All is True
Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen
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For such a broad man this is a very narrow portrait.
Shakespeare is a double enigma. The first is biographical, the second is artistic/aesthetic. We know a bit about his early life, and a little more about his heyday, but there are several years where he just ducks out of view or where the record is filled out by inference and the opinions of others. This is bound to add a level of intrigue, but this film doesn’t go for anything too cloak and dagger.
The second enigma is the sheer volume and quality of the work. How could a grammar school boy from the regions take over the London scene and produce such a world-beating and incorruptible legacy? No wonder that people continue to speculate that it must all have been written by someone else. The only other explanation is blinding genius.
Sir Kenneth Branagh who directs here (and plays the Bard) has a long-term affinity with Shakespeare and there is no doubt that there is love and investment in this project. Whether he has quite brought it off is another question.
The film is all set in Stratford in the early 1600s when Will has retired to his substantial house to contemplate his garden. The years it took to build his career in London were experienced as neglect by his wife Anne (Dame Judi Dench) and the marriage has gone cold. They now sleep in separate bedrooms where Anne can enjoy the ‘second best bed’ that he famously bequeathed her.
His two grown up daughters Judith and Susanna are giving him grief too in various ways. His main grief though is his mourning for his only son Hamnet who died young. Here the film takes egregious liberties in the form of constructing family secrets that drive the emotional narrative.
We don’t (and can’t) know the private thoughts/actions introjected here and screenplay writer Ben Elton lets his novelist’s imagination get the better of him. That said, the film does contain some very well written scenes. One highlight is when the Earl of Southampton (with whom Will probably had an affair during his racier days) comes to call. Southampton is played by Sir Ian Mckellen. The sight of these two Shakespearean champions sparring by quoting the ageless love poetry is genuinely moving.
Judging from the plays (which is all we have, but more than enough), Shakespeare would have been very witty and engaging – and not infrequently smutty – but Branagh plays him as world weary to the point of dull. He might as well be a retired stockbroker. Perhaps that is a deliberate twist, but it is a shame in another way. For such a broad man this is a very narrow portrait.