What Inspired Kenneth Branagh’s Portrayal of Shakespeare in New Film 'All Is True'?

Telegraph, 17 December 2018

Little is known of Shakespeare’s life after ‘retirement’. So how should he be portrayed in new film 'All Is True'? For Kenneth Branagh, it all begins with the eyes…

In room three at the National Portrait Gallery is PG1, the very first painting acquired by that august institution in 1856. Known as the Chandos portrait, it is believed by some to be the nearest likeness we may have of William Shakespeare. As with much concerning Shakespeare it is subject to intense speculation. Regarding the painter, it is “associated” with John Taylor. Those who believe that also believe Shakespeare himself is likely to have sat for it. And that’s what brought me to the National Portrait Gallery – to look beyond the numerous reproductions and gaze on the thing itself. For many hours.

I was at the very beginning of preparing to play the man himself in a new film, 'All Is True'.

The film takes its name from the alternative title Shakespeare used for what some believe was his last play, a life of Henry VIII. During one of its very first performances at the famous Globe theatre, a misjudged stage effect fired gunshot into the thatch of the roof and the entire place burned down.

Shakespeare, possibly traumatised, returned to Stratford and apparent retirement – but a retirement that was far from peaceful, with complex and dubious land dealings, public sexual scandals involving his daughters, and amendments to his will. In a small town of 2,500 – and in a family that had developed with an absentee father and husband – what was the effect on the man himself?

Hence my actor’s Shakespearean pilgrimage. The figure in the painting stares directly ahead, providing the unnerving experience that the eyes are “following” you. The eyes themselves seem intelligent, wry, full of warmth but enigmatic – cheeky, perhaps.

The word that sprang to mind for me was “gentle”. It’s a word used more than once by those who knew him at the time: Ben Jonson (his friend and rival playwright) and Heminges and Condell (fellow actors who collated his plays into the famous first folio). Gentle – but not weak.

It was those eyes that began my practical preparation for the performance. I committed to presenting on screen that famous image of hair, forehead and beard. But I would leave my eyes – no contact lenses – to do the work that this image presented so intensely to me.

So did the film find William Shakespeare, the person?

There are so many theories about this man – woman? aristocrat? committee? – and there are many answers, mostly fascinating. Ben Elton’s screenplay for All Is True offers a compelling account of the man from Stratford. It’s one that is humane and humorous: qualities I found in that famous portrait, where the enduring mystery of William Shakespeare is perhaps partly to be found, “all in the eyes”.

'All Is True' is released on 8 February 2019

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