As he burst onto the directorial scene in the late 1980s with Henry V, Kenneth Branagh became heir apparent to Laurence Olivier as director and star of William Shakespeare film adaptations. He brought a different persona and focus than prior versions of the British playwright’s work, delivering critically acclaimed films that understood their source material. Adaptations of Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, Love’s Labour Lost, and As You Like It further cemented Branagh as the chief Shakespearean interpreter for modern directors. Though his career focus has shifted in recent years, Branagh’s love of Shakespeare has certainly not dissipated. After a long hiatus, he is back, this time playing the man himself. Using some historical facts (from before 1613) but largely inferring what Shakespeare did in the years following his retirement in 1613, All is True is an engaging, dramatic, and witty film.
Considering the career he built off Shakespeare’s words, it should come as no surprise that Branagh’s love of the man shines through in this film. While not necessarily a biographical film – as Shakespeare would have liked, it “never lets facts get in the way of a good story” – All is True is a rumination on his presumed life. Aiming to rectify some of the trauma in his life, examine his relationship with his family and the theater, and establish his persona off-the-page, All is True proves quite impressive. It paints the picture of a man who is both content and torn apart. He is satisfied with leaving his career, but returning home brings emotions over the death of his son Hamnet. As one can imagine, the pain is immense and dominates much of All is True as Shakespeare traverses the area in which Hamnet lived, trying to understand what killed him, and rectify his imagined image of his son with the reality.
While the relation of Hamnet’s death and Shakespeare’s work has long been a point of scholarly contention, Branagh’s suppositions lead to consistently affecting results. The monologue he delivers towards the end over Hamnet’s presence within all of his work is an incredibly moving moment. However, the drama finds him not just confronting ghosts but facing the issues right in front of him. His wife Anne (Judi Dench) treats him as a guest and his daughter Judith (Kathryn Wilder) knows William’s affinity for her twin brother and consequently feels inferior in his presence. The fact her sister Susanna (Lydia Wilson) is a more traditionally successful woman – married with a child, though she has her share of scandal – hardly helps. His old friend the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen) even shows up for an emotional encounter- one of the finest in the film- that pours over the hidden subtext of some of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Kathryn Wilder is excellent in the role of Judith Shakespeare. She taps into the repressed emotion of Judith, hitting right at the hurt within her heart, and the joy at being accepted by her father feels so authentic. Judith’s pained confessions over what causes her guilt is wonderfully delivered by Wilder, allowing all of those hidden feelings to pour out. Wilder’s performance is crucial in establishing the character of Judith as the film’s writing doesn’t do much in the way of characterizing her. She feels like a narrative afterthought, existing as a vessel for William to examine his pain over Hamnet. Framing Shakespeare’s life around needing to complete Hamnet’s story (by understanding his death) also robs the living daughters of any attention, emphasizing their dead brother’s life over their own. Just as Shakespeare is shown neglecting them in favor of mourning Hamnet, All is True is ultimately guilty of the same.
A great deal of these flaws stem, in part, from the rapid opening. For the first act and the early part of the second, All is True flips through a wealth of information. It tries to establish many key elements of Shakespeare’s life and the dramatic entanglements that will be crucial in the film. As a result, it feels cluttered, and sets the film off to a rushed start. It settles from there, but does have some awkward moments. All is True is an incredibly witty film when it is naturally introduced with Branagh’s aforementioned strong comedic delivery and timing benefitting the film. However, the inclusion of random scenes of passersby speaking to Shakespeare or random but prolonged encounters with unintroduced characters, seem to exist only to show that wit. It is still funny, but feels out-of-place and never fits in cohesively with the rest of the film.
Visually, All is True is impressive, generally due to the work of DP Zac Nicholson. The opening aerial shots and long shots capture a painting-like style, utilizing natural lighting in such a magical way that it serves as the perfect encapsulation of the setting and era. One feels as though they are diving into a forgotten painting of Shakespeare’s post-1613 existence, stepping into an idyllic countryside locale that washes its relaxed demeanor over the audience. Yet, Nicholson counters this calm with the tension inside the home. Evocative close-ups of Branagh, McKellen, Judi Dench, and Wilder in intense moments allow the physical acting skills of all to shine through. This tight framing counters the freedom and space of the exterior scenes quite well, underscoring the thematic focus on the frayed edges of the Shakespeare family and William himself.
All is True is not a perfect film, but it is a compelling look at what Kenneth Branagh and Ben Elton imagine Shakespeare’s life to be after 1613. It is an affecting examination of a man who comes home, has to mend relationships after years away, and start all over again. Blending this universal story with Shakespeare’s known life, All is True can be a very dramatic and powerful work. The added wit and the strength of the performances – Kathryn Wilder, Kenneth Branagh, and Ian McKellen especially stand out – ensure that All is True is a successful film, wherever its truth may lie.