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Film review: All Is True

08 February 2019

Stephen Brown finds mellow thoughtfulness in a Shakespeare biopic

sony pictures releasing

Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh as Anne and William Shakespeare in All Is True

Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh as Anne and William Shakespeare in All Is True

IN 1613, William Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh) is devastated by the fire at the Globe Theatre during the debut performance of his penultimate play, about Henry VIII. All Is True (Cert. 12A), whose title comes from the original name of the play, which was co-written with John Fletcher, covers his subsequent dejected return to Stratford.

He has been largely absent for two decades, and his coming home is an ambivalent affair. It takes a momentary suspension of disbelief to accept Judi Dench (26 years older than Branagh) as his wife, Anne, who was a mere eight years Shakespeare’s senior. Having stayed away so long makes him a virtual stranger; and there is still, after 17 years, much unresolved grief and guilt over their son Hamnet’s death.

sony pictures releasingKenneth Branagh as William Shakespeare in All Is True

Shakespeare is told: “There is no corner of this world, no geography of the soul you have not explored.” The playwright who, at a hand’s turn, can dash off a masterpiece is similar to Henry Thoreau’s poor fellow who walks away from the post office with the greatest number of letters, but has not heard from himself for a long while. The cinematography of All is True assists its exploration of Shakespeare’s inner humanity. It has the look of some Dutch Old Masters, both dreamy and penetrating.

Much of the film is speculation. Other than the trial of his elder daughter, Susanna, there is little that we can be sure of — not even whether the theatre fire was the reason for his retirement. Was the relationship with Anne strained? Shakespeare’s will bequeaths her only his second-best bed. Pray, where and to whom did the primary one belong? Nor do we know of what he died. The rest is silence.

This makes it a blank canvas for the writer Ben Elton. To his credit, he has produced a screenplay of great sensitivity, distancing himself somewhat from the hilarity of his Upstart Crow television series about Shakespeare. Elton is a descendant of Martin Luther, and, as in his Tudor sitcom, we do get a few choice perceptions of the religion of the period.

sony pictures releasingKenneth Branagh and Kathryn Wilder as William and Judith Shakespeare in All Is True

Christianity in Stratford was in the grip of Puritanism. Shakespeare’s son-in-law, John Hall (Hadley Fraser), believed that theatres were evil and should be closed. Shakespeare treads carefully. Works such as his Henry VIII play have a Protestant bias, and yet there is an argument that Shakespeare remained a covert Roman Catholic. It may explain Shakespeare’s reluctance, in the film, to go to Anglican worship, preferring to create a garden in Hamnet’s memory.

There is an irony in giving the film the same title as Shakespeare’s final Globe production. Just as Shakespeare took liberties with historical facts, or filled in the gaps, to ponder profound truths about ourselves, so, too, does Elton here. Branagh, who also directs, has said that everyone’s truth matters, and that all voices deserve to be heard, including those of the wife and daughters.

Ultimately, the broken Shakespeare comes to new understandings. It is as if he (or Elton) has picked up on the penitent Cardinal Wolsey’s words from Henry VIII: “Farewell! a long farewell, to all my greatness. . . Vain pomp and glory of this world, I hate ye! I feel my heart new open’d.”

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