All Is True
Shakespeare retires to the country in Kenneth Branagh’s speculative biopic
All Is True (2019)
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Ian MkKellen
Despite the scope and endurance of his literary fame, legendary British playwright William Shakespeare remains something of an elusive historical figure. Aside from a few basic, biographical details, very little is known about his real life. This is due to a number of factors, including the age in which he lived (he was born in the 16th century, after all) and the general lack of public accounting at the time for anyone not of a royal lineage. Of course there are various literary conspiracy theorists who believe the dearth of information is proof positive that the alleged Mr. Shakespeare’s works were actually penned by other, more famous (at the time) figures. The new biopic All Is True posits yet a third bit of (equally speculative) reasoning: Shakespeare intentionally vanished from public life based on an untimely tragedy, general world-weariness and a dark family secret.
It is generally accepted that, at the age of 49, Shakespeare retired to Stratford-upon-Avon (where he was born) and died about three years later, having never written another play. That fact forms the backbone of All Is True, which is penned with an occasional touch of wit by Ben Elton (“The Young Ones,” “Blackadder”) and directed by no less than Sir Kenneth Branagh. Branagh is probably the film world’s leading authority on The Bard. He’s acted in, directed, written and/or produced no less than seven features based on Shakespeare plays (Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, A Midwinter’s Tale, Hamlet, Love’s Labour’s Lost, As You Like It, Macbeth). Who better than to both guide the story and to star as the aging Mr. Shakespeare himself?
Audiences are informed by the film’s opening title card that Shakespeare’s beloved Globe Theatre in London burned down circa 1613 after a prop cannon misfired during a performance of Henry VIII. Following that pivotal event (another in the slim list of historical facts), our man Willy has retreated to his hometown of Stratford with his good lady wife Anne Hathaway (Dame Judi Dench, somewhat older than the story actually requires, but adding further class to the production).
“I’m done with stories,” Shakespeare wearily confesses. His only interests now revolve around the quiet country life and puttering in his garden (a perfectly relaxing task for which the writer seems singularly unsuited). But the sudden solitude forces Shakespeare to confront his long-suppressed feelings regarding his young son’s death some 17 years previous. There’s also the problem of his daughters: ill-tempered Judith (Kathryn Wilder) and unhappily married Susannah (Lydia Wilson). Despite his claimed interest in rural anonymity, Shakespeare still craves a certain bourgeois respect from his snooty (and rather Puritan) neighbors. He’s like a rock star who’s desperate to escape the spotlight but still wants to be recognized at the supermarket. The dramatic troubles of Judith and Susannah threaten to upset our protagonist’s (somewhat hypocritical) social status. All of this is compounded by the fact that William has spent the last few decades getting rich and famous and generally ignoring his family. (Anne’s actually a little peeved that he’s shown up, disrupting her routine, after all these years.)
Adding to the flim’s legitimate theater star power is Sir Ian McKellen in a spirited cameo as Shakespeare’s patron, the elegantly foppish Earl of Southampton. In what probably amounts to the film’s highlight, he and Branagh basically sit in front of a fireplace and discuss sonnets—which will bore certain audiences, but will amount to must-see TV for PBS-loving Anglophiles of a certain age.
For all of Elton’s background in historical farce and Branagh’s résumé filled with epic Shakespearean tragedy, All Is True proves a rather small, talky and literal-minded domestic drama. There are plenty of lovely, Vermeer-like images of the English countryside—and enough expository dialogue to choke an undergrad in comparative literature. As the various threads that Elton and Branagh are weaving finally come together, the film spins an intelligent tale of personal grief and familial resentment. But it’s a loosely assembled labor of love, to be sure. Shakespeare nuts, serious Anglophiles and those who live in art house theaters will do fine. But general audiences are warned: Shakespeare in Love this ain’t.