Kenneth Branagh has directed many films in which he has also starred, and a lot of them are based on the works of William Shakespeare, including Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Hamlet (1996), and Macbeth (2013). Given his obvious preoccupation with the Bard’s work, it seems fitting that for his latest feature he is both directing and taking on the role of Shakespeare.
All Is True tells a tale of the poet’s return to Stratford-upon-Avon after the Globe Theatre burned to the ground in 1613. Shakespeare has spent most of his married life in London and returns home to find his wife Anne (Judi Dench) distant and his daughter Judith (Kathryn Wilder) unhappy and unwed. He also finally takes the time to mourn the death of his son Hamnet (Sam Ellis), who died many years before.
Early in the film, after protecting his other daughter Susannah (Lydia Wilson) with a lie, Shakespeare says “I’ve never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Sure, that quote is attributed to Mark Twain, but that seems to be part of the wink, wink, nudge, nudge that Branagh and writer Ben Elton are throwing the audience’s way. Very little is actually known about Shakespeare’s life—what little we do know is based on his work, and church and court records—and the writer and director clearly took some liberties when filling in the very large gaps.
Elton’s many writing credits include collaborating on the script for Love Never Dies—the sequel to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, which was, to put it mildly, a little over the top and melodramatic. There are moments of that in All Is True, but ultimately the charm of Branagh and Elton’s four-centuries-after-the-fact fanboy love letter prevails.
Even as they construct a plot designed to question the integrity of the man, Elton and Branagh give England’s most famous wordsmith moments where his wit and way with words allow him to thwart or befuddle his enemies.
The scene between Shakespeare and Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen)—while totally fabricated, and based on mere speculation that Wriothesley was the “Fair Youth” of Shakespeare’s sonnets—is funny, sweet and heartbreaking. Branagh and McKellen each give their own performance of “Sonnet 29” during the exchange and it’s delightful to see the two actors, both well versed in the Bard’s work, deliver two entirely different readings.
One of the final shots of that scene also beautifully illustrates the inspiration that production designer James Merifield and set decorator Hannah Spice clearly took from 17th century still life paintings. Zac Nicholson’s cinematography and lighting choices reinforce this, as scenes set around tables laden with various foodstuffs evoke the paintings with their dim lighting. The costumes, designed by Michael O’Connor, also do a good job of invoking the portraiture of the time, and Branagh’s costume and makeup specifically bring to mind the Chandos portrait of Shakespeare. If the film doesn’t at least get an Oscar nod for production design, it will be a shame.
It may not be perfect, but All Is True was clearly made with a lot of love and attention to detail that makes it worth giving a watch.
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