‘All Is True’ Review: Kenneth Branagh Directs and Stars As the Great Bard Himself In a Portrait of the Twilight Years of William Shakespeare’s Life
Hollywood News, 4 February 2019
It is frankly quite surprising that Kenneth Branagh hasn’t already played William Shakespeare on-screen. His relationship with the Bard has been, shall we say, noteworthy across both Branagh’s stage and screen career. For his first time playing Shakespeare, Branagh has opted to focus on one exact period of Shakespeare’s life, rather than paint a grand picture of the famous playwright’s life. The results are both a little subdued and theatrical, with more than a tinge of poignancy added to the proceedings.
'All Is True' picks up with Shakespeare just after the Globe Theatre has burnt to the ground after a performance of 'Henry VIII' in 1613. Shakespeare takes this an opportunity to get away from the city of life and return home to Stratford to his wife Anne (Judi Dench) and daughters, the married Susanna (Lydia Wilson) and the older single Judith (Kathryn Wilder). There, he is forced to reconcile with his failures as both a husband and a father, reaping the casualties that his negligence and absence has sown.
The choice made by Branagh and his writer Ben Elton to focus on the twilight period of Shakespeare’s life does lead to a more introspective examination of the Bard than one may be initially expecting from the usually quite grandiose Branagh. For the most part, this is very much the case, as Shakespeare wrangles with guilt associated with family. It is all a bit too little too late for this wife Anne and his daughters, particularly when he begins to dredge up a sense of mourning for the death of his son, who passed away from plague as a child years before.
Shakespeare’s sense of self-absorption is certainly at the fore and is often pulled in to question by the women in his life. This sense of stripping down the legend to simply see a man who is frankly a rubbish husband and a clueless father allows for more human drama to be at the focus of this account of Shakespeare’s life. It allows for a number of confrontations to come to the fore, told brilliantly through the performances on display. Despite looking uncannily like Ben Kingsley, Branagh makes for a wonderful lead, while Dench is more than his equal. Wilder impresses as the guilt-ridden Judith, while the best scene of the film comes in the form of an extended cameo from Ian McKellen as the Earl of Southampton.
Where the film is less successful is in the way it displays the drama found within Elton’s often witty and clearly passionate script. Many of the more theatrical elements that Branagh employs as a filmmaker often don’t quite work, particularly in the means in which players enter and leave scenes, and the occasionally over-played spectral form of Shakespeare’s deceased son.
As is often the case with a lot of Branagh’s directorial efforts, he often over-cooks the style. Many scenes are warmly lit through candlelight or flourish in the beautiful countryside within Stratford, but Branagh’s framing often proves very distracting, un-focused and as a result quite un-involving. Even when it is a scene as simple as people talking in a room, the framing so often splits its attention or focuses on too many figures in the background to present an image that is all that involving. These touches divert from the drama, with many of the stylistic touches seemingly being more in service of surface appearance than it is the characters and their conflicts.
'All Is True' is a change of pace for Branagh as a director, and it is in the quieter moments where it focuses more on failings and reflections that it is at its most interesting. It certainly offers a great deal more as a look at the man behind Shakespeare than one would perhaps initially anticipate, even if Branagh can’t quite stop himself from over-playing elements of the aesthetic. It is a diverting, fitfully thought-provoking look at Shakespeare at a point in his life that many of us may not be aware of, powered by a sense of poignancy and exceptional performances across the board.
All Is True is released in cinemas on 8th February 2019.