he’s now in post-production on Artemis Fowl, which Disney will release this summer.

His new film All Is True offers an intimate portrait of Shakespeare during the last years of his life, as he returns from London to his family in Stratford-upon-Avon. The film depicts the playwright as he strives to bridge the distance between himself and his wife and two daughters, recover from the loss of his son, and come to terms with his own legacy as artist. Branagh has assembled a troupe of legends like Judi Dench and Ian McKellen, and some younger actors from his previous plays.

All Is True is a labor of love for Branagh, who has been fascinated with Shakespeare ever since he had hitchhiked to Stratford at age 16: “Doing Shakespeare on stage and in film has always occupied a special place in my career and life.” The film is based on facts, such as the devastating fire that destroyed the Globe Theatre during the production of “All is True” (Shakespeare’s alternate title for Henry VIII). But Branagh and co-screenwriter Ben Elton also offer speculations—”attempts to fill in the gaps,” Branagh says, “with what Shakespeare reveals about himself through his writings, specifically sonnets.”

Judi Dench as Shakespeare’s Wife

Branagh plays Shakespeare as a distraught man, having neglected his wife Anne (Judi Dench) and two daughters, Judith (Kathryn Wilder) and Susanna (Lydia Wilson). Still haunted by the death of Judith’s twin brother Hamnet (Sam Ellis, in flashbacks), when he was 11, he tries to ease his grief by planting a memorial garden. On one level, he film is a melodrama of a ”normal” family, torn apart by tensions building up during his decades-long absence. Anne is still humiliated by his neglect, and she is angry when the Earl of Southampton, played by McKellen, pays a visit, knowing that he is the one who has inspired the best sonnets, which are dedicated to him.

Branah and Dench have worked before, and the director enjoys relating how she was cast as his wife, who was older than Shakespeare by nine years. When first offered the part, she was busy with other jobs, but then she became available. Branagh wanted to visit her country house, but she told her agent, “no need for him to come, let him save on the petrol.”

First Collaboration of Branagh and Ian McKellen

Though the British theatrical community is small, Branagh and McKellen haven’t worked together before, but there’ve been attempts. McKellen recalls: “Ken asked me to be in his film Henry V, and I couldn’t due to other things. But I thought ‘you cheeky young actor, how dare you make a film of Henry V, that’s been done.’ But, of course, if he hadn’t had such success with Henry V, would I have dared to make a film about Richard III? another of (Laurence) Olivier’s big cinematic successes. Ken employs my close friend Derek Jacobi, and I don’t know how I got to be in this film, I can only assume Derek wasn’t free.”

McKellen and Branagh belong to different generations, but there’s always been shared connection, a bond that began when Branagh was a teenager and read every article about McKellen’s career. McKellen reaffirms: “Ken and I are like-minded people. We adore the cinema, but we’re rooted in the theater, from a very early age. He very sweetly told me of times when he was reading about my career long before he’d got one of his own.”

Even so, McKellen was terribly nervous: “It was rather alarming, because you are sitting across from an actor you hugely admire and you want to get up to his standard, but he’s also disguised as Shakespeare, and on top of that he’s the director and the producer. You’re with four people, and I’m like, ‘Who am I trying to impress? Am I the Earl of Southampton trying to impress Shakespeare? Is it McKellen trying to impress Branagh, the actor or the director?’ In the end, you just give up and sink into the character.”

The daughters play major roles in this movie. Judith resents her father’s emotional preference for Hamnet over her, and she is plagued by guilt as the surviving twin. A harsh, stubborn father, he has lingering questions about the circumstances of his son’s death, demanding definite answers from her. Shakespeare’s cordial relationship with elder daughter Susanna is also disrupted, when she’s accused of being unfaithful to her husband, leading to public trial and scandal.

Just as Shakespeare used his imagination to create indelible portraits of kings, Branagh and Elton present a multi-faceted, complex portraiture. Says Branagh: “I see him as a man with great creative strength, capable of sublime wisdom in his writing, but an ordinarily flawed individual struggling to apply those insights to his own life.”  He perceives All Is True as “a family drama, a detective story, and a reflection on life dedicated to art.” But it’s not a grim film—it’s told with warmth and wry humor. For Branagh, “it’s an uplifting tale of a man who journeys from darkness and loss to renewed appreciation of the richness of life, allowing him to play out his final act in peace.”

“I’ve just seen the film,” McKellen observes, “It’s absolutely wonderful, riveting, and very touching.” He thinks the title is both good and accurate: “You do believe it all is true, even if the facts are not true, or in the order in which they appear. What is true is the feeling and the intention, the relationship to each other, and the way they are allowed by society to behave to each other. It’s quite remarkable that Ben and Ken have succeeded putting into Shakespeare’s mouth words that you can actually believe a real person would speak.”

