All Is True (2 stars)

All Is True

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.

All is True

  • 2 stars
  • 2019
  • UK
  • 1h 41min
  • Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
  • Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Lolita Chakrabarti, Jack Colgrave Hirst
  • UK release: 8 February 2019

William Shakespeare (Branagh) comes back to Stratford to find his family estranged from him. Branagh and screenwriter Elton search for the man behind the myth, but lose sight of the genius; there’s no sense of the writer’s intelligence or empathy and only McKellen as the Earl of Southampton brings any life to the…

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1. Jamesjoyceulysses Transposedtohongkong8 Feb 2019, 9:25pm Report

A beautifully crafted tribute to the genius of the great Bard. It calls to mind Stephen Faber’s contemplation of the poet’s brilliance as he ponders how to teach the plays to an unruly bunch of low-achieving Hong Kong teenagers. (‘Odysseus’ by Alun Wessler, Chapter Four.)

'He remembered being introduced to Julius Caesar in his first year at grammar school in Birmingham. He and his friends found the text barely intelligible, and he remembered sniggering with them at the 'naughty nave's and 'saucy fellow's, as if the play was a big irrelevant joke. Even by the admission of his own A-level teacher, the comedies weren't funny. In sixth form he hadn't really seen the point of Cymbeline, and he just saw it as another hurdle on the way to university. As he matured, he realised than an appreciation and understanding of Shakespeare requires experience and understanding of life. Before his mid twenties he had never even witnessed, let alone personally experienced crafty conmanship, unscrupulous ambition or the urge to self destruct. Strangely he encountered them all in his first two jobs in a Birmingham tax office and a council education department, and only then could Stephen be amazed by Shakespeare's portrayal of these human motivations in the plays he went to see in his spare time. How on earth did the thirty-something Bard acquire such intimate knowledge of all of these ruling passions in the narrow sixteenth century world that he inhabited? How could he comprehend the yearnings of star-crossed lovers, the scheming of a manipulative wife behind the throne or the paranoid plotting of a despot? Faber still remembered the night he finally appreciated the towering genius of the man. He sat listening spellbound as a brilliant young actor performed Richard III's soliloquies at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, bringing out all the meaning and the nuances, and it occurred to him that Shakespeare had some kind of divine omniscience. He could see into the souls of the loftiest and basest characters in history and bring them to life, though they were long dead. Genius. That was the only word for it.

And now how was he to convey this knowledge, this awe-struck feeling to a bunch of teenage monolingual Cantonese speakers whose closest encounter with passion was a high score on a computer game? Note to brain. Don't open your mouth in meetings ever again.'

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