How do we honor an icon when so little truth is known about his life? If Kenneth Branagh’s earnest Shakespearean biopic is any guide, we would do best to stick with the Bard’s own works. Indeed, it’s hard to watch “All Is True” without noticing what’s missing most: the nimble wit and profound insight we’ve already seen in Branagh’s own Shakespearean adaptations.
One can certainly empathize with the director’s desire to dig more deeply, after 35 years of committing the Bard of Avon’s work to stage and screen so successfully. But in the end, this fictionalized biography primarily reminds us how rare its subject’s talents really were.
As depicted by screenwriter Ben Elton, Shakespeare (Branagh) comes home to Stratford in 1613, hoping for a quiet retirement. He has been devastated by a recent fire, which burned his beloved Globe Theatre to the ground. He is mourning the long-ago death of his young son, Hamnet. And he still carries a torch for a lover who clearly isn’t his sharp-tongued wife Anne (Dame Judi Dench).
Indeed, Anne is initially annoyed by her long-absent husband’s return, as are his daughters, quiet Susanna (Lydia Wilson, “Star Trek: Beyond”) and headstrong Judith (Kathryn Wilder, Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express”). Also put out is Susanna’s severe and Puritan husband (Hadley Fraser, “The Legend of Tarzan”), though Judith’s hard-partying fiancé (Jack Colgrave Hirst) seems pretty cool with the notion of a super-wealthy father-in-law.
Dench brings both gravitas and a light twinkle to the illiterate and elderly Anne, a woman who has not been treated kindly by history. Many have assumed that Shakespeare’s only bequest to her — his “second-best bed” — was an insult. But Elton and Dench deftly turn this notion around, drawing out the affection in what must have been, to say the least, a complex relationship.
Judith is also brought to new life in both Elton’s script and Wilder’s spirited performance. Though we know little about the actual Judith, Wilder (primarily a stage actor, like most of the supporting cast) plays her as a complex and brilliant woman undermined by a patriarchy her father implacably upholds. Most curiously, Susanna is portrayed as a meek wife bound to her cruel husband, though in reality she was her father’s favorite, and her epitaph described her as being “witty above her sex.” You may find yourself wishing for another story, in which we could learn something — anything — more interesting about her.
And you’ll definitely want to know more about Shakespeare’s beloved Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen). His presence amounts to little more than a cameo, but McKellen brings so much playful life to his scene that the film deflates considerably once he’s gone.
But why? Both Elton and Branagh have certainly found great depth and inspiration in Shakespeare before. Elton hasn’t just built his career on irreverence (“The Young Ones,” “Blackadder”), he’s written an entire British sitcom about Shakespeare, called “Upstart Crow.” Even a touch of that show’s lighthearted sauciness would have gone a long way in this effort. Indeed, given that Elton had so few definitive facts to work with, and therefore so much potential to imagine, it’s hard to understand why he chose such a dull and solemn route.
As for Branagh, it’s fair to say that there are few contemporary Shakespearean interpreters more experienced than he is; among his many adaptations are the buoyant and charming “Much Ado About Nothing” and the Oscar-nominated “Henry V” and “Hamlet.”
But now, as both director and star, the enormity of his subject seems more burden than inspiration. Although it’s appropriate to bring some weight to the final years of a great man’s life, there is simply too much of it here: the sets, the cinematography, the costumes all feel heavy, even when the characters release themselves from darkness. It’s hard to say whether Branagh is concerned about getting things wrong, or of being disrespectful. But he never finds the freedom he’s unlocked so often in Shakespeare’s own works. His ambition is honorable, but without substance, it becomes merely the shadow of a dream.