Sunday 24 February 2019

Bard times: In conversation with Kenneth Branagh

Kenneth Branagh has a long history with Shakespeare - and now he's playing the man himself. The Belfast actor tells Chris Harvey about casting Judi Dench as the playwright's wife, his switch to blockbusters and what he'll say if he's asked to take on the Bond franchise

Moving portrait: Branagh plays Shakespeare in his later years, when he was grieving his son
Moving portrait: Branagh plays Shakespeare in his later years, when he was grieving his son

'I'm a meat and two veg kinda fella," says Kenneth Branagh. His tastes, he admits - such as his signature dessert recipe for melted Mars bar over vanilla ice cream - were formed in his working-class childhood.

For the past four decades, this son of a joiner from Belfast has been living cheek by jowl with that other great scion of the lower classes - William Shakespeare. Ever since Branagh became a star playing Henry V in the 1980s, he's been directing Shakespeare's works, adapting them, playing many of his great characters. Now, at 58, he is assuming the bald pate, sharp nose and very pointed beard of the playwright himself in the self-directed All Is True.

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It's an unexpectedly moving portrait. Branagh's Will is entering his fifties, and retiring from London to Stratford-upon-Avon, where he had long owned a house, and where, at 18, he had married Anne Hathaway, a 26-year-old already pregnant with their child. It's 1613, the Globe Theatre has burned down, and the playwright is still grieving the death of his only son, Hamnet, many years earlier.

"For me, it was a sort of time travel," says Branagh, whose enduring boyishness hides the fact that he is eight years older than the Shakespeare we meet in the film. (The playwright died in 1616, at the age of 52.)

After all these years exploring Shakespeare's work, does he think he has a feel for the man? "I have a sense of preoccupations that repeat themselves," he says. "They came together when I played Leontes in The Winter's Tale a couple of years ago, because it did feel like a play from a man at the end of his professional life, maybe in the evening of his life - there was such a longing in it for this lost child, such an ache for the reunification of a family, that it seemed to add up with all sorts of longings in the plays, even in the comedies."

The grief for Hamnet in All Is True is so acute that, set against the way Will yearns for a male heir, and his complicated relationship with his daughters, Susanna and Judith (Hamnet's twin), it makes you wonder whether Branagh has been contemplating his own mortality. Does he wish he'd had children? "Didn't happen," he shrugs. "It doesn't seem to me to be valuable to be wishing and hoping for things that don't appear to have been on your dance card. I go with what we have. I start with, are you healthy, do you have some family, do you have some friends? Anything north of that's terrific."

Since 2003, Branagh has been married to art director Lindsay Brunnock. Before that, of course, he was married to Emma Thompson - a celebrity coupling that was so ubiquitous between 1989 and 1994 that they were referred to simply as "Ken and Em". They acted in a series of Branagh's films together before the partnership ended with Branagh's affair with Helena Bonham Carter. Does he think he and Thompson will ever work together again? "I don't know," he says. Would he like to? "She's a terrific talent, so who knows?"

Branagh is clearly not keen to talk about his personal life, however much of it is already in the public arena. Yet so little is known of Shakespeare's life that All Is True must make a series of guesses to fill the void. (The script is written by Ben Elton, who has already treated the subject as comedy in Upstart Crow.) But the element most likely to raise eyebrows is the casting of Judi Dench as Hathaway. Dench is 84. It's very unusual to cast a woman 26 years older than her leading man, isn't it? "Is she 26 years [older]?" says Branagh, surprised. "Really?" I nod - does he think audiences will balk at that?

"I don't think so. I was aware that for the past 100 years of cinema that age gap has usually been the other way round. If it felt it was going to kill the story, I would have been terrified; for some maybe it will, but for me, not at all. She's unique and to have that chance with one of the greatest living actors, the age thing didn't come into it."

The film seems to suggest that Hathaway and Shakespeare reunite sexually, too. I wonder if, as a director, he considered having a physical scene between them? "No, it didn't seem appropriate for this. I wouldn't have balked at it if it had seemed right, very much not."

He also shares a scene with Ian McKellen, who plays the Earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare famously dedicated two poems. It evolves into a duel between heavyweight Shakespeareans when both recite Sonnet 29 ("When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes").

"I practised for that scene as I've never practised before," Branagh admits, explaining that he went to see McKellen perform as Lear last year, and rehearsed with him backstage. "I found that pretty intimidating… You've got to be up pretty early to keep up with Dench, but with him…"

It's one of the pivotal moments of the film, which clearly suggests that the Bard was in love with a man. Is that an unavoidable conclusion from the Sonnets, four-fifths of which are addressed to a "fair youth"? "I think it's certainly unavoidable not to consider it very strongly," Branagh says. Is there room for doubt that Shakespeare preferred men? He laughs. He's weighing his words carefully. "I think it's a strong possibility."

Branagh's family moved from Belfast to Reading to escape the Troubles when he was nine. He arrived at Rada in the late 1970s, as a boy from the sticks, and went on to act, direct and try his hand as a playwright.

His career began in a blaze of glory. But while his stage reputation continued to grow, in film at least there was a mid-period lull. His Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1995) was panned; his run of big-screen Shakespeare adaptations stuttered with the widely derided song-and-dance version of Love's Labour's Lost (2000), and even when he returned with a striking As You Like It (2006) set in 19th-century Japan, around the same time as The Magic Flute (2006) and Sleuth (2007), all three "received a pretty rough time", he says. Yet he's sanguine about criticism. "Sometimes people don't like 'em. It's as simple as that. I put the same feeling into all of them."

Branagh has always had a phenomenal approach to work that seems to border on mania. Since he was 29, he's been using meditation to ensure that he doesn't yo-yo between frantic activity - "I wouldn't characterise it as manic, but I would say, yes, extremely hectic at times" - and its corresponding depressive state.

"I knew I had to work quite hard at all those things that would try to allow you some peace amid the noise and haste. I like to read about spiritual matters and I've developed the meditation since then to try to find the way to turn down the noise. When the engine's revving really high, I think you have to be careful."

A decade ago, Branagh left the West End production of Hamlet he had been about to direct, starring Jude Law, to take up the reins of Thor (2011) for Marvel. It was a change of direction that opened the door to a new phase in his career, as a director of blockbuster movies. He won't accept the charge that comic-book films have killed grown-up cinema and mounts a strong defence.

"In the best hands you get stories that involve spectacle and, in some cases, depth or wit or creative imagination that allows for a really cinematic experience, they provide stories that make you want to go to the pictures. They ain't killing grown-up movies."

His hit 2015 Cinderella starring Lily James will be followed this summer by a lavish Disney adaptation of Artemis Fowl, Wexford author Eoin Colfer's 2001 novel about a boy genius who discovers the fairy world beneath our feet. Blockbusters bring their own set of pressures. Does he fear that if Artemis Fowl bombs, that avenue closes?

"No, it doesn't feel that way, although perhaps it is that way," Branagh says. "I think if it felt like that, it would be quite hard to do the work, but I've certainly been in situations where if a movie doesn't work you're really aware of the cold winds that blow around you for a while. It's a commercial business and these are big investments."

What would he do if an invitation to take on the Bond franchise came his way? "I have absolutely no idea," he says. "I have Artemis Fowl to finish and I hope we get to make Death on the Nile [the second of his Agatha Christie adaptations] towards the end of the year. Ask me the Bond question a picture or so from now." He leans back. "I should be so lucky."

'All Is True' is in cinemas from Friday

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