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Culture » Film Reviews

Insubstantial Pageant

All Is True sacrifices narrative for Shakespearean trivia.


  • Sony Pictures Classics

In case you haven't been paying attention for the past 30 years, Kenneth Branagh likes William Shakespeare. He likes William Shakespeare a lot. Ever since he burst onto the scene as a 29-year-old with Oscar nominations for directing and starring in 1989's Henry V, Branagh has overseen film adaptations of Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, Love's Labour's Lost and As You Like It, and made a comedy about actors performing Hamlet in A Midwinter's Tale. Even his highest-profile director-for-hire gig—the original Thor feature—seems to have been built around his fondness for Shakespearean costumes and palace intrigue. If it's got even a whiff of the Bard to it, you're likely to find Branagh lurking in the wings.

All Is True seems right up his alley then—a biographical drama from screenwriter Ben Elton (Blackadder) focusing on the final months of Shakespeare's life. Yet Branagh's fascination with Shakespeare feels so all-encompassing that his attention goes darting in a dozen different directions at once. This is a movie that's so determined to include everything the creative team knows about their subject's life that it sometimes plays out more like a trivia contest than a narrative.

Branagh himself plays Shakespeare—sporting makeup that turns him into a startling dead ringer for Ben Kingsley—in the wake of the 1613 fire that burned down London's celebrated Globe Theatre. Retired from writing to his home and wife Anne (Judi Dench) back in Stratford, Shakespeare has taken on a melancholy air, contemplating his legacy and re-mourning the death of his only son, who died as a child many years earlier. Meanwhile, unhappiness defines the life of his two surviving daughters: Susanna (Lydia Wilson), in a lifeless marriage to a Puritan; and Judith (Kathryn Wilder), the spinster twin of Shakespeare's dead son who bitterly resents her father's obsession with his lost male heir.

It's hard to get a handle on what All Is True is really meant to be about for most of its first half, largely the result of frustratingly choppy editing. Branagh bounces between his characters as though desperately worried that we'll forget who everyone is if they're off-screen for more than a few minutes at a time. An extended sub-plot involving an accusation of marital infidelity against Susanna—and the creative way with which Shakespeare dispatches her accuser—ultimately plays into a notion about Shakespeare's obsession with his family's reputation, but for a long stretch it pulls the story away from its central character.

Yet it also becomes clear that introducing dumps of information about the Shakespeare family is a feature, not a bug. Elton's script nods at plenty of ephemera from the Bard's biography, including his will's cryptic bequest of "my second-best bed" to Anne. The connection of Shakespeare's common upbringing to theories questioning his authorship of his plays becomes the obvious quote, "I have what I have on my own merit, and for that I am suspect; perhaps I'll always be suspect." And there is an extended one-on-one meeting between Shakespeare and his one-time patron and muse the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen) making plain Elton's perspective on historical speculation about Shakespeare's sexual orientation.

That scene between Branagh and McKellen is also one of All Is True's finest moments, and not just because it's a lovely showcase for two gifted Shakespearean actors. It's also a scene that's allowed to breathe, permitting the development of character more than the conveying of Wikipedia details about the movie's characters. There's a similar richness to the tense exchanges involving Shakespeare, Anne and Judith, which Branagh generally opts to frame as single master shots of the three actors, almost the way you'd experience such a scene on the stage. By the time All Is True makes it evident that the upshot of the story is "Shakespeare may have understood the human soul, but he didn't understand his own family," it's hard not to wish the writer and director had more often leaned into depth, rather than breadth.

As actor and director, Branagh clearly understands the power of performers and words. For too much of All Is True, he loses focus on the importance of letting his audience know Shakespeare, and not just knowing things about Shakespeare.