Kenneth Branagh’s ALL IS TRUE is a portrait of William Shakespeare during the last three years of his life, as he leaves London and returns to his family in Stratford-upon-Avon. The film follows Shakespeare as he strives to bridge the distance between himself and his wife and two daughters, recover from the loss of his son, and come to terms with his legacy as an artist.
Branagh and screenwriter Ben Elton start with the known facts about Shakespeare’s life during that time and attempt to fill in the gaps with what Shakespeare seemed to reveal about himself through his own writings.
In 1613, after a devastating fire destroys the Globe Theatre during the first production of Shakespeare’s play “All is True” (“Life of Henry VIII”), a distraught Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh) returns to Stratford. As he saw his family infrequently during his two decades working in London, his wife Anne (Judi Dench) and daughters Judith (Kathryn Wilder) and Susanna (Lydia Wilson) are surprised, but hardly pleased, to hear he now intends to stay in Stratford. Shakespeare, who is haunted by the death at age 11 of Judith’s twin brother Hamnet (Sam Ellis), attempts to ease his grief by planting a memorial garden for his son.
As the film progresses, the simmering tensions in the family that have been contained during Shakespeare’s absence, gradually surface. Anne, who felt humiliated by her husband’s public display of affection in his sonnets, is not pleased when the man who may have inspired them, and to whom they are extravagantly dedicated, the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen), comes to pay a visit. Judith resents what she feels is her father’s strong emotional preference for her dead twin Hamnet over her, and her anger is only magnified by the guilt she feels as the surviving twin. Shakespeare’s relationship with his elder daughter Susanna is more cordial, but the relationship is upset when she is accused of being unfaithful to her husband, which leads to a very public trial. As the son of a once prestigious local man who fell into disgrace, Shakespeare is particularly threatened by Susanna’s scandal, as he prizes the elevated social standing in Stratford he has worked so long to achieve. He also has lingering questions about the circumstances surrounding his son’s death and is driven to find answers.
ALL IS TRUE is a labor of love for Branagh, who has been fascinated with the life of Shakespeare since his teens. He has assembled a troupe of Shakespeareans, ranging from legends like Judi Dench and Ian McKellen, to longtime veterans of Branagh’s plays and films, to a young generation of actors drawn from his theatre company.
Just as Shakespeare used his brilliant imagination to create living portraits of kings and queens, Branagh and Elton present a multi-faceted and complex rendering of Shakespeare as a human being: a man with great creative strength, capable of sublime wisdom in his work, but an ordinarily flawed individual often struggling to apply those insights in his own life.
Told with warmth and wry humor, ALL IS TRUE is a family drama, a detective story, and a quiet reflection on a life dedicated to art. Ultimately, it is the uplifting tale of a man who journeys from darkness and loss to a renewed appreciation of the richness and value of life, allowing him to play out his final act in peace.
About the Production
It isn’t surprising that when 16-year-old Kenneth Branagh took his first hitchhiking trip on his own, he would choose Stratford-upon-Avon for his destination. He stayed at a tent campsite out of town while he went to plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. “I also visited all the Shakespearean birthplace sites,” he says. “Even back then, I wanted to put together the two things: the man himself and the work that he produced. I’ve been interested in that ever since.”
For ALL IS TRUE, his film about Shakespeare the man, Branagh chose a little-known period of the playwright’s life to study: from his return to Stratford after the burning of the Globe Theatre in 1613, to his death three years later. Shakespeare returns to a family—wife Anne, daughters Susanna and Judith— that hardly knows him, while they are all still recovering from the death of Judith’s twin brother Hamnet, ten years before, at age eleven. There is a lot on the public record during this time, including scandals and a trial, “It’s a relatively unexplored period and yet so much happened during it,” says Branagh. “As so much of what we know about Shakespeare is speculation, it seemed a really interesting period in which to gather together some real and known facts.”
