Kenneth Branagh’s fascination with William Shakespeare began at the age of 16 when he hitchhiked on his own to Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of the great English poet and playwright. There, he visited all the Shakespearean birthplace sites and watched plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theater.
Throughout the years, the 58-year-old actor has devoted much of his life to interpreting the works of Shakespeare on the stage and screen.
He’s played Macbeth, Hamlet, King Henry V, Iago in “Othello,” Benedick in “Much Ado About Nothing,” and now, the five-time Oscar nominee finally gets to play The Bard in the new film “All Is True,” which is focused on the last three years of Shakespeare’s life.
The film gets its name from the alternative title of “Henry VIII,” written by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher around 1613. That was also the year that London’s Globe Theater burned to the ground after a stage cannon ignited the roof during one of the first performances of the play.
Devastated by the tragic event, Shakespeare returned home to Stratford-upon-Avon to spend his last few years with his estranged family while trying to reconcile his relationship with wife, Anne (Judi Dench), and daughters, Susannah (Lydia Wilson) and Judith (Kathryn Wilder).
Writer Ben Elton, a fellow Shakespeare aficionado who had a role in Branagh’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” does a wonderful job of filling in the blanks for this chapter of Shakespeare’s life that has been mostly neglected by filmmakers. There is enough factual data in the screenplay that Elton and Branagh’s interpretation of events seems highly plausible. And in a way, the duo is only mirroring what England’s greatest writer did for a living.
Before The Bard transferred his thoughts to blank verse, his stories began with the known facts about kings and queens. Elton, who’s also a comedian (“The Young Ones,” “Black Adder”), injects enough comedy and wit into the screenplay that the film never becomes bleak despite underlying themes involving the death of Shakespeare’s son 11-year-old, Hamnet, and the writer’s unwillingness to put quill to paper.
“All Is True” speculates about what Shakespeare, who is referred to in the film as “Will,” did with his time during retirement. We see him take up gardening, attend church, and mourn Hamnet’s death.
During his 20-year absence, Shakespeare served as an absentee father even missing his son’s funeral. The film questions the cause of Hamnet’s death as secrets are revealed.
Judi Dench is wonderful as Anne in a performance that showcases a resilient wife that managed to raise three children while supporting England’s greatest writer, even though she could not read or write. Can you imagine how hard that must have been for her? Imagine Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh, being blind or Constanze Mozart being deaf while married to Wolfgang.
Dench, who played Paulina in “The Winter’s Tale,” brings the same kind of fortitude to Anne as her character Paulina.
I also enjoyed the performance of Kathryn Wilder as the feisty Judith Shakespeare, the fraternal twin of Hamnet, who blamed herself for his death even though the official cause was the plague. Wilder steals the spotlight on more than one occasion with a mix of humor and frustration.
Branagh resembles The Brad, his appearance fashioned after one of Shakespeare’s famous portraits. It’s a graceful performance that highlights the man behind the myth. Here, he is not the great playwright speaking in iambic pentameter, he’s a father who sounds like most fathers in any century. When scandals arise, he supports his daughters and despite his absence, he’s portrayed as a loving husband.
The film also tackles his sexuality and feelings of affection for the Earl of Southampton played by Ian McKellen whose cameo serves as one of the film’s highlights.
To be or not to be, that is the question behind Kenneth Branagh’s gracious biopic.