Kenneth Branagh’s All is True felt like a surprise. Released on December 21 with no festival play running up to it, preceded by a trailer launch not for this film but for Branagh’s upcoming big-budget adaptation of Artemis Fowl, it seemed to emerge from nowhere; an extra treat in a season that appeared to be already locked in.
In a way it was; shot in no time at all in between Branagh’s Hollywood commitments, simply because he could not resist the story’s lure. And yet it also represents the culmination of a lifetime’s fascination for Branagh with William Shakespeare, which began from a very early age. He remembers a pilgrimage to the Bard’s home in Stratford when he was young and has always attempted to connect the truth of the man with the elemental wisdom of his work.
All is True casts Branagh as Shakespeare himself, living out the last of his days at home having abandoned the stage after the destruction of his Globe Theater in a fire. It’s a meditative study of the drama of his life; his relationship with his daughters and his connection to the son he lost. Written by Ben Elton, its title is almost a challenge to historians: of course we can’t really know Shakespeare’s innermost thoughts, or even to a high degree of accuracy, how events transpired more than 400 years ago. Yet the film connects what we do know to what Shakespeare wrote about in his work, and attempts to demystify the most preeminent writer of all time; to find his humanity.
Branagh called on his long-time collaborator Judi Dench to play Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife. Ian McKellen plays the Earl of Southampton, long speculated to be the object of affection in Shakespeare’s sonnets, and—another surprise—it’s the first time Branagh and McKellen have worked together.
You’re one of the most prolific practitioners of adapting Shakespeare for the big screen. You’ve brought six of his plays to the screen now, and you return with this story, which is about the man himself. What has fascinated you about wanting to bring the Bard to the cinema, such that it has become this lifelong endeavor?
I guess I’ve found it goes back to the things that made up my earliest experiences. I don’t know what constitutes this kind of time-locked period where impressionable plays, incidents, people, or more general understandings of how your world worked, become the things that work out the rest of your life for you. One of them, for me, when I was young, was trying to understand the difference between high and low art. The idea of not being aware of barriers between so-called high and low art.
Coming from a working-class background, it became a passion of mine to make work that excited me—like Shakespeare—available to my mother and father, that they would understand it in order to arrive at their own opinion of it. For it not to be off the agenda because it was “high art”. And for it not to be offered to them in some patronized way because they could only understand “low art”.
There has always been a great big, interesting tension right in the middle of that. All is True is the latest example of that. Not to reduce it to a single thing, but it is the question about what is it that compels you when—in Shakepeare’s case—you’re part of a lifetime of working out what the human dimension is.
The way in which my parents will have no issue with how they respond to a Shakespeare play is to understand what it means to them. How do these characters reflect their humanity? What and why and how were they funny? Do they sound and speak like them? Are the situations they’re in that are a bit like them? And by the time you get to All is True, I would’ve been so proud to have shown this to my folks. They would’ve definitely taken a view on the life of a family working through some kind of crisis.
Did your love for cinema as a medium begin at home with your parents?
A lot of the programming on television when I grew up was old Hollywood movies. It’s why my generation is so familiar with the work of Laurel and Hardy, and all the silent comedians. Definitely, as a kid growing up in Belfast, I was being more directly exposed to Hollywood through the television than I might have expected to be. We did have the big oral traditions; lots of people singing and dancing at family dos. But from a very early age, the images I was seeing through the TV were like Monument Valley in the John Wayne Westerns or the great performances that I felt some intuitive response to like Robert Mitchum in Ryan’s Daughter. He doesn’t say a great deal, but he’s compelling in it.
And it might become the thing you bear in mind when you’re making a film of Henry V and you’re thinking about how to shoot that. How can that circle back to what could be the popular audience that my mum and dad represent? She went to bingo, he put money on the horses, and so if they’re watching a story in between that, it needs to be really good. And if it’s Shakespeare, they really have to be persuaded. They’re not suddenly going to become converts because they have any aspirational snobbery. Either it works or it doesn’t.
I was always at home watching movies. We would go to the movies a lot and they made big, big impressions on me. As I started to find Shakespeare, I wondered why my mum and dad never had, and yet we all loved films. Was there a way to join those two things up?
The themes you’re dealing with in All is True aren’t dissimilar to the themes Shakespeare tackled—indeed, you draw parallels between what we know of his life and how he may have reflected it in his work. But they are elemental themes: love, loss, pain.
Yes. It’s a constant sort of unraveling for me, of looking at something that might seem complicated, and of trying to understand a simplicity behind it; but also to experience that. There’s something in the silence and the spaciousness of All is True that is about not trying to say something is what it’s not. I don’t want to pretend or hoodwink you here, but I wanted to get to something meditative, where the compositional aspect of the sky or the landscape, or of a face in silence, can allow you to contextualize by whatever you know about what went before or what comes after.
