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Vol. 18, No. 5, 2019
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Nick Catalano is a TV writer/producer and Professor of Literature and Music at Pace University. He reviews books and music for several journals and is the author of Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter, New York Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham , A New Yorker at Sea,, Tales of a Hamptons Sailor and his most recent book, Scribble from the Apple. For Nick's reviews, visit his website:



For more than thirty years audiences have been treated to film experiences of Shakespeare that Kenneth Branagh has created which transcend any that preceded them. While occasionally lauded by writers, Branagh’s pantheon of Shakesperiana has not received critical scope sufficient to account for the myriad insights that his work has provided for students and audiences everywhere. He has accomplished his feats as an outstanding thespian, incisive screenwriter and innovative director, talents never before employed so comprehensively in presenting so much of Shakespeare’s oeuvre.

Born in Belfast, and moving to England with his family at age nine, Branagh received the kind of thoroughbred education for which the British have been famous for a thousand years. He finished schooling at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and wound up reciting a soliloquy from Hamlet for Queen Elizabeth when she visited the school. He commenced his professional career and soon received numerous plaudits for dozens of stage roles (c.f. Wikipedia) in the eighties and nineties. Soon after, he began presenting Shakespeare on film and his 1989 production of Henry V garnered him Oscar nominations for both acting and directing.

His innovative Shakespeare film direction continued and it was with his Hamlet production in 1996 that I began closely referencing his work in my Shakespeare classes at Pace University. Initially, he impressed by presenting the play in its entirety (rarely attempted in any stage production and never in any film production) with a running time of over four hours. Try keeping any student or contemporary audience member attentive for that long and you will be thwarted. But Branagh’s keen knowledge of film avoided the problem. Instead of the audience having to sit through long narrative passages, he inserts live scenes of the descriptions while the actor is narrating. Horatio’s overlong account of the Fortinbras story in Act l is a classic example -- action abounds and the tedium of long narration is avoided. Of course there are first-rate performances by Branagh in the title role, Derek Jacobi as Claudius, Kate Winslet as Ophelia, Julie Christie as Gertrude etc. In addition, Branagh’s genius for evoking every corner of Shakespeare’s world is best seen with the clever casting of Robin Williams and Billy Crystal as the comic gravediggers; Hamlet is rarely thought of as funny play but it has many comic scenes. While most productions focus on the tragedy Branagh thoroughly understands Shakespeare’s epic canvas and addresses all of it.

Love’s Labors Lost is one of Shakespeare’s least accessible plays. The plot is easy enough: the Bard is poking fun at the hypocrisy of renaissance intellectual and spiritual posturing. It follows the King of Navarre and his three companions as they attempt to swear off the company of women in order to attain perfection in study and fasting. No sooner do they brag and vow to be unswerving in their oaths they fall into instant infatuation with the Princess of France and her three ladies. The topical inside jokes and allusions are sometimes too obscure for students but there is also plenty of farce. The tricky thing about this play is the musicalizing: obscure renaissance songs are sung with unusual frequency and require special study in order to fully appreciate their contribution to the scope of the comic drama. But their performance is key; imagine viewing a Broadway musical comedy without understanding the music and you can see the problem.

Hilariously, Branagh solves the problem. He simply removes the arcane Renaissance songs and replaces them with immediately recognizable hits by famous composers i.e. Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. As a result, we have “I Get a Kick out of You,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business” etc. performed with the dancing spectacle of a classic 1930’s Broadway Musical; thus we have instant accessibility and concomitant enjoyment. And Branagh removes the last vestige of farcical obscurity by casting Nathan Lane, an immediately recognizable comic master as Costard the clown .

Branagh’s directorial innovative stylings of Shakespearean drama are similarly traceable in Much Ado About Nothing, Othello and As You like It as are his many acting/directing achievements in a cascade of popular commercial films: Wild Wild West, Sleuth, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Dunkirk, and the recent Murder on the Orient Express. Awhile ago he also scored a stage triumph in a production of Macbeth for the Manchester International Festival. The completely sold-out run was later presented on National Theater Live and replicated in New York where Branagh made his Broadway stage acting debut in the title role and received notable critical kudos.

In this essay I’m focusing on Branagh’s stunning film presentations of Shakespeare. And perhaps his most daring triumph occurred a few months ago with his film All is True just now available in On Demand television. The film is an imaginative account of Shakespeare’s life when he left London in 1613 returning to his home in Stratford and reuniting with his wife and children. Of course such a film involves speculation which always invites critical skepticism. But Branagh has constructed his speculative account around a slew of factual occurrences long documented by even the most skeptical scholars.

