ALL IS TRUE – Review
We Are Movie Geeks, 31 May 2019
Kenneth Branagh returns to William Shakespeare but this time it is not one of Shakespeare’s works but the Bard himself that Sir Kenneth takes on. ALL IS TRUE is an imagined tale of Shakespeare’s life after he retired from the stage and plays, and returned to his home in Stratford-upon-Avon where he lived out the last three years of his life. Of course, not all is true in ALL IS TRUE, because there is much that is not known about this part of Shakespeare’s life. A few facts are known and they serve as the starting point. ALL IS TRUE creates a tale based on what is known, spinning a plausible and entertaining tale based on what is true, much as Shakespeare did in his history plays.
ALL IS TRUE is the alternate title of Shakespeare’s “Life of Henry VIII,” the last play staged at the Globe Theater before it burned down in 1613. Following the destruction of the Globe, a discouraged William Shakespeare returns to the town of his birth and his wife Anne (Judi Dench) and daughters Judith (Kathryn Wilder)and Susanna (Lydia Wilson). They are hardly pleased to see their long-absent husband and father, and even seem puzzled by his decision to retire to Stratford now. Shakespeare himself is grieving, belatedly mourning the death of his only son, and is haunted by visions of the 11-year-old Hamnet (Sam Ellis). His wife and daughters mourned Hamnet long ago and are irritated by William’s seeming obsession with the death of the boy now. Other family resentments soon surface.
Screenwriter Ben Elton, the creator of the British sitcom “Upstart Crow” based on Shakespeare’s early career, used the facts known about Shakespeare’s retirement to create this drama. Unlike that television series, ALL IS TRUE has only a sprinkling of humor and is mostly a family drama and a portrait of a man grappling with the meaning of his life.
ALL IS TRUE weaves a story that could have been, which means it is less biopic than “inspired by a true story.” That might irritate some audiences but as Branagh has pointed out in interviews, it is much what Shakespeare himself did in his history plays. Like Shakespeare’s plays, it offers a plausible dramatic. story that fits the facts and the character. That fact makes the story somehow seem fitting, and the fact that it is filled with family conflict and ends with a reconciliation, much like a Shakespearean comedy, is all the better.
Plenty of elements about Shakespeare’s life appear in his plays, with recurring themes of daughters and families in need of reconciliation. Ben Elton uses those themes in building his tale. The story has more twists and surprises than one expects, and an unexpected look at the lives of the women in Shakespeare’s life, at a time of heavy restrictions on women. Unable to read or write, Anne is frustrated that she could not share in the literature her famous husband created. Their son Hamnet was educated but only one daughter managed to teach herself to read. Women’s only function was to be wives and mothers, and his bright, unmarried daughter Judith chafes at her lot. Her married sister Susanna is under the thumb of her husband. Judith has a literary bent but it is Susanna who can read.
Branagh both stars and directs, and is splendid in both roles. He is effectively made-up to resemble the famous portrait of Shakespeare we all know, which makes it easier to let him sink into the role. The rest of the cast is splendid, particularly Judi Dench. Shakespeare’s wife was 8 years older than he was but the age gap between Branagh and Dench is much greater. But they are so wonderfully prickly together that one easily suspends disbelief.
Not surprisingly, the film is a visual feast, from the excellent period costumes and settings, to the lovely photography. The visual beauty is strongest in the grounds around Shakespeare’s home, the wood nearby and the cemetery where Hamnet lies. Even Shakespeare’s weedy failed garden, started as a memorial to Hamnet, as a ragged beauty. The peaceful physical world makes a nice contrast to the Shakespeare family’s messier, more fraught emotional world.
In the course of the film, Branagh’s Shakespeare explores his grief over his son and contemplates his own life. He rails against the lack of respect he gets despite his wealth and fame, sulking and feeling unappreciated. He does not expect to confront the costs of leaving his family so long but he is forced to do so. Judith in particular rails against her father’s obsession over his dead son while he ignores her and the untapped intellect of his living daughter. Ultimately, he comes to see both his daughters and his wife with new eyes, seeing them as human beings instead of the era’s limited concept of women.
A couple of scenes help Branagh’s Shakespeare see his life in a new light. One is a visit by a young playwright seeks wisdom from the famous author. Shakespeare is irked by the interruption and fires off some well-practiced answers to common questions, in hopes of driving off his admiring fan. But the questioner is undeterred and confronts the famous playwright with a few questions that allow Branagh to offer a few thoughts on Shakespeare’s work, including the truth that can lie in fiction.
A pivotal scene is a visit from Shakespeare’s early patron, the earl of Southhampton, played deliciously by Ian McKellen. The scene is an opportunity for these two great actors to recite some of Shakespeare’s sonnets and the comment on speculations about the author’s sexual orientation.
When scandal touches the family, Shakespeare has to reconsider his place in it, his relationship to his daughters and wife, and his feelings about his public image. The scandal threatens the elevated social status he has achieved, including a purchased coat of arms that is required for others to address him as a gentleman. Shakespeare’s feelings about his father’s fall from respectability surface as well as a chafing under the Puritan rules of his hometown after free-wheeling life in London.
Ben Elton’s well-researched and cleverly built script offers plenty of delights for fans of the Bard, further enhanced with Branagh’s fine direction and its wonderful cast, in support of Branagh’s thoughtful, ultimately appealing portrayal of the artist as an old man. ALL IS TRUE opens Friday, May 31, at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinema.
RATING: 5 out of 5 stars