Just to bask in the lush tones of Sir Ian McKellen reciting Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 might be enough to coax certain connoisseurs to see All Is True (★★★), actor-director Kenneth Branagh’s biography of the Bard’s last days.
Fortunately, Branagh and screenwriter Ben Elton have gone to the trouble of inventing an intriguing narrative premise to supply dramatic context for such moving poetry. The film finds William Shakespeare (Branagh) in 1613, devastated after his Globe Theatre burned down in London, attempting to retire quietly to his country manor in hometown Stratford-upon-Avon.
Will, wealthy and just shy of 50, might like to while away his salad days drinking ale on a hillside, or watching swans drift across a pond, but instead a host of family secrets and scandals, along with his own selfish behavior, come back to haunt him. Guilt is the emotion that nags at him most urgently, and drives the movie’s plot most forcefully. Will was away in London when his eleven-year old son, Hamnet (Sam Ellis), died seventeen years prior, and neither Will’s wife Anne (Dame Judi Dench), nor his daughter Judith (Kathryn Wilder), Hamnet’s twin, are apt to let him forget it.
Will’s elder daughter Susannah (Lydia Wilson) is more welcoming of his return, and more forgiving of his faults. Though Susannah might just be consumed by her own guilt, as she’s accused publicly of cheating on her Puritan physician husband John Hall (Hadley Fraser). Protecting her honor, Hall sues the accuser for slander, just one of the actual and figurative trials that divert Shakespeare’s focus away from his avowed task of peacefully planting a garden in Hamnet’s memory.
Quite often, the film resorts to simply strolling down Shakespeare’s memory lane. He and other characters traipse around bucolic Stratford paging through familial history or hashing out old arguments. The crisp, if staid, cinematography should greatly please fans of English country gardens, as the camera meanders through flower beds, woods, and hedges. The writing, meanwhile, strays into obviousness, especially in limning the conflict between Will and his sexist son-in-law Hall, or with his bitter daughter Judith.
Judith beats up herself and everyone else for her being the twin who survived. Newcomer Wilder at first seems to be overplaying the character’s spitefulness, but eventually the plot catches up to her. All the emotion she’s been building pays off in a stunning scene involving the destruction by fire of another artifact that Shakespeare cherishes.
McKellen, portraying Shakespeare’s well-bred London chum Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, is afforded only one scene to register a buildup and stunning payoff, and he nails it. The Earl ventures out to Stratford hoping to lure his friend back to London, engaging Will in a tête-à-tête that’s both tense and tenderly loving. The movie plainly alludes to a longstanding romantic, if not necessarily carnal, passion between the two men, without making any further suggestions about Will’s sexuality. The scene really says more about aging, with Wriothesley relishing the fact that his youthful beauty, now faded, might live on forever in the glow of Sonnet 29.
Shakespeare did, in fact, dedicate poetry to Wriothesley, as he also is believed to have written romantic Sonnet 145 for his wife Anne. Depicted in All Is True as an uneducated but not foolish woman, Anne, eight years Will’s senior, loves her husband, but feels he abandoned their family and their marriage to go off and become the great William Shakespeare. Dench perhaps does the most subtle work here, as Anne attempts to dismiss her pain, yet can’t help holding her heretofore absentee husband accountable for much of it. Again, the writing’s not subtle but the acting is, including Branagh’s lead turn, which draws a three-dimensional portrait of a towering figure.
All Is True doesn’t answer every question it raises about Shakespeare, but it speculates persuasively about the psychology motivating many of his choices both on the page and late in life. In several cases, Branagh and Elton appear to have decided that, despite attempts to consider the man’s words or work through a modern lens, he can only be judged as a product of his time. For example, he likely did invest greater hopes in having a son who might follow in his footsteps than a daughter who would pick up his pen.
And maybe, as shown here, he’d be the sort to try frightening an enemy by threatening to call in a terrifying African he knows to, essentially, come and kick the guy’s ass. If that is something Shakespeare would have done in 1613, it’s confounding still that Branagh and Elton would try it in 2019, even as a joke. Certainly the moment complicates their already complicated chronicle of the most celebrated writer of all time.
All Is True is rated PG-13, and opens May 17 at Landmark’s E Street and Bethesda Row Cinemas. Visit www.landmarktheatres.com/washington-d-c.