Most notable for his countless Shakespearean adaptations and performances, Kenneth Branagh takes on the bard himself in All Is True. Upon its opening frame, we learn that due to a malfunctioning prop cannon, the Globe Theatre burned down completely, thus marking his final play and final performance.
Now in forced retirement, William Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh) goes home to a family he barely knows and must confront the fact that he may have been a neglectful husband and father. His wife, Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench) considers him a stranger and asks him to sleep in the guest room. His youngest daughter Judith (Kathryn Wilder), now in her late 20’s is unmarried and resentful that her father is more concerned with the death of her twin brother from over a decade ago, than she. Rubbing the shame in more, William immediately starts work on a garden in memoriam of his son.
In town, Shakespeare’s eldest daughter, Susanna Hall (Lydia Wilson) is married to a physician and puritan John Hall (Hadley Fraser), who wants to live in a spiritually pure town and would close down every theatre in England if he could. Susanna finds herself in a loveless marriage and may or may not be having an affair (she is).
Starring and directing Branagh along with writer Ben Elton, they hit upon a few themes in All Is True. The most obvious is the man, who comes home for good. He never had time for his family and now all of a sudden he has all the time in the world to pester them, which quite frankly disrupts his wife and daughter’s everyday life.
“…in forced retirement, William Shakespeare goes home to a family he barely knows…”
Also, Shakespeare’s impact upon English society is known throughout the country. The legendary figure retires as the greatest playwright of that time and of all time. Even in the 1600s, they understood his impact on theater. But William returns to his humble hometown, still feeling like the son of a thief.
The themes of patriarchy are going to drive Millennials apoplectic. A great deal of the family’s problems surrounds itself around the death of Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet (Sam Ellis). He was his father’s son. He showed that he had his father’s talent for poetry and he was to naturally become his male heir. Even to the end of the film, great importance is placed on the hopes his daughters will bear him a grandson.
One of the most powerful moments of All Is True is with one of Shakespeare’s dearest friends and member of royalty, Henry Wriothesley (Ian McKellen). His relationship with Henry is complicated and inspirational and best left to be seen on the big screen.
“…brilliantly ground his story to the time, while seamlessly blending in ‘Shakespearean’ drama…”
Tackling the life of a real person is tricky…even dangerous. Without actual facts, Branagh and Elton could have either deified or lampooned Shakespeare’s personal life and in a way make a mockery of the artist’s work. Instead, they brilliantly ground his story to the time, while seamlessly blending in “Shakespearean” drama with his family.
Do I really need to talk about the cast and performances? You get exactly what you expect…brilliant and touching performances from Branagh (in heavy makeup mind you), Dench, and McKellen, along with a standout performance from Kathryn Wilder. In the case of Wilder, it’s easy to play angry. What’s hard is making the angry character sympathetic.
All is True does justice to the Bard, and devout fans of Shakespeare are sure to find a place for it, if not on the shelf alongside his classics, but in a small place in their hearts. There’s a moment when Shakespeare reflects on where he stands in his own mind and is reminded of the fate of his contemporaries. The moment is striking and poignant.
All Is True (2018) Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Written by Ben Elton. Starring Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Kathryn Wilder, Ian McKellen. All Is True screened at the 2019 Palm Springs International Film Festival.
8 out of 10 stars