Shakespeare Devotee Kenneth Branagh Unrecognisable As the Bard Himself
Sydney Morning Herald, 7 May 2019
Thanks Jane, Lynne
'All is True' stars Kenneth Branagh, recognisable here only by his voice and the hint of wry resignation that shades so many of his performances.
Heavily disguised by a prosthetic mask, he’s tackling the old question, "What was Shakespeare like?", with a scenario focusing on the playwright’s last three years. The Globe theatre has been consumed by fire, bringing his life in London to an end, and he has returned to his house in Stratford-upon-Avon to rejoin his wife, Anne (Judi Dench) and his two grown-up daughters.
He’s also acknowledging his grief over the death of his only son, Hamnet, by planting a memorial garden. This last decision strikes Anne as being irritatingly overdue: 10 years have passed since the child died at the age of 11. If her husband couldn’t find the time to mourn with the rest of them, she doesn’t see why she should indulge his sorrow now.
Will's daughter Judith (Australian actress Kathryn Wilder) is also disturbed by her father’s grief: Hamnet was her twin and she’s sure that her father has always felt that the wrong twin died.
The script is by Ben Elton, better known for seeing the hilarious side of the Shakespearean age in the TV serials 'Blackadder' and 'Upstart Crow'. Here, he straightens his face and quietens his urge to lampoon. Directed by Branagh, the film is only lightly dusted with dry humour.
Working from what little is known of Shakespeare’s life, Elton has crafted a plausible imagining of the yawning gaps in the record. The main game centres on the gradual thaw that takes place between Will and the sceptical Anne, still brooding on her husband’s years of indifference.
With a halo of greying curls and a bustling air, Dench conjures up a forthright country woman whose self-esteem is rooted in the possession of an intuitive commonsense that her learned husband lacks.
Branagh’s Will is much more sensitive to other people’s feelings on the page than he is in life. On hearing that the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen) is coming to visit, he dashes around the house, joyfully spreading the news, oblivious to Anne’s fury: she’s already been humiliated by the suggestion that Will's passion for the Earl inspired his sonnets; now she has to endure the man’s presence under her roof.
The visit itself is the film’s glittering centrepiece, with McKellen, in long ringlets and feathered hat, pulling rank in a jovially callous way. It’s all done in a single conversation. He’s attempting to seduce Will into writing again and so fulsome is his praise that Will dares to declare his affection, only to be squashed by the old snob’s derision. Much as he admires Will as a writer, his station in life makes it impossible for him to extend his admiration to him as a man.
It’s a superbly managed scene and the coup de grace is administered with the sunniest and most eloquent of smiles. It’s the kind of smile that says: if you’d thought for a moment, you’d have realised that you were about to make a complete fool of yourself. However, I excuse you. We won’t speak of this again.
Branagh sets Shakespeare’s estate in a sylvan paradise – green and gold with a wide expanse of sky. But the town of Stratford is a medieval Midsomer full of meddling busybodies. Ironically enough, Henry VIII’s embrace of Protestantism has spawned a puritanical culture and Will’s other daughter Susanna (Lydia Wilson) falls foul of it when she’s accused of adultery and put on trial.
The upshot of this episode tests Will’s worth as a father while encouraging him to stand up against the class-ridden biases that define the status of the town’s citizens.
And it all leads to reconciliation, the film’s central theme. By its end, he has not only made peace with his family and calmed his pangs of remorse, he has reached a point where Southampton’s rebuke has lost its power to sting.
Branagh’s performance is a minor miracle, building a poignant portrait of a man whose painful and belated acquisition of self-knowledge finally saves him and enriches everybody around him. If Shakespeare wasn't like this, he should have been.