Updated: Mar 21
Format reviewed: DVD/Sony Pictures (2019). It was only a matter of time before Shakespeare buff Kenneth Branagh would don the ruff and play the man himself. He directs and stars in All is True, a reflective film written by Ben Elton. Branagh has often been a marmite figure in the world of Shakespeare adaptations, making his mark in the world of theatre and then exploding onto the big screen with a visceral version of Henry V in 1989. Immediately proving himself as a filmmaker of note, and helping reintroduce cinema audiences to the vast canon of Shakespeare's work (which, in Britain at least, had been a mainstay of BBC television adaptations throughout the 1970s and 80s), his early cinematic Shakespearean interpretations alternated between charming distraction (the genuinely fun Much Ado About Nothing in 1993) and ambitious, award-courting earnestness (1996's Hamlet). Thus, it is not a huge leap of the imagination to see Branagh actually playing the Bard. Ben Elton's previous acquaintance with the life of Shakespeare, the brilliantly silly BBC sitcom 'Upstart Crow', has been a showcase for his formidable skill with a quill, introducing a sparkling pseudo-Shakespearean lexicon - a world of 'lovey-kissies' and 'puffling-pants' - and affording its characters opportunities to revel in dazzling feats of linguistic gymnastics. However, writer and central character aside, All is True quickly distinguishes itself as a very different entity to its comic counterpart. As one might expect from the pen of Elton - not always the subtlest of writers - there are some flowery turns of phrase and pithy putdowns, but he manages to tame his more excessive tendencies, largely allowing the performances to speak louder than the words. The script allows for a certain amount of speculation; necessary as much of the history of Shakespeare himself remains largely unknown. Therefore, Elton focuses his narrative on the autumn of Shakespeare's years, (interspersing what little facts are known), and places him in the midst of family turmoil - where tragedy and potential scandal are never far away. During a 1613 performance of Shakespeare's 'Henry VIII' ('All is True' being that play's alternative title), a misfiring canon special effect resulted in the Globe Theatre burning down. It is in the aftermath of this event that we enter the story. Branagh's Shakespeare is a haunted man; not only by his theatre in ruins and an abrupt end to his writing career, but also by the devastating death of his son, Hamnet. As he returns to Stratford from London, it is clear that family life has changed in his absence. He is almost a stranger to his wife Anne (Judi Dench) and his daughters, Judith (Kathryn Wilder) and Susanna (Lydia Wilson). In all their lives, grief is a constant companion. In this respect, All is True is a solemn film, imbued with a rich, autumnal colour palette - and it is the imagery that lingers. Branagh's direction excels at deceptive simplicity. Every shot is meticulously crafted and framed, like watercolour paintings come to life in high definition. In a particularly striking choice, interior scenes are lit naturally. Flickering fire light and strategically placed candles illuminate faces, appropriately calling to mind the aesthetic of rustic theatre. There is not much in the way of joy in All is True (save for a lovely line fluff near the end, which raises a welcome smile). There are also some amusing digs at Shakespeare's lack of geographical knowledge. But it is in the quiet, subdued moments that the film is at its most effective, helped by an impressive cast. Judi Dench is typically excellent as Anne Shakespeare, the stoic matriarch holding together what remains of her family. Kathryn Wilder - relatively new to film having previously been cast by Branagh in theatre productions - is superb as Judith who, following the death of her brother, carries the weight of keeping family secrets with barely concealed rage. Lydia Wilson is somewhat underused as eldest daughter, Susanna, who is burdened by the life she has married into; now the wife of a prominent, Puritan doctor. Elsewhere, though given third billing, Ian McKellen's role amounts to little more than a cameo. However, he makes the most of his short, irreverent appearance as the Earl of Southampton - the subject of Shakespeare's many sonnets (a matter of bittersweet comedy in 'Upstart Crow', but dealt with here in sombre, hushed tones between husband and wife). Director, writer and cast certainly have time-tested credentials in interpreting the work of Shakespeare. The job of All is True is to interpret a lesser known part of the life of the man himself. And in this, it is successful. That said, there are places where the script could have benefitted from being subtler. Characters' thoughts and feelings are often signposted, rather than played out naturally. Some characters come and go, with very little introduction or explanation, merely to conveniently serve the next plot point. These small quibbles aside, the lasting impression of All is True is strong performances and stunning cinematography. When the tendency can be to romanticise the enigmatic literary figure of William Shakespeare, it is refreshing that the film dares to present him as flawed and fragile. Though one can only speculate what the latter years of Shakespeare's life were actually like, All is True is an understated reminder that the web of his life was of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.