And that has always been an exciting part for me of working with Shakespeare; first the text and then the man. I remember going to audition at the Leicester Haymarket Theater to play Prince Hal. I didn’t get it. I auditioned for Shakespeare numerously in the first years of my career and never got anywhere. Westcliff Palace turned me down as Henry V, the Leicester Haymarket turned me down as Prince Hal. But on the way to that audition, I met with a very great old acting teacher called David William, who ended up running Stratford Ontario, the Shakespeare festival there. He would coach me on auditions, but he said, “I need you to be at this apartment at 2PM having had.” And I didn’t know what he meant, but he meant, “having had lunch because if you think coaching you is about offering you a sandwich you can forget it.”
He said, “So the purpose of this audition is to see if you have any connection with the numinous.” I had no idea what he meant. We were doing Hal’s speech, “I know you all, and will awhile uphold the unyoked humor of your idleness. Yet herein will I imitate the sun.” The reveal is of a man with a plan to become the greatest king of all. He made me understand, as we did it again and again, that it was something that this young man was planning, but something over which he had no control. Something otherworldly. Something numinous. So I was beginning to understand what that word meant or evoked, and understand that Shakespeare unlocked that. He had this thing which great poetry and great music has, which is it goes beyond words. Beyond the conscious and into the experiential.
I wanted to allow that into this film, because Shakespeare’s work—which appears in the film—demands it, and because I felt it could bring this back for an audience to access how a genius like Shakespeare’s could work. On the one level, they can understand it just like my mum and dad could, on a sleeves-rolled-up, knocked down, soap opera around the kitchen table screaming match that was about ordinary human melodrama. “We’re going to argue at Christmas about mince pies, but it will really be about the rejection I felt 15 years ago when you said I was fat.” That kind of thing. He’s holding the mirror up to human nature.
And then there is this other invitation to consider and experience, which goes beyond that, which is that mind, that sensibility, that sensitivity inviting you to place that alongside your own life experience. That sort of transmutation of prosaic human experience into potentially spiritual poetic insight is something that Shakespeare did, and he did it through entertainment. While it happened, you didn’t need to worry about whether you were being spiritually engaged or poetically challenged. But it makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.
All is True was shot on digital, right?
It was indeed, and it was my first one actually. But I knew I wanted to shoot in a particularly swift way, where the margins required to save time on any given day were so tight for me, that I made a judgment that I didn’t even want to be reloading a camera.
You also shot by candlelight. Would that have been possible on film?
Well, possible, but just more time consuming, and a little more experimental. But all of that was factored in. I’m pro-film, but in the same way, I’m sort of a libertarian about these things, and I enjoy digital too. People should be allowed to do what appeals to them. I love the quality you get from film. I loved shooting Murder on the Orient Express on 65mm, and we did that with Hamlet. I like getting involved in the whole chemical smell and the risk of the photochemical process. I enjoy it. It feels as though it’s more subject to human error, but is also more responsive to human detail. You feel as though you’re creating a slightly more bespoke thing.
And having come into making films when my first experience with an editor was with a brilliant English editor called Mike Bradsell. An old BBC guy. He wasn’t old, but from the old BBC where everybody was trained in quite a sort of unusual way. He edited on film on a Moviola, so it looked like those old sewing machines. When I first saw it I wondered what he was doing, pumping this thing, this flickering celluloid popping through.
There was something that seemed to translate, like a manual experience. With the knowledge of how the scene appeared to work on the page, you’d then have the knowledge of how it was acted, and then you’d see the scene go together. And sometimes there would be clear ideas about how to amend or adjust it to give this particular beat a bit more air or whatever. But sometimes it came down to holding this physical film stock and seeing it pass through either the Steenbeck or the Moviola. And then sometimes pulling it out and holding a length of film and feeling the cut, feeling the necessity for the cut in a different way. So there was something a little more tactile, that adds into the experience, that I think, again, felt that it was quite a sort of complete experience.
I’ve often admired people with great skills in very specific areas. My dad was a joiner, so I was always very, very impressed to see him make anything, which he could make, and it could often take quite a long time. But I really enjoyed it, and I admired and rather envied whatever it might be, sanding down some runner for some rocking horse that he might make. And the care. But the tactile, physical connection with the thing which he was going to make, which was also creatively and artistically very beautiful, and sometimes carried more than just the assembled parts in its being.
I’ve had a couple of disastrous screening in big public events where, you know, the projector broke or the film snapped or, you know, something. Or one reel hadn’t been rewound, comes out backward. Or all that sort of stuff. And it’s human error that the digital world can reduce.
Not eliminate, though.
Yes, suddenly you’re in those situations where you’ve sent your DCP halfway around the world, but the time difference wasn’t factored in so, the time in which the thing will be unlocked and closed up again is in the Western Hemisphere when it should have been the Southern Hemisphere. But that kind of putting your arms around the thing I’ve enjoyed, because I think I enjoy that sort of artisan feel to it, you know?