Branagh approached his longtime friend, writer/comedian Ben Elton (“Black Adder,” “The Young Ones”) to write the screenplay. The two Shakespeare aficionados had spoken for decades about collaborating on a project, and although Elton played a role in Branagh’s film of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, nothing ever came of their plans. But shortly after Branagh made a guest appearance in “Upstart Crow,” Elton’s TV comedy about the life of Shakespeare, Branagh rang up Elton and asked him if he was ready. “Ken’s first brief to me was, ‘Consider his retirement,’ Elton says. “‘Consider a man returning to consider his place in the world, wondering about his legacy, what he meant to his family, and what his family meant to him. A personal family drama about, effectively, a stranger returning. But you need a story. Go find one.’”
Just as Shakespeare started with the known facts about kings and queens and then found his stories, Branagh wanted Elton to begin with the facts and make a speculation based on an informed appreciation of Shakespeare’s plays and themes. “All the late plays of Shakespeare deal with lost children that may or may not be reunited with their parents,” says Branagh. “He wrote numerous plays that explored the challenges of losing a child. Very explicitly in ‘King John,’ he wrote the sad passage, ‘Grief fills the room up of my absent child.’ And so, in his late plays there’s this tremendous desire to reconcile and bring unity, to reunite family and reunite a family atmosphere. He also wrote many plays with twins as major characters, and, I think he especially understood the unique empathy and bond between twins.”
In June 1613, a misfired spark from a stage cannon set the roof of the Globe Theatre ablaze during the debut performance of Shakespeare’s “All is True” (Shakespeare’s alternate title for “Henry VIII”), and in less than an hour the theatre had had burned to the ground. Shakespeare barely escaped with his life. “The first thing I realized was that Shakespeare’s retirement coincided with the Globe fire,” says Elton. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be a mortality wakeup call?’ I had the idea that Shakespeare would take this as a cue to go home to Stratford and consider his legacy and his place in the world. And within a few years, his daughters both get involved in sex scandals. I was very inspired by these real events, and others. Coupling that with my chats with Ken about the themes in the plays, I came up with what might have been Shakespeare’s reactions to the known events. Its fiction based on truth.”
The film portrays Shakespeare as a normal human being with similar flaws to the rest of humankind. “While Shakespeare could reach the sublime in his insight and depiction of all humanity through his plays,” says Branagh, “that wisdom, that clarity, that leap of understanding was not something he necessarily was able to apply to his own life. He could see into the heart of all of us, but I think he understood that his imperfection as a man - his own life was his own raw material - was potentially a road to his perfection as an artist.”
When Shakespeare returns to Stratford, he finds himself a virtual stranger in his own home. He has scarcely been around his family for the last twenty years. “They are entirely unused to him being there regularly,” says Branagh. “And now, in the context of life in Stratford-upon-Avon, he was the returning hero, a massive celebrity coming back into their lives, the lives that had established themselves without him.” Shakespeare had married his wife, Anne (Judi Dench) when he was 18 and she was 26 and pregnant. She was also illiterate. “It seemed an interesting tension to us, from the age gap and constant separations to the difference in life experience between a woman who we believe was unable to read or write being married to a man acclaimed as the greatest poet of his age,” says Branagh. Elton’s screenplay also raises the issue of how the publication of the sonnets might have affected Anne. “One thing we can be pretty sure about is that when the man who was the most celebrated writer of his day publishes love poems to people obviously not his wife, it must have caused the same kind of speculation then as it does now,” says Elton. Even in far-off Stratford, it would seem quite likely that word of the sonnets would have made it back to Anne. “She must have got wind of something,” says Dench. “She might not have been able to read or write, but her daughter Susanna could. I’d be pretty beady when he came home if I thought about the Dark Lady of the sonnets. And then it turned out to be a chap! I’d be quite beady.”
Shakespeare’s daughter Judith (Kathryn Wilder) is haunted by the death of her twin brother Hamnet, who died ten years before the story begins. “I think she’s damaged by the sense that, in the loss of Hamnet, she becomes a child who has to achieve for both,” says Branagh. “Who has to bring twice as much love, twice as much achievement, with a sense of guilt at being the survivor. And I think that leads to a sort of emotional damage. It doesn’t always make her sympathetic or rational, but it does make her very immediate, and passionate, and human.” As a consequence, Judith is often combative with her father. “She’s been mucked up by losing Hamnet, feels completely alone and isolated, and has a lot of suppressed torment,” says Wilder. “It all comes out when her father comes back to Stratford, and she ends up splurging a lot of secrets.”
