Opening in Toronto is the new project by Kenneth Branagh, All is True the dark story of William Shakespeare’s last three years as a brooding, introspective retired poet. Shakespeare, of course, is immortal as a storyteller, but Branagh’s film reminds us that Shakespeare, himself, was a story. As different as they are, one cannot help but recall John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love, the raucous adventurous tale of Shakespeare’s younger life and how it contrasts with this quiet tale of mourning and reflection. All is True ironically is the second title for his play Henry the VIII. That play ends with the king, lied to about the birth of a son, who then learns the truth about a daughter, who becomes Elizabeth the first, and embraces her as the future queen. All is True indeed embraces the themes of truth, dark secrets and the irrepressible obsession of male heirs.
A prop cannon misfire sparks the doom of the Globe Theatre as it burns to the ground and Shakespeare, depressed and tired, gives up writing and returns to Stratford and his family. He is determined to mend the broken relationships with his wife and daughters and to mourn the death of his son. Family secrets, deep wounds and menacing social judgements play out as Shakespeare tries to find peace in the chaos for which he is partly responsible. As the film opens, the conflagration, moody silhouettes and dark imagery contrast with beautiful scenes of peaceful English countryside along with iconic pictures of calm majestic swans. This contrast is a clever backdrop to Shakespeare’s turbulent mind. The awkwardness of his prodigal return plays out as his daughters are mired in controversy, his marital life soured, and his quest for social legacy is questioned. As he searches for the truth of his son’s death, he eventually comes to terms with his family, but not without searing agony and soul-crushing introspection.
Branagh joins two other giants in the world of Shakespearian acting – Judi Dench as Anne Hathaway and Ian McKellen as the Earl of Southampton. Branagh, as the aging Shakespeare delivers a measured but powerful performance as the broken husband and father. His halted speech and darting haunted eyes reflect a man, once the envy of the literary world, unsure of himself who is seeking peace. Judy Dench is a more quiet observer, ever watchful – always trying to act as the rock of the family. She is hurt, but dignified. Her moments of weakness are subtly displayed as we see her fight out of them. The veteran, Ian McKellen, with a rich oeuvre of Shakespearian work, including the brilliant workshop Acting Shakespeare, demonstrates his study with a keen turn as the Earl of Southampton. The intensity between the two actors engages the audience with the subtleties of their relationship (perhaps spurned romance) and the conflicts of their social stations.
Branagh has also enriched his film with fine young actors. Most impressive is the guilt-ridden, jealous daughter Judith – the surviving twin after Hamnet’s mysterious death. Played with both high passion and intense brooding, Kathryn Wilder’s character demonstrates many of the difficulties of Shakespeare’s return home. A highlight is a wild discourse where we learn the truth of her writing. As she tears up her work, Shakespeare fights to retrieve it and they end up on the floor literally fighting over words.
Patrick Doyle’s music delivers a breathtaking backdrop with soaring highlights and refined quiet setting the tone for the various conflicts. Most memorable is a single oboe that reflects the deep sadness of Shakespeare’s revelations. Hair and makeup design is by Vanessa White. Branagh is brilliantly transformed into the iconic vision we easily recognize. Another highlight is her work with hair design with the two sisters as we see the contrast (and the conflict) between the puritan Suzanne and the more liberal Judith.
Branagh has directed a beautifully woven film of broken relationships and the power of forgiveness. He has incorporated images of both the tragedy from Shakespeare’s body of work (Ophelia) and the grand complexities of both life and art (Prospero.) Ben Elton’s brilliant writing is inclusive with many themes, not least of which is the concept of “women’s purpose,” an important topic for Shakespeare himself. Summing up Shakespeare’s final new found peace is the repetition with Southampton of his 29th sonnet. “For thy sweet love rememb’red such wealth brings, that then I scorn to change my state with kings.”