All Is True
- Demetrios Matheou
- 4 February 2019
Kenneth Branagh directs and stars in a turgid take on Shakespeare's final years
The enduring paradox of William Shakespeare is that a man who wrote so much about the human condition remains an almost complete mystery himself, which is why Kenneth Branagh's imagining of Shakespeare's last years is, on paper, so inviting.
It's 1613. The Globe theatre has just burned down during the performance of Shakespeare's final play, Henry VIII (whose alternate title was All Is True). At a loss, the playwright returns to his home in Stratford and a family who have barely seen him since his London success. He's hardly welcomed with open arms. Wife Anne (Judi Dench) insists he take the best bed, since 'to us you're a guest'. His younger daughter resents his continued obsession with long-dead son Hamnet, and his eldest has problems of her own, not least a puritan husband desperate to get his hands on Shakespeare's money. No wonder the writer decides to do a spot of gardening.
Unfortunately, these family issues take up most of a rather turgid film. Branagh, a renowned Shakespearean actor and director, and scriptwriter Ben Elton reasonably want to find the man behind the myth, but in so doing they've lost sight of the genius. And that hurts. Branagh's weedy-voiced and earnest depiction of a man beset by social insecurity and guilt removes all sense of the acute intelligence and empathy required to have written the plays. It doesn't help that his prosthetic make-up leaves him looking uncannily like Ben Kingsley, who certainly would have offered a more rounded portrayal.
Both Branagh and the film spark to life, briefly, with the appearance of Ian McKellen as the Earl of Southampton – widely believed to be a chief object of desire in the writer's sonnets. McKellen presents a man whose vanity welcomes being immortalised in verse, but with no intention of reciprocating the actual love; it's a rich, potent, nay Shakespearean performance that highlights what the rest of the film sorely lacks.
General release from Fri 8 Feb.