England, 1613. After his iconic Globe Theatre burns to the ground – the result of a misfired cannon effect – playwright William Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh) returns home to Stratford-Upon-Avon and a family he barely knows.
To an extent you can see the hubris from orbit: actor/director Kenneth Branagh, widely regarded as his generation’s finest Shakespearean actor, actually playing the famed playwright himself in a dramatic feature.
Very little is really known about Shakespeare’s life following his retirement from writing – admittedly very little is known about his personal life at all – and this frees up a wide array of story opportunities for screenwriter Ben Elton (whose most recent comedy work, the sitcom Upstart Crow, also featured Shakespeare as a protagonist). There is a tendency to fetishise Shakespeare’s plays within biographical films about him: works such as Shakespeare in Love and Elton’s Upstart Crow pepper the scripts with references and knowing winks to the playwright’s works and more famous passages of verse. While Elton thankfully avoids that here, there is a sense that this is a script assembled from trivia. What little is known of Shakespeare’s retirement – his daughters’ marriages, his lawsuits, his final will – all makes Elton’s final draft. It leads into a muddled and episodic structure that helps to make a 104-minute film feel more like two-and-a-half hours. This is a film that drags and tries one’s patience, which is deeply unfortunate since Branagh’s direction, the photography, the performances, and the production design are all top-notch.
You can usually spot a Branagh picture by its over-enthused camera movements. Whether Hamlet, Thor, or Murder on the Orient Express, there is a constant sense of movement. In stark contrast, All is True is almost entirely composed with still takes and low angles. It has a striking effect, giving everything a particularly sparse and contemplative feel. Shakespeare has gone home to mourn his long-dead son Hamnet and to take stock of his his own failings, and Zac Nicholson’s exceptional cinematography drives the associated emotions most powerfully. Patrick Doyle’s piano-dominated score matches the visuals seamlessly. While the story is somewhat tedious, only working in fits and starts, on an emotional level it is remarkable stuff.
That is, of course, driven by the performances. Branagh’s Shakespeare is convincing and resonant, despite a somewhat suspect prosthetic nose, and again benefits from a comparative stillness. Judi Dench is visibly too old to be playing his wife Anne – there was eight years between Anne and William, and 26 between Dench and Branagh – but she overcomes it with a spirited and powerful performance. A one-scene cameo by Ian McKellen as the Earl of Southampton helps form the film’s single strongest moment, one shared by Shakespeare and the Earl that is rich in unspoken emotion and a deep homo-eroticism. Like Dench, McKellen is much too old for his role: he is a 78-year-old playing a man of 40. The performance makes the age gap worth it.
It is impressive, among such talented actors, that the real stand-out of All is True is Kathryn Wilder as Judith Shakespeare. Unmarried, cynical, and deeply resentful of her father, hers is the character with the greatest depth and development, and Wilder is exceptional in fleshing her out. While her arc wobbles under one too many revelations by film’s end, she is rivetting throughout. Elton’s screenplay gives her a story with contemporary resonance but keeps her grounded in a 17th century context.
The third act is where most of the screenplay’s problems lie, which does leave the film struggling to leave a positive impact overall, but the direction and particularly the performances do much to make All is True a worthwhile film. It is imperfect and troublesome, but every few minutes flashes with brilliance and heart. Branagh or Shakespeare enthusiasts will enjoy it; general audiences may find it too much like a soap opera to engage with it. It is, ultimately, something of a curate’s egg.