Kenneth Branagh is as familiar to Shakespeare as a black cat perched comfortably on a witch’s broom. In his latest screen interpretation of The Bard’s twilight years, which he directs, produces, and plays the leading role of the Tudor writer, All Is True becomes an indeterminate compass, leading to as many suppositions and unknowns as Shakespeare himself. The film commences from when The Globe theatre burns to the ground in June 1613. This was during a performance of Henry VIII, alternatively named: All Is True. The movie’s title is more than a nod to the timely play; we are left sifting through history, hearsay, and complete dramatic whimsies. Shakespeare then returns to his home in Stratford-upon-Avon to live out his retirement with his wife, Anne, and daughters, Susanna and Judith. Judith is the surviving twin of Hamnet, Shakespeare’s only son, who died aged eleven. All is True depicts a still-grieving father and the domestic dynamics ensuing from this loss.
There are many dark, interior scenes in the film, imbued with candlelight, that lends a Chiaroscuro effect, as well as heightening the sense of claustrophobia and entrapment that Judith often rages about. What didn’t sit right with me was that a daughter of that era, particularly one financially supported by a successful father (and legally bailed out, along with her sister, on counts of adultery and a husband’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy to another woman) would dare speak as such. Kathryn Wilder plays the part of Shakespeare’s surviving twin with great passion, but the gender political slant adopted by Ben Elton seems remiss, or at the least, fanciful, on the writer’s part. Anne Hathaway’s depiction (Judi Dench) seems more accurate: generally stoic and reserved, with a desire to keep the peace at home and support her husband in his newfound retirement. All despite her being cast aside for two decades as Will pursued his playwright and acting career in London.
Unfortunately, Branagh‘s prosthetic nose and hairpiece became quite a distraction. Perhaps after sporting ‘that’ moustache in 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express, he gave reign for the make-up department to go all-out. Or perhaps I’m just making much ado about nothing. Nonetheless, Branagh’s acting is wonderful and full of gravitas, as ever. I just wonder whether Shakespeare’s remorse for Hamnet’s death would remain as strong, 16 years later? And if Dench was the right cast for a wife only 8 years senior to her husband? A shame that aesthetics get in the way of audience satisfaction.
A brief visit from the Henry Wriothesley (a fabulous cameo by Ian McKellen) raises further suppositions and inferences regarding the Bard. One is left reimagining who the Sonnets were actually written for. The Earl’s theatrical presence enlivens the gloomy Stratford-upon-Avon home and also shows that, when recited by Branagh and McKellen, Shakespeare’s poetry is as beautiful and bittersweet today as it was centuries ago. Given that they recite the same sonnet to each other, it also reveals the power of delivery nuances and oration regarding interpretation.
As always, the lush English countryside is a protagonist in films such as this. Sweeping panoramas, mist-filled horizons, and verdant flora fill the screen with abundance. Attention to detail in hair and wardrobe and architecture seemed meticulous but also carried a weightiness that the film exuded. No stranger to Shakespearean writing- the 2016 BBC sitcom ‘Upstart Crow’, as well as the earlier ‘Blackadder’ series – Elton seems to have omitted much of the wit and ribaldry that Shakespeare is renowned for.
Bardolaters and Brannaghphiles alike will see All is True, but whether they’re left more perplexed than entertained by its end is another question added to the many in the movie. As a dramatic, chimeric story and reaffirmation of Shakespeare’s prolific nature as both businessman and writer, it definitely succeeds. As a historically and politically correct tale, however…it could have been aptly named, As You Like it.
In Cinemas May 9