All Is True – Film Review by Pat Viale
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Writer: Ben Elton
Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Lolita Chakrabarti, Jack Colgrave Hirst
The plays of William Shakespeare have formed the core of Kenneth Branagh’s repertoire throughout his career, both as actor and director. Since his highly acclaimed success in 1984 in the RSC’s Henry V, his passion for Shakespeare has seen him take on most of the major roles with great success. In 1987 he formed his own company, the Renaissance Theatre Company, which toured throughout the UK and had a sold-out season in the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin with memorable productions of Hamlet and Much Ado about Nothing.
Though Oscar nominated for two of the Shakespearean roles he brought to the big screen, Henry V and Hamlet, his latest film is not based on one of the plays but rather a biographical imagining of the last three years of the life of William Shakespeare. “All is True” begins in 1613 when Shakespeare left London to return to Stratford-upon-Avon and gives a fictional account of his life during those years until his death there in 1616. The film begins with a fire that completely destroyed Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London and which seemed also to drain him of all artistic inspiration, leading to the decision to return back home to his wife, Anne Hathaway, and his two daughters in Warwickshire.
If he is hoping for a calm rural retreat, however, he is quickly disabused of the notion. He comes home to a scenario that has all the drama of an Elizabethan episode of Eastenders: his married daughter is having an affair with the local cloth merchant, his younger unmarried daughter is pregnant, he is haunted by the ghost of his young dead son who seems to have died in mysterious circumstances and his homosexual former lover comes on a visit!
It is hard to know who exactly Branagh envisaged as his target audience with this film. For people not familiar with Shakespeare and his plays there is a lot referred to but not developed which would simply cause confusion and for aficionados of the Bard there is a lot that irritates. Principally, the register of language. Written by Ben Elton, who is also the writer of the excellent TV sitcom about Shakespeare’s life, “Upstart Crow”, the language here seems to veer from the Elizabethan English of the period to terms that sound distinctly 21st century. Characters are referred to as “a bit of a shit” or “an arse” and hearing Shakespeare’s daughter, Judith, refer to him as “dad” doesn’t add to a feeling of authenticity.
The 24 year age difference between the always excellent Judy Dench, as Anne Hathaway and Branagh as her husband, William Shakespeare, also stretches our credulity. While there is no doubt she steals the show in every scene, she does look more like his mother than his wife. Ian McKellan’s brief cameo as the Earl of Southampton is also one of the high points in a film, which, though visually stunning, finally feels flat and fails to engage the emotions.