The year is 1613. The Globe Theatre, the embodiment of Shakespeare’s life work, has just burned to the ground, and the heartbroken writer has abandoned his work altogether, returning to his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon. Just prior to this, Shakespeare conducted a performance of his final play, ‘The Life of Henry VIII,’ alternatively advertised under the title ‘All is True.’ From the beginning it appears that All is True will attempt to explore the truth behind the literary giant at this point in time.
It’s a promising set-up, but I’m sad to say that I found All is True dreary. I really enjoy Shakespeare but this film just didn’t do his legacy justice. I understand the idea of a more true-to-life representation of one of the most idolized figures in English literature, but I found myself disliking each of the characters by the end. Does the film try to prove that the reported events of Shakespeare’s life were true? Or does it seek to reinvent his retirement years, projecting anxieties of the modern day onto a historical figure to make him more relevant? I couldn’t say – the objective didn’t seem very clear, diluted in overly self-conscious storytelling.
All is True
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Release Date: 13 May 2019 (US
It can’t have escaped notice that we’ve had a deluge of literary biopics in recent years, from Saving Mr Banks to Goodbye Christopher Robin. Some would argue that no film is true anyway, as biopics are an edited form of reality – and it goes without saying that there is nowhere near enough factual evidence surrounding Shakespeare and his life in order to make a true biopic. His life has been widely speculated about, widely parodied — from Robert Mitchell’s excellent TV satire Upstart Crow to John Madden’s 1998 Shakespeare in Love, it’s been reinvented creatively over the years. With director Kenneth Branagh, we find an altogether slower recollection examining Shakespeare in his twilight years, facing very 21st-century ideas of retirement, married life and the ennui that follows a lifetime of tragic circumstances and creative genius.
I just found the faux-modest Shakespeare indigestible. Here he is, stating ‘my genius bought this house’ — but he labors, excruciatingly, the fact that it’s not enough to compensate for the tragic loss of his young son Hamnet. The film sets up a fraught home life, owing to divisive religion, politics and bereavement – the latter affecting his wife, the under-used Judi Dench, and his embittered daughter, Judith Shakespeare (Kathryn Wilder), to a degree that it’s uncomfortable to watch. Shakespeare feels a lack of closure and the entire film is spent brooding on this and attempting to revisit the past to patch it up again.
The socio-political climate of 17th century England is steeped in strict Puritan law, the conflict between this strict regime and the more liberal artistic world embodied through Shakespeare’s daughter Susannah (Lydia Wilson) and her marriage to a staunch Puritan. However, a lot is left to the imagination and a quick Google of the events of 1613-16 might fill you in a little better than the film does. And there’s so much clunky exposition within All is True that it unfolded like a stage play. I’ve never really felt the two platforms gelled especially well since they’re different media. With such painstakingly precise framing — characters would be static, sat at different angles in a room yet talking to each other in deep focus — it felt like a kitchen sink drama. Characters hardly had the time or space to breathe or develop. Apart from intermittent aerial landscape shots of rural Stratford, which I enjoyed, the film rarely felt cinematic and would have been better suited behind a proscenium arch than a camera.
There are some visual cues that wink at Shakespearean fans: for example, a character wears yellow garters with green bows, those which Malvolio detested in Twelfth Night. But apart from these, there’s little to really enjoy about this film, even for fans. I was unsure about the tone, which oscillated between poignant and funny to downright sad. Whether or not the jokes land will be largely dependent on your sense of humor. As a dramedy it doesn’t really work, trying to over-complicate the filming process, resulting in a fake-deep, inconsistent story.
There are clear feminist themes running throughout the picture, which somewhat redeem it. His wife Anne is unhappy about his long absence and the fact that he published sonnets about men and women behind her back: “All those years, you were worried about your reputation, but you never considered mine.” Additionally, both of Shakespeare’s adult daughters, Susannah and Judith, are involved in scandals, emerging with varying degrees of success, depending on their (and their husbands’) worldviews. The film tries to reframe marriage as an advantageous arrangement rather than a prison, hence the two contrasting models of marriage, but ultimately the daughters’ fates were false leads with no promise of a future.
Meanwhile, Shakespeare keeps having flashbacks about his son, which is a somewhat clunky framing device meant to replicate the ghost of Hamlet’s father, Fortinbras, at Elsinore Castle. Real Shakespearean lines are used to bring the film to a close: ‘our little life is rounded with a sleep.’ But wasn’t nearly as polished as one might expect from a Thespian like Branagh. Dialogue was far too exposition-heavy, an entire scene takes place between Shakespeare and Ian McKellen’s Earl of Southampton almost for no reason whatsoever, and the link between Hamnet/Hamlet is clear, but in my view it’s not enough to fortify an entire film.
I have to admit I was skeptical when it came to a Kenneth Branagh production. He’s not an amateur, but when it comes to feature films, I find he tends to overdo the egotistical element. Somehow, his Murder on the Orient Express became about him trying to become an introspective Poirot, and when I found that he’d cast himself yet again in the lead role, I couldn’t help but feel a little despondent. I was also surprised that, here in the UK, I’d seen little to no publicity for the feature despite the fact that it’s released within a week of the US date. Whether that means it’s exclusively screening in arthouse circles or whether it’s simply not making headlines in a busy cinematic calendar, will be at the discretion of distributors.
As we’re informed via title card, Shakespeare died April 1616 in Stratford, on his birthday. He had no male heirs that survived, so his line ended with his granddaughter — yet after the ordeal that this film proved to be, I was almost glad that that was the case, as there were implications that Shakespeare was far too sexist to deserve a lineage anyway (which sounds terrible, but it seems to be true.) Branagh’s message was to emphasize Shakespeare’s life in a more truthful way, if possible. Yet the film was overly sentimental, full of holes, jumping from one thing to another. The purpose was commendable, but in the end, poorly executed, leaving a bad taste in the mouth for fans who might have wanted to see more of his work.