Susanna (Lydia Wilson), Shakespeare’s older daughter, however, is able to read, and is married with a 3-year-old daughter. Having that shared relationship with words and language makes her more of a confidante to her father than Anne or Judith is able to be. “As she is literate she probably would have read his sonnets,” says Wilson. “And they reveal a whole other side to him. And that’s a side that I think Susanna also has access to. She’s put a lid on a lot of those passions in her own life, and I think there’s a connection there with her dad.”
Elton and Branagh also wove a ghost story into their narrative of ALL IS TRUE. “Ken wanted a ghost,” says Elton. “We talked about Shakespeare’s interest in the supernatural. I find it extraordinary that this man who was so incisive in his entirely modern and humanistic approach could also take delight in the idea of magic. He wrote often of fairies and pixies and enchanted woods. And of course, the ghost he was most likely to see would be his son. As you can change one consonant from Hamnet and you have the name of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, it seemed like a good idea to reverse ‘Hamlet’ and bring the ghost of a son to confront his father, where Shakespeare had the father ghost confronting the son.”
It gradually becomes clear that one of Shakespeare’s motivations for returning to Stratford was to attempt to make up for lost time. “He's not just mourning the loss of his son, he’s also mourning not really knowing his son or his daughters,” says producer Ted Gagliano. “I think by the end of the story it becomes apparent that there was a price for Shakespeare’s fame. It’s a very modern theme, this idea of ‘What does fame cost you in life if you’re an absentee father?’”
As Anne and Judith weren’t able to read or write, we don’t know much about them. “Through the speculations Ben makes in his script we are given the opportunity to meet them face to face and have them speak about the frustrations they felt,” says Branagh. “So, we were, I think, able to give voice to female voices that in the Shakespeare story have not previously been heard.”
Stratford-upon-Avon was dominated by Christianity, and in particular, the Puritans, a Protestant sect with a mission to “purify” the English church of its Catholic practices. It was an insular society in which people watched over each other all the time and reported their neighbors for perceived moral infractions. “It wasn’t easy to speak out,” says Branagh. “The penalties for being on the wrong side of them could be very severe.” One of the aims of the Puritans, like Susanna’s husband John Hall (Hadley Fraser), was to close down theatres, and they were sometimes successful in doing so. “It’s stunning to me,” says Elton. “Shakespeare’s son-in-law was a member of a philosophical group that believed theatre was evil.” Therefore, as a man of the theatre, Shakespeare was determined not to rock the boat too much in Stratford. “I think that Shakespeare was very pragmatic and a realist in a world where if you spoke up, you could be overheard—and as a result, punished,” says Branagh.
The Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen) is thought by many to be the inspiration for the “Fair Youth,” the handsome young man in Shakespeare’s first 126 sonnets. Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton was an admirer and patron of Shakespeare’s, and the poem “Venus and Adonis” is dedicated to him. In the movie, Shakespeare still appears to hold romantic feelings for Southampton, feelings the Earl doesn’t return. “For Will, it’s romantic love,” says Branagh. “For Southampton, it’s a love that is to do with his own unique and deep appreciation of who Shakespeare is as an artist.” Southampton loves Shakespeare profoundly, but not in the way Shakespeare wants him to. “As soon as Will vocalizes it, allows it to become real, instantly he is rejected, as he would have been because there's no way that an Earl would have accepted that kind of familiarity from effectively a scribbler, a tradesman,” says Elton. “There was no real status for artists in his day.” Unrequited love is a topic that comes up often in Shakespeare’s plays. “People denied their relationships because of social status, family, identity, and even the implicit suggestion of sexual identity as well,” says Branagh. “Forbidden love is a painful subject of which Shakespeare writes regularly, and we may reasonably assume he felt often, or at least once.”
