Sir Kenneth Branagh on All Is True and shooting Artemis Fowl in Ireland

Sir Kenneth Branagh plays a retired William Shakespeare in his new film All Is True, which also stars Shakespearian heavyweights Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellen. The Belfast-born Bard enthusiast explains to David Roy why he was so excited to make the film and his next Ireland-centric project

Sir Kenneth Branagh at Queen's Film Theatre Belfast. Picture by Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye

FROM directing and starring in big screen adaptations of Henry V and Hamlet to performing a live excerpt of The Tempest at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics for one billion viewers, Sir Kenneth Branagh has had a career-long passion for all things William Shakespeare.

Belfast-born Branagh (58) hitch-hiked to Stratford-Upon-Avon when he was 16 to experience Shakespeare's stomping grounds first-hand and, having rocketed to fame with 1989's Oscar-winning Henry V, has been acting, directing, producing and adapting his work on the stage and screen ever since.

Indeed, Branagh has now become so synonymous with Shakespeare it seems only right that his latest role should be that of the literary icon himself in All Is True, a fictionalised 'biopic' of the Bard's twilight years.

With a script by Ben Elton, whose Shakespeare TV sitcom Upstart Crow featured a cameo from the Oscar-nominated Belfast man in its 2018 Christmas special, All Is True also features two fellow noted Shakespeare devotees among its cast in Dame Judi Dench, who plays Shakespeare's wife Anne, and Sir Ian McKellen as The Earl of Southampton Henry Wriothesley, a former apple of the celebrated playwright's eye.

The pretty and poignant film finds the wordsmith returning home to Stratford in 1613 after almost two decades of artistic toil at his beloved Globe Theatre in London, which has just burned to the ground during a performance of his final play Henry VIII – originally titled All Is True.

Declaring himself retired, we witness the now ex-Bard's struggles to reconnect with Anne, who has been wounded by his long periods of absence and a collection of sonnets clearly not inspired by her, and their daughters Susanna (Lydia Wilson) and Judith (Kathryn Wilder), while finally coming to terms with the tragic death of Judith's twin, Hamnet,17 years earlier.

Branagh famously forsook Shakespeare for superheroes in 2011 when he pulled out of directing a stage production of Hamlet in favour of directing Marvel blockbuster Thor, the success of which saw him going on to helm the Disney hit Cinderella and so-so action-thriller reboot Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.

Thus, All Is True represents a return to his roots in more ways than one.

"You try and listen to what your real sort of core creative instinct is," the actor/director explains. "When I first began, I was so amazed to have a film career I thought that, if could be a working actor, that would be a great success. It made me happy, I wanted to make a living at it – and that was it.

"Recently, I've had this very privileged time. To my own surprise I took a sort of left turn in my career about 10 years ago when I went over to America to make Thor, and that led me to a lot of adventures on a much bigger scale.

"But those pictures are massive logistical exercises where you've got an army of people – this project was such a stark counterpoint to that, it really appealed. I felt like it took me right back to a sort of film version of a kind of fringe production of a play or something, where you're working with people you know and there's a shorthand."

However, despite such familiarity, it seems the actor and director had to dig extra deep for one key scene with Sir Ian McKellen who, unlike Henry V and Hamlet veteran Dame Judi Dench, is not one of his 'regulars' when it comes to Shakespeare-related projects.

Having turned down a role in the 1989 Oscar-winner Hamlet and thus, so the joke goes, missed out on many a plum Branagh-directed Shakespearian screen role since – their running gag is that Sir Derek Jacobi gets them instead – the pair now go head-to-head in one of All Is True's most memorable scenes: Shakespeare is visited by the Earl of Southampton and the pair end up reciting the love-struck words of Sonnet 29 – allegedly written by the former about the latter – to each other with markedly contrasting delivery and intention.

"I loved the scene when I saw it on the page and yes, when we got McKellen, I really practised for that scene as hard as anything I've ever done," Branagh enthuses.

"I thought it was such a sort of electric scene in the middle of this film: heterosexual marriage is being explored, then the woman, who is illiterate, is you might say insensitively dealt with – or, as she might say, humiliated – by the arrival of the former object of his love.

"[Shakespeare] can't help but give himself to this encounter, almost like 'take me away from all of this', a sort of 'last hurrah' for the passionate romantic in him. And then to be dismissed because it's unrequited love – 'love your work, don't love you in that way – and, by the way, you're a peasant' – is a great 'thanks, but no thanks' that leaves him rocking.

"I loved the complex and, I'd say, modern quality of that scene in Ben's screenplay: the relationship fluidity that makes us be prepared to consider that, yes, he may have loved Anne – maybe in a very passionate way, originally – a woman eight years older than him.

"But, at the same time, he seems to have been heart-struck by another man, and the two things coincide. You might say that although those voices are contradictory, all is true – much like the contradictory complexity in Shakespeare's own life."

With All Is True now playing in cinemas everywhere, the Belfast-born star's current movie project is his adaptation of Wexford writer Eoin Colfer's hit fantasy novel Artemis Fowl, which has been partly shot in Northern Ireland.

"That was a pleasure," enthuses Branagh of the film, which is due for release in the summer. "We were on the north Antrim coast last summer and we were really welcomed so beautifully up there, the locals and Northern Ireland Screen and everybody helping us out gave us an amazing time.

"We got fantastic landscape shots, real people in real big Ireland. Judi Dench makes it into that one again well, as Commander Root, the head of the fairy LEPrecon, and two brilliant newcomers Ferdia Shaw and Lara McDonnell who are from Dublin and Kilkenny.

"The wonderful Irish playwright Conor McPherson did the screenplay, so it's about as Irish as you get – plus fairies, which live underneath our feet, as you know!

"It comes out in August [and] we're still working on it, but I'm hopeful. Eoin has waited so patiently for these very popular books which were so beautifully done to finally make it to the screen.

"I think, 20 years on, we hope to give him what he's after."

All Is True is showing at QFT Belfast now, see for tickets and times

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