Review by Jacquelin Hipes
Oftentimes, referring to a story or statement as true is meant to emphasize its factual nature. Yet a slightly more archaic use of the word, particularly when describing a person, can mean faithful or constant. So little is known about the private life of William Shakespeare that any biographical film must make a series of educated guesses – or several leaps of narrative fancy – in order to fashion a cohesive tale. All is True manages to do a bit of both, belying the initial title reading as an assurance of historical accuracy. What the Kenneth Branagh-helmed and –starring lacks in adherence to facts, though, it tries mightily to account for in heart.
Shakespeare (Branagh) returns to his family home in Stratford-upon-Avon following the destruction of his Globe Theater by fire in the summer of 1613. Although daughter Susannah (Lydia Wilson) greets him warmly, his wife Anne (Judi Dench) and younger daughter Judith (Kathryn Wilder) are not nearly so relieved by the prodigal patriarch’s return. The death of his son – and Judith’s twin – Hamnet nearly twenty years previously haunts Shakespeare, who believed the boy’s early poems bespoke a burgeoning genius. A belated grieving process dredges up two decades’ worth of unfulfilled expectations and disappointments, throwing the family into turmoil and self-reckoning.
All is True works best when Ben Elton’s script allows Branagh and the others room to breathe within these poorly understood figures. From major to minor, every player involved gives a raw, emotional performance. Veterans Branagh, Dench, and Ian McKellen, who briefly appears as the Earl of Southampton, are all given another chance to demonstrate their mastery of the Bard’s language. Yet All is True stumbles when it veers away from that faithfulness of character and sentiment, insisting instead on “solving” (read: making up sensational answers to) the gaps in Shakespeare’s life that most viewers are likely unaware of. Choppy interludes with little direction and even less punch outnumber the luxurious moments of discovery, intent on cramming information and scandal into a film cast so impeccably that it hardly needs the added weight.
Branagh also continues to demonstrate his aptitude behind the camera. The film is marvelously shot and staged; more than once it’s obvious that he has held a particular image or scene in his mind’s eye for quite some time. The melodramatic elements certainly won’t benefit from a small screen viewing, but the directorial flair of Branagh and the work of cinematographer Zac Nicholson require a more impressive setting.
With its high drama and dangerously salacious conjecture, All is True runs a real risk of confusing or miseducating viewers about the life of Western society’s most famous playwright – a risk that should not be ignored – but the full-blooded performances and considered direction keep its artistic sensibilities faithful, indeed.
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