One of the ideas that Branagh brought to Elton was the idea of Shakespeare building an honorary garden for Hamnet as a backbone for the story. “Shakespeare mentions flowers and plants and trees and fauna 700 or 800 times in his plays, and draws his attention to 140 different species,” says Branagh. “He clearly had a firm and fundamental connection to nature. And I felt that a man, after twenty years of ferocious activity, might find appealing the idea of doing something creative at a different pace within a setting he was so keenly drawn to. And that structure seemed a strong way to show the passing of the seasons through the kinds of images of natural beauty that Shakespeare was so drawn to.”
“All is True” is the title of Shakespeare’s last play at the Globe, but it has several other meanings. “The title encapsulates with irony, the dramatic license that Shakespeare takes regularly, and we were taking in this film,” says Branagh. “There is also a second meaning to the title in this story, which is that everyone’s truth matters, that all voices deserve the right to be heard, and that finding the exact truth is very hard. And although truth, particularly in the life of a family, may contradict itself, you can argue that for the individuals who feel passionately about whatever the subject may be, that for each of them, all is true. And that truth can be heard, and (perhaps helpfully), be listened to.”
The dialogue in ALL IS TRUE is much more contemporary and conversational than the lofty prose we have come to think of as Elizabethan. “Older language can sound over formal and dated,” says Elton. “But it didn’t sound that way at the time for the people using it. Ken wanted the characters to sound colloquial, which meant the last thing we wanted was to give them a lot of thee’s and thou’s. For me, it was a question of using modern internalized language without bringing in jarringly modern phrases, with the odd nod to an older form of the English language.” This approach went for Shakespeare as well as everybody else. “From all descriptions of the way he spoke in real life, the word that comes up regularly is ‘gentle,’” says Branagh. “His understanding of such a wide range of characters in his work gives the sense that he was involved and familiar with all kinds of disparate groups of people in his own life, in all kinds of worlds. That gentle quality he had would have allowed him to do that, to be a good listener, a good observer, and that possibility was something we wanted to reflect.”
Seeing Shakespeare as a man concerned with status, property, and the accumulation of money may contrast with people’s preconceptions of him as a pure-minded aesthete, but Shakespeare amassed a lot of property in his time, including the “second biggest house in Stratford.” This aspect of his personality is likely to have been rooted in his relationship to his father, John Shakespeare, who had risen to the post of Mayor of Stratford before suffering a precipitous fall into scandal and insolvency when Shakespeare was an adolescent. Suddenly young William was no longer entitled to free education at the town school. “Imagine what a blow that would have been and how character-forming it must have been,” says Elton. “We took the view that would have led Shakespeare to decide that he would rebuild his family fortune and it wouldn’t happen to him.” Branagh sees Shakespeare’s contradictory nature as one of the more interesting things about him: “You see a man who, as a human being, is capable of the kind of passion and romance and intellectual power he expresses in the plays, but he does so from a position of a man who seems to be very grateful for that roof over his head, for that wife and children, for that coats of arms, and for that social acceptance. It doesn’t go with one’s idea of a romantic, adventuring artist, but maybe it redefines it to say, ‘You can’t be drunk every night and produce 37 plays. You have to be able to get home at night and sleep well.’”
While Elton uses a very broad comedic brush with his portrait of Shakespeare in “Upstart Crow,” Branagh and Elton agreed to temper the humor for ALL IS TRUE. “Ben, who is one of the funniest people I know, used restraint to bring wry humor to the story throughout,” says Branagh. “What I wanted was a kind of warmth, not gags, but a gentle twinkle in Shakespeare’s eye—he has a dry humor that is not straining too hard. In my experience of people who write at a very high level in comedy, they themselves feel no need to be cracking jokes in their own lives. They save that kind of energy for their work. So, in our film, I have this sense of Shakespeare the professional in repose.”
