Why Make Movies About Writers?
Kenneth Branagh’s “All Is True” imagines Shakespeare’s retirement, and “Tolkien” maps Middle-earth onto its creator’s formative years.
The New Yorker, 10 May 2019
Having earned his spurs directing and acting in movies of “Henry V” (1989), “Much Ado About Nothing” (1993), “Hamlet” (1996), “Love’s Labour’s Lost” (2000), and “As You Like It” (2006), Kenneth Branagh is at liberty to make of Shakespeare what he will. Had he offered a souped-up “Twelfth Night,” set in the hot-rod capital of Illyria, with Dwayne Johnson as Malvolio and Vin Diesel as Sir Toby Belch, I would have been the first to line up. Instead, Branagh has gone for a quieter option, by giving us “All Is True.”
The title is a clever thing, i’faith. For a start, it is the alternative title of “Henry VIII,” the play that was being performed at the Globe on June 29, 1613, when a cannon shot, designed to beef up the regal show, set fire to the roof. The entire theatre burned down. (It is surely a cause for regret that this chastening tradition — of major dramatic endeavors being abruptly terminated by too many special effects — has not survived to the present day.) Moreover, to call any movie “All Is True” is a sly provocation, hinting that what follows may not be wholly reliable. Compare the legendary film, set in South America and laced with documentary footage, that was conjured up by Orson Welles in the nineteen-forties but left unfinished. The title? “It’s All True.”
Branagh’s movie is not, for once, an adaptation of a play. Written by Ben Elton, it’s all about Shakespeare: not the Maytime of his youth, or the glorious summer of his prime, but his withdrawal — the period after the conflagration at the Globe, when he quit London and went home to Stratford-upon-Avon with his memories, his dirty laundry, and his 401(k). What occurred between his return and his death, in April, 1616, is as open to rash conjecture as every other patch of Shakespeare’s life. We can, with some certainty, attest that he played very little golf with former dentists, but that’s about it. Even the assumption that he stayed put for the rest of his days doesn’t quite bear scrutiny, since a friend reported meeting him in London in November, 1614. The received wisdom, according to the Shakespearean scholar Jonathan Bate, is that “the dramatist ‘retired’ to Stratford, settled down to property dealing, minor litigation, and the life of the complacent country gentleman. This is a myth.” But movies, like history plays, take no pleasure in verification. Why puncture a myth when you can pump it up?
The part of Shakespeare in “All Is True” is taken by Branagh himself, or by as much of him as can be discerned behind a wig, a false beard, and an even falser nose. How to account for this late-blooming interest in personal camouflage? First came his Hercule Poirot, in “Murder on the Orient Express” (2017), when it seemed that Birnam Wood had bypassed Dunsinane and parked on Branagh’s upper lip, and now we have his Bard. To make things worse, he is often viewed from the side, allowing us to gauge the precise angle at which the beard, short and sharp, has been glued on. It looks like some sort of digging tool, and, indeed, much of the movie is spent in Shakespeare’s garden. Maybe we are meant to suppose that, ever the innovator, he was the first Englishman to plant sweet damask roses with his chin.
Also resident at New Place, the swell joint that he bought in 1597, are his wife, Anne (Judi Dench), and his daughter Judith (Kathryn Wilder). It has been ungallantly pointed out that, though Anne was William’s senior by eight years, the age gap between Dench and Branagh is almost twenty years wider; on the other hand, no chance to see her on film should be disdained. She finds in Anne the mordant fatigue of someone who has long since resigned herself to being ignored. Weary of her husband’s reputation, she asks, “Have you even once considered mine?,” a jibe that is all the more piquant for being a perfectly scannable, if unwitting, line of Shakespearean verse.
Judith is more blatant in her wrath. Her twin brother, Hamnet, died in 1596, and the movie contends that, whereas he was the apple of his father’s eye, she is regarded — or so she believes — as “a useless, pointless girl.” She and her mother sit and stew in the shadows, bent over their needlework (neither of them can read), and, after one fracas with her father, Judith storms out of the room. You can hardly blame her, given the bondage of the times. “A woman is put upon this earth for one reason,” she exclaims. It is a matter of record that, in 1616, she married a vintner named Thomas Quiney (who really was useless, not least at keeping his pants on), and the film shows Shakespeare rising at the wedding feast and assuring his guests that “family is everything.” Ah, yes. Look at the Lears.
