'All Is True': Film Review

A serviceable take on the Bard's latter days.
12/21/2018

Kenneth Branagh directs and stars in this film about the little-known final years of William Shakespeare, alongside Judi Dench and Ian McKellen.

It's fair to say that Kenneth Branagh knows his Shakespeare as well as or better than anyone who's put the bard's work on the screen; he's directed five films based on Shakespeare plays and has acted in as many. On the boards, he's performed in and/or staged at least 20 productions by the English language's greatest dramatist. It's also the case that, except for dates, rudimentary family facts and certain professional details, precious little is known about the man William Shakespeare, so who could be more entitled than Branagh to create a speculative drama about the final three years of the writer's life, when he had retired from the theater to rejoin his family in his native Stratford-upon-Avon?

A labor of love, to be sure, but a simple, small-scaled domestic drama with none of the broad appeal of the hugely popular Shakespeare in Love of 1998, All Is True is a thoroughly respectable Sony Classics pickup that will command the interest mostly of older-skewing art house habituees.

In June of 1613, just 14 years after it had been built, the Globe Theater burned to the ground due to errant sparks from a stage cannon during a performance of All Is True, the original title of a play believed to have been written by Shakespeare and John Fletcher that a decade later was renamed Henry VIII. Evidently demoralized by the destruction of his theater, the 49-year-old playwright (Branagh) retreated to rejoin his wife and two daughters, of whom he had seen very little for some 20 years. “I'm done with stories,” he confesses. Pressing even harder on him are thoughts of his son Hamnet, whom he had scarcely known before his death at age 11 a decade earlier.

Coming from the pen of Ben Elton, writer of Upstart Crow, an ongoing British TV comedy hit about Shakespeare and the creation of some of his most famous plays, as well as of The Young Ones and numerous episodes of the farcically historical Blackadder, the script for All Is True is exceedingly expository, with scene after scene devoted to one subject at a time: Will just wants to do mindless yard work and commune with his lost son; his illiterate wife Anne (Judi Dench) resents his disruptive arrival after so long, and Will declaims that, “I've lived so long in the imaginary world that I've lost sight of what is real.”

Then there is the blatant villainy of radical Puritans, who seem to know only one emotion — mean-spirited anger. This they direct, at a suspicious simmer, toward the popular playwright in their midst but vituperatively at Will's daughter Susanna Hall (Lydia Wilson), who at length is accused of being unfaithful to her husband John (Hadley Fraser). Meanwhile, Will's unmarried younger daughter Judith (Kathryn Wilder) not only can't read but has lived under the lifelong (and likely true) impression that her father would have wished for her to die rather than her twin brother. Both actresses have their moments.

All of this is laid out in a deliberate, presentational manner, with little complexity or subtext. Adding to the issues is the heavily pronounced age difference between Dench and Branagh; the pregnant Anne Hathaway was 26 when she married the 18-year-old Will Shakespeare, but the unignorable fact is that Dench, at 83, is 26 years older than Branagh. Great as she is, Dame Judi would be a more plausible candidate to play his mother than his wife.

For his part, Branagh has been extensively made up to resemble the bard as depicted in the one painting he is known to have sat for, which displays him with a prominent sloping nose, a receded hairline with locks full on the sides, a mustache and trimmed beard. The director quite rightly focuses on his forceful, sober turn as the greatest literary figure in the history of the English language, but the helmer-star nonetheless doesn't behave as though it's all about him, nor does he crown his character with a wreath of genius. A hard-working dramatist, Shakespeare is articulate and smart, of course, but not excessively imperious or egotistical, plus he well knows the great value of a strong supporting cast.

As the drama stirring in the Shakespeare household begins to take hold, so does the fundamental intelligence of the film's approach settle in. Certainly there is more than enough resentment throughout the family to go around, and it lingers for a good while. For her part, Anne has lived so long without her husband that it's an inconvenience to suddenly have him around. More profoundly, the pain felt by the daughters runs parallel with Will's anguished need to know the truth about his son's death. Only through honestly getting to the bottom of things can earnest mutual acceptance and a hitherto absent family equilibrium arise.

The pic's highlight, however, is a long fireside chat between Shakespeare and a welcome guest, the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen). Long the writer's patron, the elegant visitor cuts the figure of an intelligent dandy, garbed in fancy attire and a long blond wig that instantly reminds of Peter O'Toole's get-up in The Ruling Class. As two of the writer's major poems had been dedicated to the earl and rumors persist that his sonnets had been addressed to an elder man, Will at length brings the conversation around to a more personal level, resulting in a tart and telling resolution to what verges on an affair of the heart. If the entire film were as acutely rendered as this bracing volley, it would be something to remember.

Drawing visual inspiration from Vermeer for the domestic daylight scenes, Caspar David Friedrich for the nature studies and Rembrandt for the dark night shots lit by fire, Branagh and cinematographer Zac Nicholson sustain a natural-light look throughout. This means that nocturnal interiors are often dominated by darkness, which is perhaps both physically realistic and thematically appropriate.

Production company: TKBC
Distributor: Sony Classics
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Kathryn Wilder, Lydia Wilson, Hadley Fraser, Jack Colgrave Hirst, John Dagleish, Sean Foley
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenwriter: Ben Elton
Producers: Kenneth Branagh, Ted Gagliano, Tamar Thomas
Executive producers: Laura Berwick, Becca Kovacik, Judy Hofflund, Matthew Jenkins
Director of photography: Zac Nicholson
Production designer: James Merifield
Costume designer: Michael O'Connor
Editor: Una Ni Dhonghaile
Music: Patrick Doyle
Casting: Lucy Bevan, Emily Brockmann

Rated PG-13, 101 minutes