With summer almost here, regional Shakespeare festivals—including ours—are ramping up for their summer seasons. What better time to launch a movie about Shakespeare himself reflecting on art, love, family, and reputation at the end of his life? That movie would be All Is True. The sardonic title refers to the act of adapting historical fact into fiction (we’re told it was the original title of the playwright’s Henry VIII), as well as to the little equivocations and outright falsehoods we cling to in the act of getting through our daily lives.
Written by Ben Elton (longtime scriptwriter on the Black Adder TV series), All Is True is produced and directed by Kenneth Branagh, who also stars as Will Shakespeare. These guys know their Bard, and they’ve come up with a wonderful homage—witty, atmospheric, at times heartbreaking—to both the towering genius of myth and the oh-so-fallible man within, sorting through the choices he’s made along the way and trying to separate fact from fiction in the story of his own life.
When his Globe Theatre burns down in London, Will Shakespeare (Branagh) returns to Stratford-on-Avon, and the family he’s scarcely seen in 20 years. His homecoming is not exactly triumphant. Obedient but long-neglected wife Anne (Judi Dench) puts him in the guest bedroom. Lively daughter Susannah (Lydia Wilson) is happy to see him, but unhappily wed to a theatre-hating Puritan.
Touchier still is Will’s relationship to his spinster daughter, Judith (Kathryn Wilder), twin sister to the couple’s only son, Hamnet, who died years earlier at the age of 11. Declaring himself retired from playwriting, Will busies himself building a small garden to Hamnet’s memory. The caustic undertone of Judith’s remarks to her father soon enough erupt into abject bitterness, as she accuses her father of wishing she had been the twin who died and his son the one who survived.
The themes are a bit darker than you might expect from the lighthearted trailer, although the story is handled with plenty of dry humor. And there are moments when Branagh, the actor, can’t resist a little scenery-chewing, as some of Will’s most cherished illusions about his life and family are sacrificed on the altar of reality. But the mood (both visual and psychological) is impressive—the interiors were shot by actual candlelight—and the human dilemma touches the heart.
Then into the midst of it all rides dear old Ian McKellan as the visiting Earl of Southampton, patron of Will’s theatre company (and reputed to have once been the object of the poet’s romantic sonnets). After deflating an obsequious local official with a few choice remarks, he settles down to a private fireside chat with Will, where they discuss past glories and future legacies. (When Will frets over his tarnished reputation, Southampton scoffs, “What do you care what they think? You wrote King Lear!”)
The Earl gently but firmly declares that his lifelong devotion to Shakespeare has always been to the poet, more than the man—but not before both Branagh and McKellan have a go at the “Fortune and men’s’ eyes” sonnet, their delivery of the lines completely different from each other, and yet equally captivating and powerful. It’s a reminder of how Shakespeare’s elegant words remain so endlessly open to interpretation, and also an act of extreme generosity from director Branagh to shoot in close-up of McKellan’s expressive face throughout; the all-terrain roadmap of McKellan’s eyes, the tart and wistful working of his mouth. If they gave Judi Dench an Oscar for 10 minutes of screen time in Shakespeare In Love, McKellan deserves at least knighthood for this one delicious scene. Wait, he’s already a knight. Maybe sainthood?
Fittingly, the coda is left to Shakespeare’s elegiac words from his last play, The Tempest: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded by a sleep.” And that’s the truth.
ALL IS TRUE
***1/2 (out of four)
With Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench and Ian McKellan. Written by Ben Elton. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. A Sony Classics release. Rated PG-13. 101 minutes.