All Is True
Man, this film sure knew how to get me interested. Look at this director. Look at this cast. Look at this subject matter. It’s almost like the perfect thespian confluence. You could pretty much take this cast and put them in any Shakespearean adaptation, and I would probably be entertained, but Kenneth Branagh has instead decided to tackle something a bit closer to home for the Bard, in a literal sense. There’s rich opportunity in that, since we know so precious little of Shakespeare’s personal life, especially the time before his death when he allegedly retired to his hometown of Stafford-upon-Avon, so Branagh could go about crafting something altogether unique. But there are risks too, especially the possibility of an overly-reverent character study from a group of actors who owe so much to Shakespeare, not to mention the fact that the screenwriter, Ben Elton, has only recently written a sitcom about the same person. On which side of that scale did All Is True land?
After the Globe Theatre burns down in 1613, William Shakespeare (Branagh) returns to his hometown where he is greeted coolly by wife Anne (Judy Dench), and his daughters, puritan Susana (Lydia) and spinster Judith (Kathryn Wilder). There, Shakespeare deals with a succession of mounting personal crises: accusations of infidelity on one daughter, serial unhappiness in the other, his own broken marriage hurt by years of absence, the issue of his inheritance and the deceased son he has only just begun to properly mourn.
A real “Tracey Jordan is: Hard To Watch” exercise, All Is True is very much an Oscar-baitish kind of film, wherein a famous personality gets the specified biopic treatment. But, like with many films unfortunately saddled with Oscar bait terminology, that doesn’t mean it actually isn’t any good. And it is quite good, even if it may occasionally skirt the boundaries of being misery porn.
Will Shakespeare has it bad. His professional life lies in ruins following the burning of the Globe, memorably illustrated by an opening shot of Shakespeare standing in front of its blazing edifice. His family just don’t seem to like him very much, not even the son-in-law who wants his money (a Puritan who is supposed to dislike plays, somewhat awkwardly), and they definitely have little time for his belated grieving over Hamnet.
And Shakespeare himself is stuck in that inevitable late life introspection, as he wonders if the way he has lived his days has actually been worth it, with friends both castigating and praising him for living a lengthy, if “small”, life (as is pointed out, many of his theatrical contemporaries, who mixed playwrighting with espionage, dalliances with subversives and “fucking for England”, died young and violently). When confronted with another adoring fan, he gives a wonderfully humorous recitation of his answers to all the usual questions (“I don’t have a favourite play, I like all my family dramatists equally” he opines quickly and with the dead-eyed emotion that comes with repetition) but quickly settles back into a tired sadness, and a desire for the pressures of both wanting fame, and never being able to have it the way he wants, to be gone from him.
So, it’s a character study then. Branagh’s Shakespeare is a deeply insecure and flawed man, who misses the vibrancy of London in a way, and can’t really settle into countryside life again, not easily. His efforts to do so are hit and miss, and consistently dragged down by his grief over Hamnet, a black shadows that threatens to consume his sanity and what remains of his family. All Is True really is a story all about grief in that way. Shakespeare becomes obsessed with a garden dedicated to Hamnet (in an early scene, when his wife objects on the grounds that their dead son has no need for one, Will replies softly “Maybe I do”); Judith frets that her father thinks the wrong twin died, and hides her own secrets about her departed brother; and Anne, having grieved and moved on, is quietly exasperated.
As an analysis of deferred grief, it’s quite affecting, thanks in no small part to Branagh. To play Shakespeare after a lifetime of playing his greatest creations must be an actors dream, and Branagh takes it on remarkably well. His Will is a quiet, almost repressed man at times, which makes the thunderous outbursts of brief emotion all the more engrossing, as he slowly comes to realise that the idealised vision of Hamnet that he has kept with himself doesn’t really match reality. He is a man so obsessed with the legacy he leaves for himself and his family that he ignores the fact that his family have largely been covering for his own weaknesses as a patriarch, and no matter how much his genius has resulted in a comfortable life for them financially, that gaping emotional hole needs more work to be filled.
