Though Kenneth Branagh’s film is ostensibly about the last few years in William Shakespeare’s life, when he had abandoned his theatrical work in London and retired to Stratford-upon-Avon to be with his family, it’s actually about makeup and landscapes—the fake nose and carefully coiffed hair and beard designed to make Branagh the spitting image of the Bard as portrayed in contemporary painting, and an incessant reliance on lingering shots of the lovely countryside (ostensibly in Warwickshire, though filming was actually done in Buckinghamshire) by cinematographer Zac Nicholson that serve as visual hiccups—or throat-clearings—in what is otherwise a very verbal narrative.
The title of Ben Elton’s script is a signal to how clever it thinks it is. On the one hand, “All Is True” was supposedly an alternative title of the play about King Henry VIII that was Shakespeare’s final work for the Globe Theatre (written, some scholars argue, in collaboration with his successor at the company, John Fletcher). It was the misfiring of a prop cannon used in the play that caused the fire that burned the place down in 1613.
But more importantly, since virtually nothing is known of Shakespeare’s years back home after that disaster, what’s depicted here is almost entirely made up, so the title is a total misnomer. Maybe some of the events shown in the screenplay are true in a dramatic sense, but certainly not in any literal one.
That wouldn’t be a problem if the speculative material Elton and Branagh have concocted carried much punch, or offered real enlightenment about the revered playwright, but it doesn’t.
The premise is that the fifty-year old Shakespeare is gloomy, ruminating on the death of his beloved son Hamnet, who died seventeen years earlier during one of the playwright’s long absences, when he was only eleven years old. The cause of death is listed in the records as plague, but the brooding Shakespeare has his doubts. He is also hopeful of having a grandson to carry on his name—and perhaps his legacy as a writer (as he thinks that Hamnet, whom he considers to have been precociously talented, would have done). There is some evidence for this supposition in the will in which Shakespeare left the bulk of his estate to any son his eldest daughter might have.
The playwright also has other problems on his plate. His wife Anne (Judi Dench, much older relative to Branagh than the actual lady was to Shakespeare) has lived a solitary life without him for so long that she can’t bring herself to fall back into easygoing cohabitation. She’s also still nonplussed by his references to his “Dark Lady” in his sonnets.
While the elder of Shakespeare’s daughters, Susanna (Lydia Wilson), is married, she thus far has had only one child, a daughter; moreover, her husband John Hall (Hadley Fraser) is a priggish Puritan, and to complicate matters further she will be falsely accused of infidelity. His younger child Judith (Kathryn Wilder), meanwhile, is an unmarried spinster who will finally wed Thomas Quiney (Jack Colnay Hirst), a tradesman, shortly before her father’s death, though accusations of his having fathered a child by another woman, Margaret Wheeler (Eleanor de Rohan), will cause a scandal. (They will eventually have three sons after their grandfather’s death, but all will die young.) Shakespeare must also put up with the pompous preening of local M.P. Sir Thomas Lucy (Alex Macqueen).
Most important in all this is Judith’s fury over what she considers her father’s long-time disregard for her, which she sees as confirmed in his obsession over the details of her twin Hamnet’s demise. The mystery of the boy’s death will eventually be resolved and Shakespeare’s relationship with Anne and Judith restored in a twist with a mildly feminist slant, but not before he deals with the child’s occasional reappearance as a wraith (Sam Ellis).
Other than this domestic discord, much of the plot involves Shakespeare’s determination to plant a proper garden as a means of returning to real life after spending so many years in the unreal one of the stage. The garden will also serve as a memorial to Hamnet.
All of which, frankly, sounds more interesting than it plays in Branagh’s sluggish, reverential telling of it. His own performance seems more concerned with keeping all the makeup in place than expressing much emotion (a climactic scene with Macqueen apart). On the other hand he encourages Wilder to go to extremes in expressing Judith’s resentment. Dench is subdued in a turn that might remind you of one by another distinguished British actress playing the wife of a notable Englishman—Wendy Hiller’s as Thomas More’s spouse in “A Man for All Seasons.” The supporting cast do solid work, as do craftsmen like production designer James Merifield and costume designer Michael O’Connor, the latter of whom captures the unattractiveness of early seventeenth-century garb. Patrick Doyle’s soporific score and Una Ni Dhonghaile’s portentous editing are in line with Branagh’s placid approach.
There is, however, one point at which “All Is True” comes alive—a brief appearance by Ian McKellen as Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, a long-time devotee (and perhaps youthful inspiration) who shows up to acknowledge Shakespeare’s genius. His summary dismissal of Lucy, who wants to greet him, is a masterly exhibition of the arrogance of the nobility, and it’s topped by his conversation with Shakespeare as their back-and-forth conveys both mutual admiration and the impossibility of erasing the social chasm between them. The verbal jousting is reminiscent of the sequence that Derek Jacobi enlivened as an Oxford don in the recent, mostly tiresome, “Tolkien,” and—to take matters back much further—the lovely autumnal glow that James Mason and John Gielgud brought to their single scene together in “The Shooting Party” in 1984. (The conversation that Shakespeare has later with Gerard Horan as Ben Jonson, while fun, is nowhere in the same league.)
With its periodic allusions to Shakespeareana in general, Branagh’s film should appeal to lovers of the Bard who enjoy recognizing such references. But for everyone else, “All Is True” is likely to come across as a rather turgid bit of speculative fiction about Shakespeare’s final years.