Branagh’s cast is headed by Judi Dench and Ian McKellen, two actors who bring a vast experience in Shakespearean roles. Dench also has a particular familiarity with Stratford, as she made her home near there for many years, in a house in Charlecote across the street from the manor Shakespeare’s nemesis Sir Thomas Lucy once inhabited. Branagh also cast many young actors with whom he has previously worked with on stage and screen: Kathryn Wilder (Judith), Hadley Fraser (John Hall), Jack Colgrave Hirst (Tom Quiney), John Dagleish (Rafe Smith), and Eleanor de Rohan (Margaret Wheeler). He also summoned many veterans of his previous film and theatrical projects, like Gerard Horan (Ben Jonson), who was in six of his films, Jimmy Yuill (Vicar Edward Woolmer), who appeared in five films, and Sean Foley (John Lane), who has directed Branagh often on stage and in a film. “When Ken calls, people pay attention,” says Ted Gagliano. “Especially when if it’s for something with Shakespeare, that he’s very passionate about. Almost everybody has some kind of past connection with him, and when he calls, we all want to be part of it.” Dench agreed to participate without waiting to hear any details. “My agent said, ‘Ken wants to drive down to your house and ask you if you’ll do something,’” she says. “My answer was, ‘Save the petrol, I’ll do it.’”
Almost the entire film was shot either inside or near Dorney Court, a 15th Century Tudor Manor House near Windsor Castle that has been occupied by the same family since the 16th Century. While the stately home is similar in style to Shakespeare’s home New Place, it is considerably smaller, so production designer James Merifield had to come up with ingenious ideas to create more out of less. By turning the camera and imaginative redressing, he and his team made single rooms look like many: everything from multiple bedrooms to Rafe Smith’s haberdasher’s shop. One of the building’s exteriors was used as a main street in Stratford, and the property also included a lake and a 15th Century chapel. “It’s been a fun jigsaw of a design experience to unravel,” says Merifield. One tool that Merifield and Branagh utilized often dates back to the dawn of the cinema—painting on glass in front of the camera. As they were setting up shots, an artist would add details of historic Stratford, that seen through the camera’s view, added to the existing texture of the exterior walls of Dorney Court. “There’s something magical on a set when a matte painter is at work producing an image on glass,” says Branagh. “It produces a fascination between all the people working on it that if affects both the quality of the matte painting and to some extent, excites the actors in a way that is really infectious.”
Branagh’s Shakespeare makeup was inspired by the “Chandos” portrait in the National Portrait Gallery in London, which is considered, of all the paintings of Shakespeare, to be the one he actually sat for. “I had considered merely being identified as bearded in some way, or look like some version of myself,” says Branagh. “But when I went to see this portrait, as I’ve done many times, the soul of William Shakespeare is there to see in some measure. I felt that to try to recreate that look was to try to inhabit the man and encourage the audience to come a little closer to the real man without, for those who know my work, feeling as though I’d got in the way. So I wanted to have the high forehead, I wanted to have the curly, wavy hair, I wanted to have the wispiness of the little thumb piece of beard just at the top of the chin. I wanted to get close to that outside look as possible. But when I look at that portrait, and this is very hard to convey in reproductions, there is a soul and soulfulness in those eyes that I wanted to bring to the interior of the character. So even though Shakespeare’s eyes in the portrait are sort of hazel and my eyes are gray blue, we decided not to have me wear contact lenses. We wanted the bulk of the exterior to be what we most likely think he could’ve looked like, and then tried through the eyes to bring the inside up and out through me.”
As director, Branagh didn’t have time to sit for hours in the makeup chair to be transformed into Shakespeare, so he asked hair and makeup designer Vanessa White and prosthetic makeup designer Neill Gorton what was the shortest possible time for them to do the job. When White said they could do it in two hours, he said he would give them an hour and a half. “So that’s what we got,” says White. “We had to get it right in that one and a half hours,” says White, “There was no time for touch-ups. You could never return and say, ‘Oh I’ve just got to nip you back to the wagon.’ It wasn’t going to happen.” Once Branagh’s’ hair, beard, and prosthetic forehead and nose were applied, he got into costume and started directing the actors all day long in the guise of William Shakespeare. “When the man sitting opposite of you is Ken Branagh, but is also William Shakespeare, that’s alarming enough, but then he’s also the director,” says Ian McKellen. “So you have to wipe from your mind the fact that the piercing gaze he’s giving you is partly assessing your performance rather than believing he’s in the company of the real Earl of Southampton.”
