All Is True
Kenneth Branagh directs and stars as William Shakespeare in this biopic that recounts the final years of the Bard's life. Written by Ben Elton, and co-starring Judi Dench and Ian McKellen.
In 1613, Shakespeare is acknowledged as the greatest writer of the age. But disaster strikes when his beloved Globe Theatre burns to the ground. Devastated, he returns to Stratford where a troubled past and a neglected family awaits him. Haunted by the death of his only son Hamnet, he struggles to mend family relationships and is forced to examine his failings as husband and father. His search for the truth uncovers secrets and lies within a family at war.
Drama, True Story & Biography
Rating: M Offensive language & sexual references
Directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, this is a beautifully shot and melancholic tale about the regret of a man who dedicated his life to work over family. In 1613, London’s Globe Theatre burned down (during a performance of Henry VIII; aka All Is True), and Shakespeare retired to his family home in Stratford, never to write again.
A stranger to his daughters Judith and Susanna, he is, as his wife Anne (Judi Dench) describes him, a guest in his own home. Dench is superb, but whilst Shakespeare’s wife was 8 years his senior, Dame Judi has over 25 on Branagh, which is distracting, but not nearly as distracting as Branagh’s make-up; his bulbous prosthetic nose rivalling the outrageous moustache he sported playing Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express.
Shakespeare’s desperate patriarchal desire to have a male heir, tempered by the early death of his beloved son Hamnet (yes, Hamnet), and his renewed relationship with his outspoken daughter Judith, adds a modern, post-feminist spin, but feels revisionist rather than natural. A plodding pace is enlivened by stellar acting; none more so than a beautifully played scene in which Ian McKellen, as Shakespeare’s possible former lover, the Earl of Southampton, visits Stratford. He’s curious as to why “the greatest man in England” lives such a “small life”, lacking the overt passion of other artists of the age, who led exciting lives, and left young corpses.
It’s an interesting theme, juxtaposing a mild exterior against wild, inner genius, yet hardly explored, save for establishing the great poet as a crap gardener. Perhaps the most insurmountable issue is the contrast between the quotes from Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays and the trite dialogue he’s given here.
Little is known of Shakespeare’s retirement, so whilst there’s ample license to make things up, All Is True rings false. There’s too much factually awry for Shakespeare scholars, and not enough Shakespeare In Love-style fun for casual moviegoers. Still, if you want to watch a sublimely photographed masterclass in acting, it’s worth seeing for that McKellen/Branagh scene alone.
Los Angeles Times
Stuff.co.nz (Graeme Tuckett)
NZ Herald (Dominic Corry)
A joy for current Shakespeare fanatics, but not likely to create new fans
Both directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, All is True is the self-indulgent product of Branagh's obsession with the poet, playwright, and actor. Having directed and starred in several Shakespeare play adaptations--Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Othello (1995), Hamlet (1996), Love's Labour's Lost (2000), and As You Like It (2006)--it was a matter of time before his labour of love came full-circle and he got to play the creator William Shakespeare himself.
While many films these days come out feeling disjointed and convoluted thanks to interference from a studio, All is True is lethargic and non-committal in what feels like an uncontested script. With a very slow gestation period, the characters meander through the film and events unfold with no narrative cohesion or sense of direction. It is not until quite far through the film that the essence of the primary plot arc is actually noticeable. Despite a very simple and straightforward story, there are a number of side-stories tacked on that bear no fruit in terms of anything valuable to the plot content or necessary character development.
The only really intriguing aspect of the film looks at how Shakespeare is being haunted by the death of his son, during which he was absent. This conflict in his life connects the famous playwright with another aspect of his life, being a largely absentee father, a fact that creates conflict when he retires from writing and returns home. But tonally, the film was inconsistent. While the trailer passes the film off as a light-hearted romp through Shakespearean times, it actually contains 95% of the comedic moments in the film. The remainder is simply an emotional semi-serious drama that looks for an excuse to throw as much prose at the characters as possible. It's not quite serious enough to feel properly biographical, but not light enough to be a true comedy, All is True feels rudderless.
There are certainly some big names in the cast; Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judi Dench, but even their star power cannot save this film. As if the film was actually filmed chronologically, None of the cast look or feel genuine until much further into the piece. It feels planted and forced, and only really starts to feel like a cohesive film towards the end of the second act.
While so many of the camera shots seem to be done from a low perspective looking up (perhaps Branagh holds too much reverence to Shakespeare, with so many comparisons between God's work and his own), there are some absolutely stunning wide shots that originally look like paintings, and some other high contrast scenes that, again, seem to give Shakespeare a more-than-human effect. It all feels out of place, in this rambling excuse to do poetry on the big screen. Clearly, a lot of thought has been put into each shot's composition, but it does not add to the film's content, instead just leaving you with needlessly lingering shots that destroy what little pacing there is.
Overall, while there were some definite laugh-out-loud moments during the film, they were few and far between. Lovers of Shakespeare will enjoy seeing this extra dimension of his person--his family, or more specifically his wife--and will likely relish in these impassioned performances of his sonnets and other pieces. But from a general movie viewer that was never a huge Shakespeare fan, the narrative is not strong enough to keep me engaged and is an issue that will bore the majority of younger audiences. Despite an experienced cast, this feels more like a straight-to-DVD release.