McKellen distinguishes among various forms of entertainment: ”People who see films are called movie-goers, you’re a spectator at football match, you’re a viewer of TV, but in the theater you’re an audience. Audio is the first and last thing because you might be playing in large theater where the audience can’t see your face. They depend on hearing your voice clearly, and that’s particularly an asset when it comes to Shakespeare, because the words are super-important.” But he doesn’t like to dwell on his famously distinctive and melodic voice: “If someone said I had a beautiful voice, I’d get worried, because it smells of artificiality. The voice should be as pliable and as moveable as possible, so it can deal with every aspect of the language, whether it’s high-flown verse or ordinary conversation, and Shakespeare has both.”

McKellen knew little about the Earl, like that the first sonnets were dedicated to him: “I read a lot up about him and discovered he had ups and downs, that he was a man of action who died in warfare. What’s credible about my part is what’s credible about the film, and separates it out from other films about iconic figures. These are not characters, these are people. They don’t wear costumes, they wear clothes, rich and poor clothing, Shakespeare himself is rather dowdily dressed.” He therefore finds it easy to believe in the state of mind of that 17th century aristocrat, who was “dismissive of other people below him in the social scale, as might happen in India today with its caste system, or that he was disparaging about the merits of women as second-rate, judged solely by what they could contribute–bearing children.” It’s all about perspective: “The movie places the characters within a context that’s utterly believable, but foreign to us. With other films about historical characters, I simply don’t believe, because I can’t see where they keep their money? Where’s that pocket? The bits in their beards? But this movie eschews all that. These people are living in a dirty world, and there are many constraints on their behavior, whether coming from religion, class, or authority. I don’t know whether the facts are correct, and it doesn’t matter to me, because the feelings are correct.”

Films about Great Men

McKellen elaborates: “Other films about great men spend their entire time explaining why they are great. In our film, you have to accept that Shakespeare is great. The sonnets are most cunning devices: You have so much of his writing spoken out loud for you. But then when you hear the same sonnet spoken, first by the author and then by his greatest admirer, with a slight change of attitude, it’s like seductive invitation.”

He explains: “Actors know that if you take a sonnet of 14 lines, it’s a little speech that exists by itself. That’s good training for actors, learning how to speak Shakespeare, how to rely on the way the words are put together.” For McKellen, a poem can be very personal between the readers and the author, long dead as he is: “We discover when we analyze these sonnets that there’s no one interpretation to knock out all the others. There’s no one way reading it ‘that’s perfection.’ Because, as with the plays, it’s about many elements, where you choose to stress, what to illuminate. As actor and audience, I’m grateful we have these masterpieces waiting to be interpreted and reinterpreted anew with each generation of actors who want to pick up the challenge.”

“I’ve not had much interest in Shakespeare the person, because it’s not something we need. You have to get through the façade, the behavior, the habit, and get inside, and this movie gets inside Shakespeare.As for the film’s impact, McKellen says: “I have more sympathy now than I’ve had in the past about his interest in money. You don’t want the man who wrote King Lear to be interested in money, but why shouldn’t he be?”

Paintings of the Earl are flattering, showing him younger than he was–or younger than McKellen is, so he felt: “Oh, I’ve got to live up to that, to have a  little bit of the dandy, to have enough hope in the sparkle in the eyes and the curls to suggest he might have been an alluring youth who captured Shakespeare’s heart.” McKellen says he’s never seen himself as a dandy in blond wig, and that he’s “thinking of keeping that wig for Christmas parties.”

McKellen hopes to collaborate with Branagh again: “Ken seems to have jumped out of the cradle a natural born actor. It seems to have cost him nothing. I’m a slogger, I’m nearly 80 and I’m only just getting the grasp of this acting business that Ken’s known all his life. I can’t think of a better actor than Ken to play someone (Shakespeare), who works hard and keeps busy all the time, laying out a garden, trying to get his daughters sorted out.”

Right now, McKellen is busy with two projects: “I’m preparing to be in the movie of Cats, in which I will sing the part of Gus, the theater cat.  I’m learning how to walk like a cat, along with other distinguished actors, like Judi Dench.” And he’s looking forward to his one-man show, “I’m 80 next year, so I’m taking the show to 80 different theaters, places I’ve been to before with happy memories. But it won’t be so much a farewell tour as ‘hello, here I am again!’ tour. Afterwards, who knows? I’m at an age when you can’t really plan much.”