You wouldn’t think him the greatest of all poets until he actually starts speaking. The fear of over-reverence is mostly dashed, as Branagh gives his Shakespeare an obsession for noble recognition while also retaining a self-critical attitude, unwilling to stand-up for himself in the face of insults from his nominal betters. Branagh’s Shakespeare has a way with words, and knows it, but he doesn’t have the ego you might expect.
Judy Dench’s turn as Anne should not be ignored of course. Shakespeare’s return is an unwelcome thing for her really, as she seems to have accepted a quiet country life without much in the way of interruption. The film, in some ways, revolves around her slow journey to accept Will as a husband again, and not just a nuisance; she maintains the stiff upper lip expected of her gender at all times, but Dench is too good an actress to limit herself to just that, hazarding the pitfalls of an illiterate wife whose husband happens to be the great writer in history.
Shakespeare’s family drama, as he contends with a series of increasingly upsetting revelations revolving around his daughters and dead son, smacks a little of soap-opera, but one can forgive this given the incredible production values propping it all up. Branagh and screenwriter Elton delight in the freedom of the unknown, and while you couldn’t call the resulting drama a Shakespearean facsimile – far too visceral for that, being obsessed with the mingling of grief and resentment to form a poisonous melancholy – it is very engaging.
Every family has its secrets, and the Shakespeare’s have a few doozy’s. But there are lighter moments too, such as the attempt to explain the oft-pondered bequeathing of the Bard’s second best bed to Anne upon his death, what some assume to be some manner of final insult, but which Branagh and Elton re-imagine as a sort of final in-joke. The problem is that Branagh wishes to include so much in his limited running time, and so seemingly pivotal plot events are introduced and closed off very quickly, such as accusations that Susanna is a “fornicator” (possibly with the approval of her husband, who can’t provide the heir he needs to get Will’s fortune). It’s a shame, because there are times when you wish Branagh had the patience he shows in other scenes.
All Is True revolves around one such a mid-point scene between Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton, played ably by Sir Ian McKellan in what amounts to a film-stealing extended cameo. It could be argued that Branagh and McKellan are the best male thespians still working today, and the scene can be viewed as a once-in-a-lifetime acting combat, as the two go back-and-forth with Shakespeare’s sonnets and observations on the nature and possibilities of love. The implications about Shakespeare’s sexuality are barely hidden, with plenty of homoerotic overtures in the way he speaks to McKellan, but that’s only one part of an incredible scene that speaks, perhaps, to the real McKellan: once beautiful, now fading with age, but satisfied in the knowledge that his works and the works about him will keep the beautiful memory of his youth alive for a thousand years. The scene ends somewhat unhappily for Shakespeare, who sees his own lack of self-confidence wrapped up in the rejection of a friend, perhaps lover, another blow to an already fragmented and damaged heart.
Branagh has long since proven his chops as a director, and All Is True is another visual triumph for him. Here, he takes obvious influence from the old masters in the way that scenes are set-up almost like paintings, most notably the Rembrandt-ish nighttime interiors, or Vermeer for the idyllic daytime nature scenes (some of which do go on a bit long, focusing on Branagh simply walking about in what may be an unintended ego trip from the director/lead), or Turner for the exquisite early backdrop of London wreathed in the smoke coming from the Globe. Branagh favors long static shots, sometimes from odd angles, which certainly gives the appropriate impression that one is watching a stage-play. Branagh’s Shakespeare certainly approves, waxing lyrically at one point that any activity can be compared to writing a play if done properly.
Patrick Doyle, Branagh’s long-time musical collaborator, crafts a subdued, minimalist score for All Is True, eschewing period-appropriate instruments for simple strings and horns. The real stand out from an audio perspective is the closing track, a sung rendition of a section from Cymbeline, a treatise on the release granted from death: “Fear no more the heat of the sun”.
Shock and surprise, I did quite enjoy All Is True. Even if it had failing elements, at the end of the day it is still a group of renowned thespians quoting Shakespeare at each other for an hour and a half, and that is worth the price of admission alone. But, as it is, All Is True has few failing elements. The cast is, of course, excellent, the narrative is strong, the visuals are a delight and the whole thing comes together really wonderfully. This year has already offered a lot of really good films, now it has another. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Sony Pictures Classic).