Branagh’s theme: Because mountains of prose have described Shakespeare as the world’s greatest playwright our image of him is predictably incomplete; our idolatry makes it is difficult to picture him as a recognizable human being having sufferings, family tensions, financial stress, psychological pressure, emotional stirrings, parental failings, marital problems, health issues, legal challenges, domestic joys and ordinary hobbies. In All is True Branagh shows how Shakespeare might have gone through these human experiences and others with thoughtful scenes supported by careful factual reference. This approach enables us get penetrating insights into Shakespeare’s persona, character, relationships, and values in a way that few biopics have ever done. The film is a great gift for Shakespeareans everywhere.

Here are some of the film’s depictions together with the facts associated with them. On June 29, 1613 during a performance of Shakespeare’s Life of Henry Vlll (a.k.a. All is True) a fire destroyed the Globe theater resulting in financial losses for Shakespeare and the other shareholders in the King’s Men company. Shortly thereafter, Shakespeare left London for Stratford retirement where we see him reunited with his wife Anne and daughters Susanna Hall and Judith. We see the Bard distraught because Susanna has been accused of adultery by John Lane. This actually happened and Lane was excommunicated in the slander case which followed. While adjusting to life with his elderly wife after separation of over 25 years, we see him continually mourning over the death of his only son Hamnet who had passed away years earlier at age 11. He had not been home parenting his young son and this now causes him to suffer painful recollections.

There are scenes dealing with financial affairs. In conversations with a local politician, Thomas Lucy Will acknowledges pressures associated with managing the Globe which was unprecedented for an actor. He defends having to pack in audiences of some 3000 patrons in order to maintain financial stability. His hard work and shareholder status enabled him to purchase homes in Stratford for his parents and his own family but now in retirement he must deal with the tedious management of them. Happy that his daughter Judith is soon to marry Thomas Quiney, he adds his future son-in-law to his will only to tell his lawyer soon after to remove Quiney from the will after hearing that he had fathered a child before marrying Judith. These dealings might seem mundane and undramatic but they support Branagh’s theme of showing the ups and downs in the life of a man going through the same challenges we all have.

Other scenes are somewhat speculative but justifiable: celebrations at home with Ben Jonson who in a famous tribute after Shakespeare died referred to him as the “soul of the age;.” a visit with patron Henry Wriothesley Earl of Southampton to whom Shakespeare dedicated The Rape of Lucrece; charming scenes showing Shakespeare gardening at his home -- a hobby he never had time for during his intensely busy acting and writing life.

All in all through many scenes analogous to the ones cited, the film, starring Branagh as Will Shakespeare, steadily adheres to his intention of depicting the man behind the legend. His achievement is more successful than commentators have thus far realized.


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Had no idea Kenneth Branagh was so talented, even though I have enjoyed all the films that I have seen.
Your reviews mesmerize me and I want to read them over and over again.
Kenneth Branagh films are now added to my literary and cinematic lists.
This article is right on . . . Branagh did make the increasingly remote Bard more accessible. I remember seeing Henry V and thinking, great hero, that H V. But of course, he was an invader, seeking French vineyards and the usual alpha-male conquest. Shx's play is more wry/wink wink about our hero invader.(still the reason no love lost between england and france). Great article by NC tho!
This is an insightful article that made me realize that I was missing out on an important body of work. I didn't know much about K. Branagh, but now I want to see all of it.

By Nick Catalano:
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Reviewers & Reviewing
The Vagaries of Democracy
Racism Debunked
The Truth Writer
#Me Too Cognizance in Ancient Greece
Above the Drowning Sea
A New York Singing Salon
Rockers Retreading
Polish Jewry-Importance of Historical Museums
Sexual Relativity and Gender Revolution
Inquiry into Constitutional Originalism
Aristotle: Film Critic
The Maw of Deregulated Capitalism
Demagogues: The Rhetoric of Barbarism
The Guns of August
Miles Ahead and Born to Be Blue
Manon Lescaut @The Met
An American in Paris
What We Don't Know about Eastern Culture
Black Earth (book review)
Cuban Jazz
HD Opera - Game Changer
Film Treatment of Stolen Art
Stains and Blemishes in Democracy
Intersteller (film review)
Shakespeare, Shelley & Woody Allen
Mystery and Human Sacrifice at the Parthenon
Carol Fredette (Jazz)
Amsterdam (book review)
Vermeer Nation
The Case for Da Vinci's Demons


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