All is True Review
Kenneth Branagh is the go-to guy when it comes to anything Shakespeare; directing and starring in several adaptions of the Bard’s works, including the critically acclaimed Hamlet (1996) and the experimental Much Ado About Nothing (2012). It is therefore unsurprising that Branagh has now turned his attention to the man himself with All is True, the charming, though somewhat self-indulgent, Shakespeare biopic.
After the destruction of the Globe Theatre in 1613 during a performance of Henry VIII, also known as All is True, William Shakespeare (Branagh) returns, defeated, to his home and family in Stratford-Upon-Avon. In these final years of his life, he struggles to make peace with his retirement, his wife (Judi Dench) and daughters (Kathryn Wilder and Tanya Reynolds), as well as the loss of his only son, Hamnet. It is within this retreat that old faces, of both friends and foes, present themselves and that he must learn how to deal with the ghosts from his past.
Now, it may be somewhat misleading to pronounce All is True as a biopic since so much of this film takes place in an imagined history, similar to that of BBC’s Shakespearean sitcom Upstart Crow, both which share a screenwriter in Ben Elton. On the whole, Elton once again finds a balance between appealing to the die-hard and casual Shakespeare fan, as well as to those who had never encountered the writer. Unlike its TV predecessor, however, Elton’s take on the Bard’s tale with Branagh is notably more severe. Though humour isn’t totally lacking - in fact a good number of lines manage to rouse a laugh - the comedic moments are too few and far between, leaving the film grave. This sombre tone is reflected in its subdued colouring, with warm hues and soft lighting, that both complement and contrast the static camera shots that sit still for whole scenes. You could say it’s like watching players on a stage.
Simply put, it is theatrical. And it is exactly that which saves this film from being solely a Branagh-heavy production made for the sake of a Branagh’s own life-long love of Shakespeare; that and the fantastic performances given by such an all-star cast. The melodramatic use of slow-motion, silhouettes, and unusual low-angled shots all add up to create something fitting for the stage itself. Despite the heavy-handedness of the script at times - at one point, when Shakespeare is asked why he came back to his hometown he replies “I’ve lived so long in imaginary worlds I think I’ve lost sight of what is real” - there is a poeticism to it that may not be totally believable but that is fitting for a tale about the Bard himself. It’s in this way that Branagh and Elton find a middle ground between having the cast speak in a highly-stylised Shakespearean way and somewhat modernising them, making the characters so accessible for every audience.
Branagh, hidden under a protruding fake nose and tight hair piece that cease being distracted at the 30 minute mark, as dependable in the role of Shakespeare as we might expect; actor and character blur into one as this quiet film plays out. Dench too shines in the role of Anne Hathaway, stealing every scene she’s in, despite her rather peculiar casting (Anne was 8 years older than William, while Dench is 26 years Branagh’s senior). These two true Shakespearean actors are supported by an equally confident cast, Wilder in particular giving a moving performance as the troubled and feisty Judith.
All is True, with it’s quiet production and promotion, is evidently a passion project of Branagh, Elton, and Dench. In spite of its melodramatic, exaggerated nature, this film is notably simple in scale and all the better for it. It is a thoroughly British, thoroughly quaint ode to one of the greatest writers who ever lived.