Sir Kenneth Branagh has spent a major part of his career interpreting the works of William Shakespeare. His 1989 breakthrough in film featured Branagh as the star and director of Henry V (he won Oscar nominations for both jobs). So it only seems fair that Branagh should be the one to play the Bard in All Is True, directing a mesmerizing meditation on the last days of the greatest writer in the English language.
Such a grandiose statement may lead you to fear that Branagh and screenwriter Ben Elton mean to inflate their film into a bloated, and-then-I-wrote biopic. Nothing of the sort. Little is known for sure about the details of Shakespeare’s life. But as Shakespeare says in the film, “I never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Neither does Branagh.
The concept here is that the artist whose plays had the largest scope is now leading the smallest life. As All is True begins, in 1613, Shakespeare has returned to his home in Stratford-upon-Avon to retire after years of prodigious productivity. The catalyst is the fire that destroyed the Globe Theater, where Shakespeare’s plays were regularly performed. A spark from a stage cannon during a performance of All Is True, the original title of Henry VIII, reduced the Globe to ashes.
So now Will, as his family calls him, is done with it all. He’s no good at gardening, but gardening is what he’ll do. That and reconcile with the family he neglected for all these years. His wife Anne Hathaway (Dame Judi Dench), eight years his senior, treats him like a guest in his own house. His daughters harbor festering resentments. Susanna (Lydia Wilson), who is publicly denounced as a whore by Puritan society for cheating on her husband (Hadley Fraser), keeps her distance. And the unmarried Judith (Kathryn Wilder) believes her father holds a grudge against her for surviving her twin brother Hamnet, Shakespeare’s beloved only son, who died at 11, possibly from plague. Scholars have speculated about the connection between Hamnet to Hamlet, but Branagh’s film isn’t having it. Yet the ghost of his beloved boy is everywhere in Will’s thoughts and waking dreams.
It’s a telling irony that the women in Shakespeare’s time were never taught to read and write. Yet Dench, in a magisterial performance that never misses a trick, makes Anne a woman you trifle with at your peril. The closest All Is True comes to romance is Will’s relationship with his patron, the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen), believed to be the inspiration for several of Will’s most famous poems and sonnets. A conversation between the two men, wittily and movingly acted by Branagh and McKellan, is a high point in a film that cinematographer Zac Nicholson bathes in the autumnal light of time remembered.
Those expecting All Is True to replicate the romp of 1998’s Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love are at the wrong movie. And Branagh is even less interested in a fawning tribute. Though screenwriter Ben Elton is best known for the farcical zest of his TV sitcom work on Blackadder and Upstart Crow — a teasing kick at the young Bard — All Is True looks with gentle humor and stirring gravity at a lion in winter, who died in 1616 at 52, at home but hardly at peace.
Branagh, who directed five other Shakespeare film adaptations — including Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing — and appeared in countless more on stage and screen, clearly holds All Is True close to his heart. Modeling his appearance on the best known painting of Shakespeare with an elongated nose accented by long hair on the sides and practically none on top, Branagh is the Bard incarnate. But his real achievement lies in capturing the internal life of an aging genius who claims that he’s so lived so long in fictional worlds of his own imagining that he’s “lost sight of what is real.” Branagh’s performance is a triumph of ferocity and feeling that shuns Shakespeare the literary rock star to find the flawed, touchingly human man inside.