For the cinematography, Branagh and cinematographer Zac Nicholson took their inspiration from great painters like Vermeer and Rembrandt, utilizing candlelight to create chiaroscuro effects, and favoring wide lenses and low angles to put as much of the story in each frame, including the characters with their environments. “We were striving for a painterly look that allowed us to be witness to these events, without trying to intervene too much with a too busy camera style,” says Branagh. “My instruction to Zac was not to have a moving camera, a tilting or panning camera, and not to use camera cranes or dolly tracks.” Branagh choose to shoot the film in CinemaScope, and often composing his images with the actors’ faces dominating one side of the wide frame and the rest left relatively open. “When you’re using the Scope format, a vast part of what you might call ‘epic dimension,’ is the human face itself,” says Branagh. “When you are photographing people like Judi Dench or Ian McKellen, you are photographing the landscape of their faces, this landscape of experience. As they bring such a depth of density and intensity and complexity, it means that the rest of your frame needs to be clean, so the humanity of the film is not fighting over-cluttered scenic design.”
Composer Patrick Doyle (HENRY V) began his collaboration with Kenneth Branagh in the 80s, when he created music for Branagh’s Renaissance Theatre Company, a relationship that has led to fifteen films together. Doyle often likes to begin his work with text and uses the cadences as a foundation for his music. “As a composer, I like to have a branch to hang my leaves on,” he says. Branagh gave him “Fear no more the heat o’ the Sun” from “Cymbeline” and “I know a Bank,” Oberon’s speech from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” portions of which are heard in the film. Doyle made songs out of those two verses, and all the music heard in ALL IS TRUE is derived from those two melodies, and one other, adapted in various tonalities. For orchestration, Doyle kept his music simple, dominated by a deep reverberant solo piano (which he played himself), along with chamber strings, harp, and the occasional period instrument like Virginal or bass recorder. “It shouldn’t be too period, because there’s a contemporary feel to the film,” says Doyle. While “I know a bank” is only used instrumentally in the film, Doyle’s daughter Abigail sang “Fear no more the heat o’ the Sun” into her iPhone and Doyle played it for Branagh, who asked Abigail to re-record it for the end credits. “He said, ‘she’s your daughter, which is a lovely connection to the story,’” says Doyle.
Near the end of the film, Shakespeare receives a visit from his friend and fellow playwright and poet Ben Jonson (Gerard Horan). By that point Shakespeare has made progress reconciling himself with his family and with Hamnet’s death, although he still has unresolved feelings about what he has accomplished and the value of his current place in the world. Jonson urges Shakespeare to take stock of the fact that, in stark contrast to most other Elizabethan playwrights, he has survived, and that is something he should be deeply proud of. “There’s a triumph in his end,” says Elton. “He died peacefully and deeply respected, in his own bed.”
Shakespeare’s life came to an end in the town of his birth, on his 52nd birthday on April 23rd, 1616. Seven years later, Jonson wrote his friend’s eulogy in the First Folio, saying, “He was not of an age, but for all time!” Shakespeare’s legacy has entered its fifth century because he presents ideas about human nature that never grow old. “He was able to write about love, about envy, and about anger,” says Judi Dench. “What didn’t he write about? What isn’t covered in those plays? And in such language.” Shakespeare’s plays continue to enthrall, and his poetic words have become the everyday parlance of our lives. “We find in Shakespeare a compassionate and intelligent voice that observes human behavior with great wisdom and compassion, but above all with great entertaining insight,” says Branagh. “He has at his fingers a really sure touch with storytelling. He knows what the ingredients are for a ghost story, or a comedy, or a character piece. He talks about very recognizable human situations and makes observations about us all that are sometimes damning, but often very comforting, very relatable, and rather inspiring. So, while human beings still struggle to work out how to be happy, and as long as his words continue to entertain them, his work will endure.”