The title of Kenneth Branagh’s latest makes a massive claim. All Is True. Is it? Admittedly, we get a partial explanation, at least of its origin, right at the start of this account of the final years of William Shakespeare. It’s the alternative title to his play Henry VIII, which was being performed at The Globe when an on-stage cannon mis-fired and the theatre was burnt to the ground. At that point, Shakespeare stopped writing and retired back to Stratford Upon Avon and to his wife and two daughters, his only son, Hamnet, having died several years before.
It makes a good and, indeed, truthful starting point to the film. Branagh follows Shakespeare (he plays the lead role as well) as he tries to settle back into country life, come to terms with the death of his son and understand how his continued absence affected the family, despite him providing handsomely for them while he was in London. More importantly, he comes to the realization that what he saw of their life without him on his few visits home from the city was just as much stage managed for his benefit as were his plays.
True? It’s difficult to tell, even though screenwriter Ben Elton (he of Blackadder and Upstart Crow fame) subscribes to the theory that we know a great deal about probably the famous Englishman that ever lived. And it’s true that we know the names of his wife and children, that wife Anne was older than him and, of course, that he wrote plays and sonnets, although his authorship of some of the dramatic pieces is still disputed. After that, it’s more open to conjecture and he remains one of the most enigmatic figures in literary history, for all his outpourings in his writing.
Don’t jump to the obvious conclusion about it being written by Ben Elton. This is no big-screen Crow – although we do find out the origin of the phrase, albeit in passing – and there’s no Brummie accented Harry Enfield passing grumpy comments. Yet, even though this is a sombre film, there’s humour but of the bitter kind and designed to make sharply truthful points. Some of that comes from Shakespeare himself who, as played by Branagh, is as enigmatic as his history but he also adopts the conventional version of his appearance. It’s something of a distraction. He’s the only member of the cast using extensive prosthetics – the result is something of a Ben Kingsley/Bill Paterson combo – and it makes him stand out simply because he looks artificial. Plus the unflattering comparisons with other actors, made when the trailer made its first appearance, are hard to forget.
Unsurprisingly, Branagh’s assembled an impressive cast, including Judi Dench as his wife and Ian McKellen as his patron, the Earl Of Southampton. It’s only a cameo role, but the solitary scene with the two acting knights is an acting masterclass. McKellen, in particular, is on glorious form and constantly threatens to whisk the entire sequence, if not the entire film, from under Branagh’s artificial schnoz. It’s the highlight of the movie, followed closely by the family showdown when Shakespeare discovers the truth about his late son from his resentful daughter. But these are the only occasions when the screen is truly set alight and, given the wealth of acting talent on show, we can be forgiven for expecting more.
All Is True is, in the main, fiction. Probably. At times sentimental, at others emotionally true – and then sometimes as acid as lemon juice. It doesn’t outstay its welcome and it gives some interesting insights into Elizabethan and Jacobean society, especially when it comes to the role of women, but much of what it tells us about Shakespeare is open to question. As is the title.
Freda Cooper | [rating=3]
Biography, History, Drama | UK, 8 February (2019) | Sony Pictures | Dir. Kenneth Branagh | Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Kathryn Wilder.