You can put him in Harry Potter films, or convince him to direct superhero flicks (as he did with 2011’s half-a-billion-dollar-grossing Thor) – but Kenneth Branagh will always belong to a somewhat more rarefied realm, one whose characters dispatch with one another via noble swordsmanship or by-now-archaic methods of poisoning. Like Sir Laurence Olivier before him, he is inarguably his generation’s most exalted Shakespearean actor (both on stage and screen), who also just happens to be equally adept with a pen or a camera.
But perhaps having taken all that he can for now from The Bard’s sprawling oeuvre, with his new Sony Pictures Classics film All is True (written by, directed by and starring Branagh, in theaters May 10), he instead chooses to dramatize him.
In it he plays a newly retired Shakespeare, who’s come back to Stratford-Upon-Avon surely to put things to right, after a prodigious and prestigious career that has long kept him in London and apart from his family. He gives a viscerally nuanced performance – especially in regards to dealings with his fervent and resentful daughter Judith (acted with the force of a hurricane by Kathryn Wilder), and the 17-years-past death of his son Hamnet…which turns out to have been scandalous, when it had never before been presumed to be so.
Judi Dench, more than 20 years Branagh’s senior, plays his wife Anne Hathaway with a stoic power, mediating between her husband’s considerable ego and her daughter’s at long last unleashed anger. Ian McKellen brings radiant comic relief in the form of the Earl of Southampton, whom Shakespeare had so ardently admired in his youth; and a bitingly sardonic humor resurfaces throughout the film precisely when it is most called for. (Will’s lacerating tongue lashing of the cantankerous Sir Thomas Lucy is utterly priceless).
We had the privilege to chat with Branagh about the film, and about why The Bard‘s work still matters in these contemporary times. If it need be said, he was as thoughtful, and charming, as you’d have ever imagined him to be.
I was talking with Roland Emmerich after the London premiere of Anonymous in 2011, and he opined that Shakespeare ultimately now belongs to everyone. How do you feel about that?
“I would agree with him – and I really, really enjoyed his film. Interpretations are open to all, but for All is True I wanted to start with what we knew about the man from Stratford – I wanted to see specifically if I could find a version, as it struck me through the plays, of Shakespeare the man meeting Shakespeare the genius. We know he returned to that small town in 1613 when his theater burned down completely. And I had actually gleaned a lot from being in the plays: the emotional territory, his obsession with twins and the loss of a child, issues of status. Those are the things that I wanted to explore.”
There seems always to be this tendency to put the genius on a pedestal. Was your goal to sort of bring him down from that perch?
“Humanizing him, yes. Sort of de-deifying him. It seemed to me that a central virtue of his work was to render exactly that same process, whether it was Julius Caesar or King Richard III or the II. He took historical figures in spectacular situations, for instance the Battle of Agincourt for Henry V – and for me the transformative element was the sense that human beings were always at the center of it all. And even in heightened circumstances, were doing things and behaving in ways that were very much reflective of our own lives. A play like Macbeth, for example, can help us understand the most extreme version of succumbing to the lure of ambition. Always he brought the work into a very human, humane and often humorous dimension.”
The foibles of the spectacular?
“Yes, yes! That’s a perfect way of putting it. Of the last three or four plays Shakespeare wrote on his own, finishing maybe with The Tempest, many people read into the end passages that he is done with it all. And he also uses magic to make happy endings, almost as if he’s run out of human ways to do it. Of course, fairytales are not the real world, those more imaginary worlds are not what represents real life. And now he’s going back to his home life after being probably totally spent from the last twenty years writing, acting and producing thirty-seven plays. And there is something I think he wants to set right at home – to face up to the consequences of his absence.”
Well that’s the eternal question, isn’t it? Do we forgive the questionable morals of geniuses? After all, Picasso was not a very good person.
“Yes, there are plenty of questions to be asked about the behavior and morals of the greats. He comes across as…”
A man searching for morality? The plays were rife with moral examination, obviously.
“That would be a good way of stating it. He’s looking for the right thing to do ultimately.”
History does suggest that his son Hamnet died of the plague. But you’re taking a bit of liberty with the story?
“The facts are accurate in that on either side of his death in 1596, there were only three other infant deaths…”
So it’s possible that your version is correct?
“It’s at least legitimate speculation.”
“Yes, that at least stretches back into what you see in some of the plays. In The Winter’s Tale, the suggestion is almost that the boy Mamillius dies of a broken heart, because of the actions of his father. So that seemed like a Shakespearean leap to take – based on the bare facts of no actual cause of death given, and when the quantity of deaths seems to indicate this was not a period of plague.”
It appears that Will is trying to learn from the women in his life. Anne Hathaway seems, if not terribly outspoken, at least a very much self-possessed person in the film.
“Well she’s reflected a little by our experience with the character of Paulina, also in The Winter’s Tale, who is often quoted by actresses as being their favorite character. She does not let Leontes off the hook at all, puts him to the sword about his actions. You must understand, Shakespeare’s options were very wide at the time; but he chose to come back home.”
Maybe to at last better understand who his wife and daughters really were?
“Well, it was kind of a modern thing to offer to women who were disempowered through illiteracy a chance to have a voice. If nothing else there were acres of gaps to fill in. So much of what he writes about in the late plays is the resolution of these issues, trying to make the end of family life happy; the transitions, the passings.”
Which is perhaps why he turned to magical solutions in his final works?
“Yes, statues come to life, incredible quirks of coincidence happen. He turns the last four plays into fairytales, which is an interesting style to arrive at after the psychological realism of Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello, all dark, gritty and remorseless.”
That maybe helps to explain why some people find God later in life.
“I guess, yes. Looking for some spiritual solace and some sense of it all…”
Through magic. Because God is magic.
“Yes, God is magic; and magic is legitimate theatrical currency for the dramatist. Though you might argue that it’s weak for the psychological realist as a tool. But maybe he got to there through a certain amount of heartache, and melancholy. That is expressed as he explores the separation of twins, the problems that daughters have with their fathers…”
As in King Lear?
“That was an inspiration as we built to the arguments and tensions, and unleashed what’s true in most family relationships. Tensions in the here and now are often linked to something that happened many years ago.”
It’s an absolutely chilling moment, when Judith bitterly concedes to her father, “A daughter is nothing, destined only to become the property of another man…or fade away.” She is explosive.
“Right, Judith carries an absolute pack of hand grenades.”
Finally, you’re arguably an icon of this classical cultural line. Do you feel as if the culture now is finally speeding away from all of this, Shakespeare, E.M. Forster – will it all be lost to our new short-attention-span reality?
“I don’t know about lost. But you’re absolutely right, culture is speeding away from it.”
Or it is maybe dissipated in its ability to…well, Shakespeare has somehow remained a part of the cultural zeitgeist for centuries. Is that perhaps coming to an end?
“I think it’s a very good question, and I think the jury is out.”
It’s always been somehow comforting to know that it still matters.
“Yes, it matters because it helps us to understand.”