February 13, 2019, by Peter Kirwan
All is True @ Broadway Cinema
All is True is the obvious culmination of Kenneth Branagh’s career – after thirty years of making Shakespeare films, he has finally cast himself as Shakespeare. From Branagh’s silicone-augmented performance to the Patrick Doyle score to the sun-bathed bucolic backdrops, All is True is a Branagh film through and through, for good and for ill.
The film follows the last three years of Shakespeare’s life, beginning with an extremely poorly rendered burning down of the Globe in 1613 during a performance of Henry VIII, and then returning with Will to Stratford where he sets about digging a garden in memory of his long-dead son Hamnet, and reintegrates into Stratford life. He is dogged by questions about his literary celebrity, becomes embroiled in local sex scandals involving his daughter, and ultimately dies.
The film’s first major issue is that it assumes prior investment in this character and this situation rather than working to earn it. Ben Elton’s script may assume that viewers have followed his more comedic version of Shakespeare up to Hamnet’s death at the end of Series 3 of Upstart Crow, but the film suffers from a potential arrogance in assuming that its audience cares about Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s fame and literary merit are referred to constantly, his importance taken for granted, and the film seems content to illustrate its story rather than really tell it. This complacency leads to structural issues. The film is rooted in Will’s attempt to build a garden in memory of Hamnet, but the story is randomly disrupted by the various subplots which describe a tonally jarring set of arcs; some scenes seem to be fundamentally in the wrong place, launching suddenly into angry family squabbles without build-up, then relapsing into the garden routine. It feels like snapshots rather than a cohesive story.
The film’s other cardinal sin is the smug and extremely poorly written info-dumps where characters suddenly sound like they’ve swalled Andrew Gurr’s The Shakespearean Stage and are desperately trying to pass an oral exam. Branagh himself offers a machine gun fire account of the economics of early modern production in haranguing Sir Thomas Lucy, in a speech that comes entirely out of nowhere. A horrific sequence with a star-struck fan who accosts Shakespeare in his garden anachronistically tries to answer the authorship question by asking Shakespeare how he came to know everything, another scene disconnected from everything else. And a late scene with Gerard Horan’s Ben Jonson is a factoid-dripping potted history of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. These scenes stick out for their incongruence with what surrounds them, and feel oddly pedagogic in tone.
The stories that the film wants to tell are rooted in facts, though the film’s title should not be understood as implying this is a true story. Picking up on hints in the records, both Judith and Susannah are accorded sex scandals, in which the nosy neighbours of Stratford-upon-Avon pick up on the extra-marital activities of the sisters. The most developed of these stories is Judith’s, and in Kathryn Wilder’s performance the 28 year-old unmarried Judith becomes a sarcastic, intelligent, overlooked woman who is more than a match for Branagh’s Will as she slowly develops the confidence and anger to challenge his assumptions about her. Susannah has less to do, but Lydia Wilson subtly portrays Susannah’s unhappiness in her marriage to the joyless Puritan John Hall (Hadley Fraser), and her impassioned defence of her sister. The issue is that the stories don’t really go anywhere, more passing moments in Shakespeare’s twilight years.
The central story, which creates a mystery around Hamnet’s death (it turns out he drowned rather than died of plague) is abysmal. In its better moments it allows for a quiet meditation on grief, although doesn’t work to really earn the sense of loss. Mawkishly, Hamnet keeps reappearing as a ghost to ask his father to tell his story; by the time Hamnet reappears for the last time to thank his father for finishing his story (by uncovering his true cause of death), the plot has become both risible and infuriatingly manipulative. The process of grief, and how one finds truth in accepting loss, is a profound and important story that the film seems to want to tell; the sudden shift to a Poirot-style confession scene and midnight commune with nature (leading to the illness which ultimately kills Will) is trashy.
And the search for ‘truth’ in such an artificial way undermines the fine work the film does with a more interesting set of definitions of truth. Judith’s angry refrain that ‘Nothing is true’ suggests a bitterness at a world whose ingrained gender roles and social patterns prevent self-actualisation. Will’s own sense that truth comes from within oneself in relation to his dramatic art finds its real-life counterpart in the suggestion that being true to oneself – regardless of society’s rules – is the key to being alive, whether in Susannah’s adultery or Judith’s poetry or Anne’s frankness. Judi Dench is wonderful as Anne when the truth of Hamnet’s death finally comes out, repeatedly insisting that he died of the plague, which is her truth and one she lives by.
Another aspect of truth emerges in Ian McKellen’s cameo as the Earl of Southampton. While the film’s many stories are too thinly told, McKellen at least brings brio to his dismissal of the obsequious Thomas Lucy, and an edge to his interaction with Shakespeare. He cuts off Will on the point of Will telling Lucy he loves him, and the adoration of the poet remains subtext, consciously buried under the barriers of class and propriety. Southampton’s cutting reminder that a £20 coat-of-arms above the door does not licence behaviour makes Shakespeare seem momentarily tiny, and the love between the men gestures all-too-frustratingly briefly at a much more interesting film.
For beyond the film’s other issues, its most distinctive feature is that it’s quite dull. There is something rhythmic and peaceful about the gardening, with Shakespeare framed in sympathetic low angles against sunsets and Stratford-upon-Avon constantly lit in a rosy glow, accompanied by Patrick Doyle’s light touch score, but the meditative quality is interrupted far too frequently to develop into something more profound, and thus these sequences instead slow the film down to a crawl. Yet collectively, the garden scenes (in which both new life and death are reported; in which Shakespeare reflects and works; in which the family finally comes together) create a cohesive centre to the film. The difficulty is that the film is trying to tell so many stories that it tells none of them entirely successfully, though the quality of the performances suggest that any one or two of them might have sustained a film that was less about Shakespeare and more about the more interesting people who surround him.
Ultimately, the film works best as a series of vignettes giving an illustrated potted history of what is known, and what might be speculated, about Shakespeare’s final years. This is also the kindest way to view the film’s final moments, which descend into increasingly disconnected sequences in which the cast recite bits of Shakespeare as he approaches death. These recitations are typical of the film more broadly, its larger arcs and more important truths subverted by a desire to address as many of the disparate facts of Shakespeare’s late years as possible. Ultimately, and perhaps damningly for a film about Shakespeare, the film is at its best when the words stop and when the film allows its visuals to silently capture the slow, daily processes of grief and reconciliation.