87. Kenneth Branagh’s All is True, 2018.
I have a fraught relationship with Kenneth Branagh’s cinematic Shakespeare work. As an actor, he perhaps has no equal, certainly among his own generation. As a director, his indiscriminate courting of Hollywood has led to so many embarrassments. He has made more Shakespeare films than Olivier, yet as a director he hasn’t lived up to his potential. Someone would need to be so intimidated by his acting not to see the flaws in his direction. His shortcomings anger me because of how much I love him in Henry Vand in Oliver Parker’s Othello, which are compelling, perfect films.
In his latest film adaptation of Shakespeare back in 2006, As You Like It, Branagh-as-director refrained from acting, and managed to render something wonderful from this comedy. There were some Hollywood actors in the cast, but they weren’t struggling to seem natural in Shakespeare’s world. For some reason, this film wasn’t marketed well, and it didn’t get the love it deserved.
In All is True, Branagh returns to acting and directing. Penning the script is Ben Elton, who played a minor role in Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing, a writer with credits for Black Adder.
All is True imagines William Shakespeare’s brief life after the Globe Theatre burned to the ground, which the film suggests led Shakespeare to retire from writing rather than rebuild his business venture to try to mount new plays. He retires to Stratford-Upon-Avon to try to put his house back in order, to cultivate his own garden.
In some ways, dear readers, this is how I feel reviewing Shakespeare films. I have perhaps experienced too much Shakespeare media. Oh, there’s a new Hamlet to watch? I’d rather watch cat videos on Youtube. The new Hamlet is amazing, you say? That will not affect my plans or desires. Let me know when there is a compelling Troilus and Cressida and then I can muster some excitement. Maybe.
But All is True is not an adaptation of a theatrical work. Imagine Shakespeare in Love, but in which Shakespeare is old rather than young, and with fewer metatextual games. In some ways, All is True could be seen as fan service for those who worship the bard. You will be rewarded if you thrill to a story that knows the details of Shakespeare’s life. You will be rewarded if you are a relative newcomer wanting more details about Shakespeare’s life. Since this was in part what my M.A. thesis was about, I am less enamored of this historical feature getting its facts right.
The core of this story imagines Shakespeare trying to put his house in order, trying to re-establish a family life, and struggling mightily at that. The running time is short, which makes a big difference. Ben Elton’s script shows real conflict between people whose hurts arise out of love and passion. This is a way to spend an hour and a half with Kenneth Branagh as Shakespeare himself.
The night scenes are especially evocative, as the lights from candles and fireplaces still leave most indoor spaces in the dark. In that negative space, confessions take on new meanings.
All is True tells a basic story exceedingly well. Watching Branagh, Judy Dench (as Anne Shakespeare), Ian McKellan (briefly, as the Earl of Southampton), and frankly the entire cast was a joy, a sorrowful joy as Shakespeare imagines how to live quietly, in harmony with a family he didn’t know he didn’t understand.
Branagh’s voice is such a delicious instrument.
All is True is a little sad, but it is precisely the way I want to spend time with Kenneth Branagh: charming, vulnerable, unforgettable.
John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.