With All Is True, Kenneth Branagh returns to the subject of his beloved Bard to capture him at his most vulnerable, only to offer a tired hagiography. What begins as a potentially interesting effort to cast the great William Shakespeare in a more humble light inevitably develops into an indulgent and glossy celebration of his brilliance, one that disregards the obvious trauma his life’s work and celebrity brought upon his family.
After fire destroys the Globe Theatre during a 1613 performance of ‘All is True’ (known today as ‘Henry VIII’) and, in turn, Shakespeare’s ability to write, he returns home to Stratford-upon-Avon to reconcile with his neglected household. During this part of the film Branagh takes care to depict Shakespeare as a man distinct from the giant of English literature that he was and still is – here he is the simple gardener, the churchgoer, the likeable family man.
Glimpses into Shakespeare’s domestic life unfold in a repetitive and unvaried manner, with scenes set either in idyllic, sun-drenched exteriors or interiors lit only by the faint glimmer of candlelight. Low angles and wide frames are employed haphazardly, with Branagh’s attempts at artistry often feeling forced and clumsy.
There is a strong focus on the death of the young Hamnet Shakespeare, the only son of the family, and his father’s subsequent rejection of the women around him. Through a combination of grief and his career obsession, Shakespeare Sr causes a great deal of pain to his wife Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench) and their daughters, though this is written off too easily and without a more thorough critique.
Any hint of criticism is swiftly eroded by the entrance of adoring fans, Ian McKellen as the 3rd Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley, and Gerard Horan as Ben Jonson, who visit the playwright to lavish praise upon him. “You wrote ‘King Lear’!” they remind him and us, as if we had forgotten. It would surely have been more rewarding to learn about Shakespeare’s relationship with Wriothesley, not to mention the suggestion of his queerness which the film leaves lingering.
We all know Shakespeare was brilliant, but it’s important to show that he was also human – flawed, lonely, selfish and unkind at times – without being encouraged to overlook those facts for the sake of a neat, cinematic ending. Instead, All Is True ends up feeling a little pompous and silly, yet another chance for Branagh and co to flex their well-worn iambic pentameter muscles and take some familiar verse out for a spin.