In 1613, the Globe Theater in London, home of the plays of William Shakespeare, burned down. Following that, Shakespeare returned home to his wife and two daughters and never wrote another play. He died in 1616. What his life was like for those three years is largely unknown. It has been imagined in the drama All is True, directed by and starring frequent Shakespeare adapter Kenneth Branagh. Despite its non-traditional timeframe, this is a traditional biopic, swimming in the clichés common to the genre. It is a beautifully mounted production, with good acting and pretty scenery, but adds nothing insightful to its subject. I enjoyed it for stretches even if, ultimately, it is kind of thin.
Shakespeare comes home in self-imposed retirement to spend time with his family and tend to a garden. However, his main activity is finally mourning the loss of his son, who passed away seventeen years earlier. Reconnecting with his wife, Anne, who barely feels she knows him anymore, his unhappily married daughter, Susannah, and his younger, angrier, daughter, Judith, opens up a lot of old wounds.
Branagh’s interpretation of Shakespeare is similar to other speculative fiction about great artists. His work is beloved, but he feels small, haunted by the death of his son and controlled by the traditions and values of the snobby elites in his community. He is the tortured genius. No new ground is broken here. Branagh portrays him just like he sounds: as a man atoning for a sin he does not understand. Many of his scenes with his family members come off as forced melodrama. He has a few moments where he recites his own work. Even while playing Shakespeare, Branagh once again shows his skill at performing Shakespeare. He is solid, he just has not given himself the most fascinating material.
Strangely, the other three main actors get much more interesting stuff to work with. While women were heavily repressed during this period, it is the women who have the most impact on the story. Anne is played by the great Judi Dench as someone who has been in control of her house (as well as her family) for so long that she is not going to be quick to welcome her husband back after all these years. Lydia Wilson is Susannah, who does not share her Puritan husband’s close-minded opinions, though she knows she is stuck with him. Judith, given substantial fire by Kathryn Wilder, is aware of what her place is meant to be, but is reluctant to fill it. She is unmarried and seems frozen since the death of her twin brother. All three of these women rebel against expectations in their own slight ways. They are the most compelling aspect of the movie. Branagh was wise to give their stories equal time.
All is True (98 minutes without the end credits) is pleasant to look at, has good performances and some effectively emotional scenes. For those intrigued by what Shakespeare could have been doing for his final years, it is worth a viewing. In the end, it is a lot for a little, yet I was mildly entertained and greatly admire the concept.
3 out of 5
Kenneth Branagh as William Shakespeare
Judi Dench as Anne Hathaway
Kathryn Wilder as Judith Shakespeare
Lydia Wilson as Susannah Shakespeare
Hadley Fraser as John Hall
Ian McKellen as Earl of Southampton
Jack Colgrave Hirst as Tom Quiney
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Written by Ben Elton