Kenneth Branagh has been a William Shakespeare buff since he was a teen. His new film, ALL IS TRUE, is a picture of Shakespeare's last three years before he died at home in Stratford-upon-Avon on his 52nd birthday, April 23, 1616. Shakespeare had returned to his homestead, the second largest in Stratford, after the unfortunate fire that destroyed the Globe Theatre in London in 1613, during the debut performance of his last play, "All is True" ("Life of Henry VIII").
William Shakespeare (Branagh) has spent most of the past 20 years away from Stratford-upon-Avon. Writing and producing 37 plays, plus a multitude of sonnets, has kept him busy in London. Thus, when he returns home, his wife, Anne (Judi Dench), and two daughters, Judith (Kathryn Wilder) and Susanna (Lydia Wilson), are not exactly thrilled to have him around.
Shakespeare has always been haunted by the death of his son, Hamnet (Sam Elllis), who was only 11 years old at the time. Hamnet was also Judith's twin, and for the past 10 years she has suffered from survivor's guilt. She has never married and resents her father greatly for what she perceives as his greater love for Hamnet over her.
Neither Anne nor Judith are literate. Only Susanna, who is married to John Hall (Hadley Fraser), a Puritan who lobbies to close all the theatres (the irony is astounding), can read and write. This is a source of irritation, especially for Anne, as it has come to her attention that her husband has composed many sonnets inspired by the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen) --- and so obviously not by her.
And when the famous earl stops in one afternoon for a visit, Anne, Judith, Susanna and John must remain outside the family home until the gentleman departs. It's a graphic reminder of a woman's place in society in the 1600s, though for many, it hasn't changed all that much today.
Shakespeare and Anne slowly manage to repair their relationship. And he finally learns the truth regarding Hamnet's untimely death. ALL IS TRUE is a satisfying speculation of Shakespeare's last three years. Branagh and his good friend, writer/comedian Ben Elton, have worked together beautifully to bring Elton's often-amusing screenplay to life.
And Branagh's cast of his Shakespearean contemporaries, especially Dench and McKellen, add such important depth to these characters. Anne was 26 when she married 18-year-old William because she was pregnant, and Dench allows herself to adapt and embrace that age difference. She looks considerably older than her husband, but as the movie progresses, it becomes less notable due to Dench's remarkable portrayal. Anne, who was not happy with her husband's presence, has grown to accept and love him.
Branagh is a treasure. He's so convincing as Shakespeare, especially due to his marvelous make-up courtesy of Vanessa White and Neill Gorton, and particularly brilliant in his scene with McKellen. Shakespeare is clearly smitten with the earl, but his admiration is rebuffed and Branagh's handling of the rejection shows neither humiliation nor pain. Though disappointed, he takes it in stride.
All of this is a testament to Branagh's abilities as a director. He has a definite vision for his films and his past collaborators, cinematographer Zac Nicholson and composer Patrick Doyle, who has done 15 films with Branagh, have served him well again. Most of ALL IS TRUE was filmed either inside or near Dorney Court, a 15th Century Tudor Manor House in Buckinghamshire, near Windsor Castle surrounded by the luscious English countryside. The lighting of ALL IS TRUE is exquisite, with Branagh and Nicholson utilizing candlelight to create chiaroscuro effects. The beauty of it all is matched by Doyle's sumptuous soundtrack.
ALL IS TRUE will certainly not appeal to the masses, but for me it is a true delight. Shakespeare and his works have always held a fascination for me, and consequently I am enthralled with Branagh's interpretations. It's a gorgeous movie to experience.
Opinion: See It Now!
Kenneth Branagh is noted for the many Shakespearean works he has brought to the silver screen --- six to be exact. Now --- in ALL IS TRUE --- Branagh gets to play the bard. And he truly doth bring William Shakespeare to life.
Branagh's film, which also stars Judi Dench as his wife, Anne, begins with a note that Shakespeare's play "Life of Henry VIII", opened and closed on the same night at London's Globe Theatre. A prop cannon malfunctioned which started a fire that destroyed the venue. So he returns to his home at Stratford-upon-Avon to a family he barely saw over the past 20 years. And William Shakespeare never penned another play.
So this is where we meet Shakespeare --- in the year 1613. He is visiting a cemetery where he gazes at the headstone of his deceased son, Hamnet, who perished in 1596 at the age of eleven. The film goes on to portray a distraught Shakespeare mourning the death of his son. We learn he feels guilty because he could not make it back to England for Hamnet's funeral.
ALL IS TRUE is all about family --- the good, the bad and the scandalous. Hamnet is survived not only by his parents but two sisters, Susanna (Lydia Wilson) and Hamnet's twin named Judith (Kathryn Wilder). Along with Anne, they resent Shakespeare for his extended absence and other reasons.
ALL IS TRUE focuses on the circumstances of Hamnet's death leading to guilt, a cover-up and lies. When certain truths are revealed, they are gut-wrenching for the family as well as the viewing audience.
The 17th century, of course, placed a higher value on sons than daughters. Boys were expected to do great things while girls were expected to marry, have children and be obedient to their husbands.
ALL IS TRUE examines how Will viewed this dynamic. Some of the story is speculative about Shakespeare's reaction to real events in the last three years of his life. As screenwriter Ben Elton puts it, "It's fiction based on truth".
When Shakespeare learns the truth about Hamnet, he is almost inconsolable. But he eventually and publicly announces his pride for his "two beautiful daughters". Meanwhile, his wife was 26 when they married, and she could neither read nor even write her name. This becomes important later in the film.
All the performances are impeccable, and the movie is beautifully photographed by cinematographer Zac Nicholson. Under Branagh's direction, we see many long shots where ordinarily a close-up would be called for. For example, when he learns of Judith's pregnancy after her long-awaited marriage, the camera lens seems 100 yards away, and Shakespeare can be seen jumping for joy and embracing his family. Nary a single shot of their elation up close and personal. But seconds later, their joy is immediately muted by an unexpected announcement which continues the unusual but effective camera strategy by the filmmakers.
Frequent Branagh collaborator, composer Patrick Doyle, a two-time Oscar nominee, provides a wonderful score for ALL IS TRUE. And Oscar winner Michael O'Connor designs the movie's authentic period costumes.
The film's title stems from Shakespeare's alternate title for his play mentioned earlier, "Life of Henry VIII". But the title is certainly apropos to what we are watching. Many scenes are memorable, none more so than Shakespeare and his friend and fellow playwright Ben Jonson (Gerard Horan) discussing Shakespeare's own self doubts. At one point, Ben exclaims that Shakespeare was able to come home to the bosom of his family, and that he composed a body of plays unlike any to that point, and any in the future.
ALL IS TRUE is full of surprises, almost all involving the son's death. The movie neatly resolves our questions about Shakespeare's death, Anne's death, and the grandsons he never knew. ALL IS TRUE is a really fascinating look at perhaps the greatest author the world has ever known.
Opinion: See It Now!