Review: Something Wretched This Way Comes
Times Union, 9 June 2019
With the slightest little push, "All Is True" could have been hilarious, a parody of every somber, sentimental story that has ever been told about Shakespeare. Instead it's the thing itself, a kind of joke without laughs, hanging out there in setup form, with Kenneth Branagh looking positively ridiculous in a pointy beard and prosthetics.
For those up on these things, Branagh apparently chose to make himself look like the "Chandos portrait," a painting that might not even be of Shakespeare. To conform to this dubious portrait, Branagh wears a big nose and looks like his hair is painted on his head. He has a high forehead that makes it seem as if Botox must have existed in 1613. That forehead doesn't move.
At the start of the film, the Globe Theatre burns down, and for some reason Shakespeare is some distance away, silhouetted against the flames, a shot that, like almost everything in the movie, is a cliche that borders on the laughable. Apparently dejected about the fire, Shakespeare returns to Stratford. He has been a stranger to his family for most of his life, but now Daddy is back. The Shakespeare of "All Is True" is a 49-year-old man, so it comes as something of a shock to see that his wife, Anne, is played by Judi Dench. True, Mrs. Shakespeare was a bit older than her husband, but not that much older, perhaps 56 or 57 — not 84. And she's mad at him. She doesn't approve one bit that he's been off having a good time writing plays for the past quarter century. He should have been home wondering why his wife looks 30 years older than her age.
"All Is True" is visually bizarre, emotionally imprecise and psychologically absurd. Shakespeare comes home and plunges into fresh grief that his son, Hamnet, is dead. Hamnet died in 1596, 17 years before, but for Shakespeare it's a fresh wound. He is obsessed with a small handful of poems that Hamnet wrote. He is convinced that, had he lived, his son would have been a great writer.
First off, the fresh grief rings false. Grief yes, but fresh grief, no. Second, a major element of the story turns on Shakespeare's having been fixated on his son's becoming a writer. But this makes no sense. You know who wants their kids to become writers? Non-writers. A writer is the last person who'd be sentimental about writing or the writing life. A writer would be the first to know that people are more than the things they write. Shakespeare would miss his son, not lament the passing of his literary heir.
In between introducing a series of ludicrous plot turns regarding Hamnet's death, "All Is True" mostly consists of people showing up to tell Shakespeare how great he is. These conversations don't advance the story. They just exist to convey information. People tell Shakespeare that he should go back to writing, but Shakespeare won't do it. He's too depressed. In acting school, teachers tell their acting students that such a human being does not exist — someone with no motivation, no project, no plan, no desire, no goal. If only Branagh's Shakespeare fed on human flesh, he could be a zombie.
At one point, 79-year-old Ian McKellen shows up playing Shakespeare's 40-year-old patron, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, wearing a long, fluffy blond wig that makes him look like he's about to sing "Put the Blame On Mame." By the way, this is probably a good time to mention that "All Is True" was written by Ben Elton, who wrote 20 episodes for the historical comedy series "Blackadder." It's all coming into focus now.
In the Southampton scene, Branagh and McKellen each recite Sonnet 29 ("When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes"). They do it complete, each in his turn. Branagh goes first, and he's good, and then McKellen does it, and he's transcendent.
But you know who this speaks well of? Branagh. He lets McKellen beat him in a Shakespearean face-off, even though he's the one who controls the editing. That's generosity. That's a good guy — alas, in this case, a good guy who has just made a bad movie.