Kenneth Branagh's lifelong love of Shakespeare comes full circle in All Is True, writes David Skipwith.
For an actor whose stellar career is synonymous with the work of William Shakespeare, Kenneth Branagh admits playing The Bard in All Is True was almost inevitable.
After directing and starring in the film adaptations of several of Shakespeare's plays including Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Othello (1995), Hamlet (1996), Love's Labour's Lost (2000), and As You Like It (2006), the BAFTA winner and five-time Academy Award nominee concedes there were few of Shakespeare's characters left to explore - bar the creator himself.
His chance came with the Ben Elton-penned script for All Is True, which delves into the last three years of Shakespeare's life after he left London and returned to his family in Stratford-upon-Avon. The film, which Branagh also directs, follows Shakespeare as he tries to resume life together with his wife Anne (Judi Dench) and daughters Judith (Kathryn Wilder) and Susanna (Lydia Wilson) while recovering from the loss of his son, and reconciling his place as one of the world's most revered creative minds.
"It's always been creeping up on me," Branagh explains of the chance to play the literary figure who has dominated his own life and work.
"I'd become very intrigued with familiar themes in the Shakespeare plays. I did a production of The Winter's Tale a couple of years ago, and that's all about the loss of a child through the folly of a jealous man.
"It seemed so personal and so deeply felt that it did make me look back into Shakespeare's own life and start snooping around about what happened to his son Hamnet, who passed away at 11.
"Working on the plays made me want to go and find out what we could about the man himself."
The film is based on the facts known about Shakespeare's life during this period and takes some educated jumps from what his writings reveal about himself to fill in the rest.
Shakespeare's return home was prompted by the fire that destroyed the Globe Theatre during the first production of All Is True in 1613, but after being absent for almost two decades, his loved ones are less than thrilled by his arrival and newfound enthusiasm to play happy families.
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The result is part family drama and part mystery with a dramatic twist, and a wry and warm reflection on Shakespeare's complex character. It also addresses the at-times jarring contradictions between his cutting insight into human behaviour and creative awareness and brilliance, and his inability to use those gifts to benefit his own flawed personality, life, and relationships.
"When people are so moved and so struck by the work of geniuses, the Picassos, your Mozarts, your Beethovens, whoever it might be, they almost as a matter of course imagine a version of that author that doesn't necessarily accord with the facts," said Branagh.
"Part of this movie was exploring that and also exploring the price of genius.
"Shakespeare spends most of his life in London and away from wife and family and it feels as though, probably, there's some price to be paid for that and the film is partly about seeing what that price is."
No one is better placed to make such assessments than Branagh, for whom making All Is True was a labour of love, alongside and together with co-stars and fellow Shakespeare devotees, Dench and Ian McKellan, in his uproarious wigged portrayal of the Earl of Southampton.
Dench's admiration for Shakespeare goes back almost 60 years to her performance as Ophelia in Hamlet at The Old Vic Theatre and All Is True marks her 11th collaboration with Branagh.
The project also brings McKellan and Branagh's mutual love of Shakespeare full circle, after both had embarked on their own youthful coming-of-age pilgrimages to explore his hometown.
"Ian, just like I had done at 16, had hitchhiked [to Stratford-upon-Avon]," Branagh explained.
"We'd both stayed in the same camp site, with sort of 20 years between us, to visit the town and theatre and see the plays there, and also visit the places of Shakespeare's life.
"Judi Dench used to refer to Shakespeare as 'the man who paid the rent', because she acted in so many of his plays there.
"So they had a sense of the real place but they also had the plays in their bones as well, and there was something of trying to dive really into the inner part of Shakespeare."
In attempting to inhabit Shakespeare, Branagh had prosthetic makeup applied to enhance his hair, beard, forehead and nose, to match the Chandos portrait of Shakespeare that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Seeing himself in the mirror after his first makeup test, Branagh paused to consider Shakespeare's enormous influence on him at such a tender age and how his life journey helped Branagh realise what could be achieved in the wider world.
"It is quite emotional and it's a way of saying 'thank you' as well, not only for the career that he's given me but also for the inspiration.
"Because when I went to Stratford-upon-Avon at 16, not only was I enjoying my independence for the first time, but also I was seeing the relative modesty of these places and being reminded that this guy came from relatively lowly beginnings and went an enormously vast distance in his creative life.
"And for a working-class boy from Belfast who was transplanted to England, the idea of making such a long journey was made that very much more possible by seeing, at the greatest level, this sort of enormous disparity between the start in life and the journey."
All Is True opens in cinemas today.