By Liam Lacey
Thirty years ago, the 28-year-old Kenneth Branagh made his audacious film debut with an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V. Hailed as a new Laurence Olivier, he took on the role of bringing Shakespeare to another generation. Though he hasn’t always lived up to the initial hype, he’s had an impressively varied career including directing another four Shakespeare films as well as such blockbusters as Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and Thor. He has also starred on the acclaimed TV series Wallander and worked as actor-manager of his own theatre company.
Now, sporting a high hairline, pointy beard and prosthetic nose, Branagh plays the Bard himself in All Is True, an honorably middle-brow dramatization of the last years of Shakespeare’s life. The drama covers the period — after a spark from a stage canon set fire to the Globe Theatre and burned it down — when the playwright left London to return home to Stratford-on-Avon, where he died three years later in 1616, apparently on his 52nd birthday. The film’s title comes from an early title of the play Henry VIII, where the cannon went off. The movie might better titled “Pretty Much All Conjecture.”
Little is known about Shakespeare’s actual life, which means the incidents depicted here are based on a handful of legal documents, giving rise to speculations. The overall story focuses on Will’s attempts to recast himself as a family man after 20 years of rocking the London theatre world, and coming home to a thicket of unresolved domestic issues. Poor Will just wants to come home and weed his garden. “I’m through with stories,” he says. And “I've lived so long in the imaginary world that I've lost sight of what is real.”
What’s “real” means reconnecting with his estranged wife, Anne (Dame Judi Dench) — who is put out that her husband drops back home after all this time — and to reconcile with his two adult daughters, each of whom have their problems. The court records here come in handy: In 1613, Susanna Hall (Lydia Wilson), the wife of a prominent Puritan doctor, was involved in a successful anti-defamation lawsuit against a man who accused her of adultery. (The accusation was probably politically motivated, though All Is True has a somewhat spicier version.) The younger daughter, Judith, who we first meet living at home, is in a resentful funk. Before Shakespeare died, Judith married a roguish vintner named Thomas Quiney in 1616, and was immediately linked to a scandal of his making.
While these family messes are messily depressing, his deepest ache is for Hamnet, Judith’s twin brother, who died at the age of 11, some 17 years before. Now, the young Hamnet (Sam Ellis) revisits his father in ghostly form, demanding a resolution to his story. The device is intended as a sort of mirror image of Hamlet’s visit from his father’s ghost.
The notion of the tragedy of Hamlet as an expression of Shakespeare’s grief at the loss of his son is familiar, though weak on supporting evidence. Shakespeare’s anguish becomes a central theme to unravelling Judith’s anger at being the most talented but the second-most important twin. There’s an obvious echo here of Virginia Woolf’s feminist essay, A Room of One's Own, which speculated about the situation of a woman writer in Shakespeare’s time.
Along with the ghosts and grief and anger, there are lots of cutaways to golden autumnal vistas, or scenes in Rembrandt-lit interiors, which don’t quicken the pulse. Neither does the flat, anachronistic language of screenwriter Ben Elton (Upstar Crow, Blackadder). Contrast that with the rollicking depiction of Shakespeare in Love, and co-writer Tom Stoppard’s inspired silliness.
To some extent, the performances elevate the script. Branagh plays Shakespeare in down-to-earth terms; a genius, sure, but also a savvy impresario and a pragmatic poet who uses his capacious imagination to reel the crowd in. Branagh has also peopled the film with some of his own favourite actors (and members of his own theatre company) to enjoyable, if not entirely credible, effect.
We know that Shakespeare married an older woman (she was 26 to his 18). Still, Dench, at 83, is a generation older than the 58-year-old Branagh, though her quality of wounded affection feels entirely authentic. We also get a brief scene of one of Branagh’s mentors, the great Derek Jacobi, as a local preacher.
And the film’s richest scene: Shakespeare’s old patron, the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen, roguish in a plumed hat and blonde wig) who’s the man often identified as the “fair youth” and possible lover, arrives. The two men sit by the fire. Branagh gently recites Sonnet 29, the one that begins: “When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes …” A few beats later, McKellen recites it back, sending out words like soft firecrackers.
Lordy, these guys talk Shakespeare good. Though the encounter ends brusquely, those moments in their performances remind us why, in the end, listeners feel the need to know more about the long-ago stranger who spun those words together.
All Is True. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Written by Ben Elton. Starring Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, and Ian McKellen. Opens May 24 in Toronto (Varsity) and Vancouver; June 7 in Montreal, and throughout the summer in other cities.