See Kenneth Branagh as Shakespeare in All Is True trailer

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players — and these days, the player most associated with William Shakespeare might just be Kenneth Branagh.

With his film adaptations of Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, and As You Like It, plus a rich assortment of stage credits, Branagh has become nearly as synonymous with the Bard as quill pens, the Globe Theatre, and Stratford-upon-Avon. Now, the actor and director is taking things a step further by portraying Shakespeare in a new movie, and EW has an exclusive first look at the trailer (above).

In All Is True, Branagh portrays Shakespeare in his final years, a playwright who has retired and returned home to Stratford to reconnect with the family he left behind some 20 years ago. In the trailer, we see a witty, wry, world-weary Will finding his footing in retirement. Judi Dench also stars as Anne Hathaway, the abandoned wife who has run her household in her husband’s absence and welcomes him home with attendant ferocity and pity.

Branagh tells EW that what drew him to the project, as both actor and director, was the opportunity to make “a connection between the man and the work.” After spending countless years enmeshed in the words and plays of the Bard of Avon, All Is True was a chance “to find Shakespeare the man behind Shakespeare the work,” he says. “[Shakespeare] is the master of observation about the human spirit, the human psyche, the human soul, and yet one of the things that has frustrated and tantalized people is a distance from who the man might be himself.”

That distance meant grappling with a question that has riled scholars and actors for centuries: Who wrote the plays attributed to one William Shakespeare? Here, the answer is definitively Shakespeare, a glovemaker turned poet from a country town. The film winkingly nods to the authorship debates, but Branagh says it was more about exploring the humanity at the heart of the writer than anything else.

“This not an attack on those who believe the plays were written by someone else,” he says, noting that his close friends Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance fall into that camp. “It is a celebration of one version of Shakespeare that I believe emerges strongly from the plays that has this tremendously compassionate, tremendously familiar, even domestic dimension. As esoteric and rarefied as his work could be, and as existentially, philosophically deep and expansive as it could be, there’s also a deeply human individual at the center of them.”

Part of the primary tension of Shakespeare’s life and biography, which is on display in All Is True, is the genius of his work in contrast to his outright ordinary origins and concerns. “People want their geniuses to be mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” says Branagh, citing the likes of Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley as examples. “They find it difficult to resolve and equate genius with a man who’s interested in having a mortgage.”

For Branagh, that very paradox unlocked his understanding of the character. “For a man of such exotic imagination, his very ordinary preoccupations [were] a surprise,” he says. In doing research for the film, which included talking with scholars at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford and reading Charles Nicholl’s The Shakespeare Circle, Branagh was struck by repeated mentions of the playwright as “gentle” in writings by his contemporaries, in contrast to the playwright’s obsession with status.

It’s this bundle of contradictions that Branagh believes accounts for Shakespeare’s brilliance. “The genius of Shakespeare, the film tries to suggest, is because his own flawed humanity was the very laboratory in which he worked,” the filmmaker muses. “When he was able to talk about every kind of human vice or foible or passion — jealousy, unrequited love, ambition — it would seem to suggest a Shakespeare in which all of those things has been experienced.”

As evidenced in the trailer, the characters in All Is True speak in a more modern parlance, sans heavy use of “thee” and “thou” and without the cadences of Shakespeare’s beloved iambic pentameter. Branagh says that was essential for tapping into the ordinariness of Shakespeare’s life. “I wanted it to be as direct and real and personal an account of Shakespeare as possible,” he says. “To feel we were definitely in the company of living, breathing people who spoke and sounded much like us.”

While the film tackles many mysteries about Shakespeare’s life, from the mundane (why did he bequeath his wife his “second-best bed”?) to the monumental (how did his only son, Hamnet, die?), these are merely artistic interpretations — ones the film posits could all be true, depending on whose point of view you consider. But it’s the not knowing that keeps Branagh coming back to the Bard again and again. “I do enjoy the mystery of it,” he says. “I enjoy the elusiveness of Shakespeare in the work itself. Some people find it frustrating. It’s like holding a fish. You can’t ever quite capture what Shakespeare is.”

All Is True will play a one-week engagement at Los Angeles’ Laemmle Monica Film Center beginning Dec. 21. A wider release date is still to be announced. Watch the exclusive trailer above.

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