“All Is True” Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, 101 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released December 21, 2018:
The noted British actor and director Sir Kenneth Branagh and his ego are front-and-center in the new “All Is True,” a speculative dramatic account of the final years of William Shakespeare, western literature’s greatest dramatist and poet.
Since first bursting onto the cinematic scene in 1989 with his innovative version of “Henry V,” Kenneth Branagh has enjoyed a reputation as one of Shakespeare’s most perceptive modern interpreters. But while it’s been established again and again in the centuries since his death that Shakespeare was the ultimate people’s poet, with works that can be appreciated by virtually anyone, Kenneth Branagh is decidedly an acquired taste.
In “All Is True,” after London’s famed Globe Theatre burns to the ground in 1613 during a performance of the playwright’s “Henry VIII,” a troubled and self-absorbed Shakespeare returns to his home in distant Stratford-on-Avon to reunite with the wife he left behind--Anne Hathaway, an older, illiterate housewife nurturing resentment for her own unfulfilled life.
The Bard must also confront his conflicted feelings about his two grown daughters, one a bitter cynic on the verge of spinsterhood and the other a humorless victim of maternity, enduring a sort of living death as the wife of a repressed and repressive country vicar.
Tormented by notions of insecurity and failure despite his literary successes, the aging Shakespeare desires little more than to conclude his final years in peace, tending his garden and cultivating memories of his late son and presumed literary heir, who was swept away at age eleven during the Black Plague epidemic of 1597...or was he?
A modern biographical picture turns on an actor’s resemblance to his subject. Branagh has the audacity to open his film with the iconic image of the Chandos portrait, a challenge to the audience that we’re going to see this legendary man come to life. Sadly, when Branagh-as-Shakespeare is dramatically revealed, it’s something of a letdown, a masterpiece of prosthetics as persuasive as someone wearing a mask and a placard reading “Shakespeare.”
It’s not that the makeup’s not realistic--it’s more that Sir Kenneth from some angles more resembles Ben Kingsley as Silas Marner and from others suggests Jose Ferrer as Cyrano de Bergerac. Moreover, Branagh never lets us inside the Bard’s heart and soul. Although author and playwright Ben Elton invests his screenplay with beautiful language and clever dialogue, Branagh gives the words life but never spirit.
In Elton’s telling, Shakespeare is haunted by feelings of inadequacy. The scion of scoundrels, the playwright has been feted by nobles and royals but never accepted among them. And although he’s achieved unprecedented success as England’s greatest poet and dramatist, he’s earned only the scorn and ridicule of his contemporaries Marlowe and Jonson. In Branagh’s reading, we can hear Shakespeare’s voice...but never feel his pain.
Despite all the flowery words and witty dialogue, “All Is True” ultimately becomes Shakespeare Lite, a Cliff Notes version of the Bard’s Life, a sort of “The Lion in Winter of Our Discontent.” The movie catches fire only once, as Branagh’s Shakespeare quotes the text of his famous Sonnet 29 to the once and future object of his affection, the Earl of Southampton, played in a delicious one-scene cameo appearance by the superb Sir Ian McKellan.
Branagh’s Bard recites the sonnet’s lines with all the rat-a-tat affectation of a sophomore drama student showing off for the headmaster. When Sir Kenneth finishes, McKellan’s Southampton, with a wistful half-smile and a twinkle of amusement in his creased and aged eyes, parrots the lines back with all the beauty, kindness, and warmth of the words’ true meaning. It’s like watching an advanced graduate course in Shakespeare Interpretation, and McKellan unsurprisingly earns an A-plus. Unfortunately, Sir Kenneth Branagh, and “All Is True,” finish the class with a B-minus.
“All Is True” was released in Santa Monica, California on December 21 of last year in order to qualify for Academy Award consideration, but earned no nominations. Beautifully filmed by cinematographer Zac Nicholson in England’s Dorney Court, Buckinghamshire, the picture was completed as an independent picture and acquired for distribution by Sony Pictures Classics after production finished.
“All Is True” is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, suggestive material, and language concerns.