The challenge, of course, is to veer off the record in style. “Cursed be he that moves my bones,” we are cautioned by the epitaph on Shakespeare’s tomb, but that has not deterred us from rearranging the skeletal outlines of his life and cladding them in speculative flesh. In “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf gives him an imaginary sister, “wonderfully gifted,” who, after being flogged for refusing marriage, escapes to London with dreams of becoming an actor. (They are foiled, and she kills herself.) Germaine Greer, meanwhile, has suggested that Judith became a maidservant in the Quiney household, before marrying Thomas to save his family from scandal. All power to Branagh and Elton, then, as they devise a peculiar plot about Judith and her lost brother, even supplying a whiff of spicy whodunnit. “How did Hamnet die?” his father inquires. For a while, I wondered if Branagh might be morphing back into Poirot.
The problem is not that this film plays fast and loose. Nor that it slides into anachronism, with Shakespeare crowing over “my vast, complex, and spectacularly successful business,” as if he were in shipping or aerospace. At a pinch, I can even take the preëmptive puffery of the script, whereby lesser characters keep lauding his omniscient genius. (Serious bardolatry didn’t get into its stride until the eighteenth century.) No, what’s dismaying about “All Is True” is that it plays so slow and loose. The action seizes up. The mood is chronically autumnal. The women suffer under hats the size of fire hydrants. The music is mostly scored for piano and mush. And our attention is drawn, at inordinate length, to landscapes that look too fanciful to be rooted in the real. The falling leaves that swirl around our hero are clearly being driven by somebody just off camera, gunning his leaf blower to the max.
And yet, if you skip the movie, you’ll miss out. For ten minutes, it holds you in its thrall. The occasion is a visit by the Earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare, early in his career, dedicated two long poems. He is played by Ian McKellen, who immediately strikes the right balance of gravity and sport. The two men sit by the hearth, warmed by its glow as Falstaff and Shallow were in Welles’s “Chimes at Midnight” (1965). The Earl credits his host with “the finest, the most _com_plete, that most beautiful mind, I’ll warrant, that ever existed in this world” (no one but McKellen would think to stress that syllable), only to gaze upon him and ask, “Why are you such a little man?” Talk about lordly. They trade recitations of Sonnet 29 — Branagh with a half-angry admission of love, McKellen with amused and flirtatious hauteur. To watch these fine actors, with Shakespeare in their marrow, forgo the toil of modern dialogue for the gracious ease of verse, enfolded in firelight, feels like a privilege. Such an encounter, like most of the events in this movie, probably never took place, but the flame of the words requires no invention. It’s all true.
Why do people keep making films about writers? And why do people watch them? It’s not as if writers do anything of interest. Unless you’re Byron or Stendhal, a successful day is one in which you don’t fall asleep with your head on the space bar. An honest film about a writer would be an inaction-packed six-hour trudge, a one-person epic of mooch and mumblecore, the highlights being an overflowing bath, the reheating of cold coffee, and a pageant of aimless curses that are melted into air, into thin air. As Martin Amis observed of writers, in “The Information,” his winningly defeatist novel of 1995, “Most alive when alone, they make living hard to do for those around them.”
All of which is unfair to J. R. R. Tolkien, who was a good and kindly man, with friends possess’d. Much of the time, nonetheless, he dwelt in the hobbit-hole of his brain, a richly furnished refuge, and his creative exertions, seen from outside, entailed little more than the refilling of his pipe. One of his biographers claims that, from 1925 until his death, in 1973, “nothing really happened,” so it makes sense that “Tolkien”—a new film, directed by Dome Karukoski—should draw us back to his earlier years. Things happened then.
We find Tolkien as a child (Harry Gilby), already fatherless, living in rural bliss with his brother and mother. Paradise is lost when they move to the murk of Birmingham; there he attends a formidable school, declaiming Chaucer by heart and growing close to a trio of like-minded students. Tolkien, now played by Nicholas Hoult, lodges in a house whose décor, overstuffed and precious, with a surfeit of William Morris wallpapers, makes it seem like a cozy jungle. He falls in love with Edith (Lily Collins), and they kiss backstage during a performance of Wagner’s “Rheingold.” (In fact, Tolkien scorned the “Ring” cycle, as he did any attempt to link it with “The Lord of the Rings.” In his judgment, “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceased.”) He goes to Oxford, where his lambent gift of tongues is recognized and encouraged, and then to war, where everything he values is laid waste.
The movie, as embarrassed by religion as “The Lord of the Rings” is by sex, averts its gaze from the Catholic faith by which Tolkien was sustained; in all other respects, however, Karukoski is determined to map Middle-earth onto the life of its creator. Thus, the club of school comrades foretells the brotherhood of Frodo and his fellow-hobbits; flamethrowers, in the trenches, turn to dragons in Tolkien’s fevered eyes; mustard gas slithers and drifts like the Ringwraiths. The question, though, is not whether the psychobiographical dots can be joined in this way, but whether they ought to be; as a prominent Elf says to Frodo, “Do not meddle in the affairs of Wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.” You have been warned. ?
This article appears in the print edition of the May 20, 2019, issue, with the headline “The Write Stuff.”