“ALL IS TRUE”— The Final Days of William Shakespeare


“ALL IS TRUE”

The Final Days of William Shakespeare

Amos Lassen

Director Kenneth Branagh’s “All Is True” is a bitter-sweet look the troubled final days of William Shakespeare and is “a good, honorable, solid, old-fashioned film”.

When his Globe Theatre in London burns down, Shakespeare returns to Stratford, where he is haunted by the death of his only son Hamnet and tries to fix his broken relationships with his neglected wife Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench) and daughters. 

This is film about loss, missed opportunity, death, old age, and personal failings and has its charms and its entertainment value. Ben Elton who wrote the screenplay has something to say. Branagh gives himself the star role. Obviously he looks, nothing like William Shakespeare but he gets by on acting. He is not great as he has been in the past but he is quite good. Obviously Judi Dench and Ian McKellen are way too old for their roles, probably 30 years too old, but it seriously doesn’t matter a jot. They are actors, great actors, and this finds them good roles. Both are very touching and if the film is good, it is quite a lot to do with them. As Henry Wriothesley (Southampton), McKellen does not really have much to do. It looks like it was about two days’ work. It is basically one long scene in a dialogue with Shakespeare. But McKellen is an old scene-stealer and really rips up his few pages of screenplay. Dench has much more to do, and she is excellent.

Nobody else in the film is quite as good as the three stars. But that is right and fitting, just as it should be. It runs like a filmed stage play, but that works too, with some good touches like the interior scene cinematography filmed solely in candlelight and some bad ideas like Shakespeare running in slow motion at a crucial plot point. The year is 1613 and there was no slo-mo.

This is a film for an older audience and there is nothing wrong with that, but young audiences might find it boring. Older, wiser folks can easily find the virtues here, maybe learn a few things about our most famous playwright, while being  entertained.Though Kenneth Branagh has spent decades performing in and adapting Shakespeare productions for the stage and screen, “All Is True” is  the first time the actor has played the Bard himself. Set in the low-key, unproductive period in Shakespeare’s life, the film manages to successfully strip away much of the legendary aura surrounding the playwright to show that he is, much like everyone else, a flawed, complicated human being. And by structuring the film around a series of fraught moments in Shakespeare’s family life, with wife Anne and daughters Susanna (Lydia Wilson) and Judith (Kathryn Wilder), Branagh demonstrates the perils of genius.

The title “All Is True” is both a nod to the alternative name for “Henry VIII” (the performance of the play that caused the Globe to burn down) and a bit of irony, since the film presents speculation and rumor regarding aspects of Shakespeare’s life as fact. This includes Shakespeare’s historically uncertain love affair with Henry Wriothesley, third earl of Southampton,. During a visit Wriothesley pays to Shakespeare, Branagh toys with literary legacy by recontextualizing the writer’s sonnets—appreciated by the mass public for their artistic value—as intensely personal love letters meant solely for Wriothesley.

We see Shakespeare’s inability to get along with his family and that it stems from his neglect as a father and husband. It’s a point that’s mainly underscored through his daughter’s feelings of intimidation and how they lead her to try and gain his acceptance by composing poetry. Though Judith, per her father’s wishes, eventually marries, the film shrewdly leaves open the question of whether she did so completely of her own volition.

Perhaps the depth of Shakespeare’s flaws is best conveyed in a monologue in which he speaks of a dream involving his deceased son’s penknife. The monologue, laced with lines that see Shakespeare touting his brilliance, perfectly channels the playwright’s storytelling skills. Branagh suggests that the characters Shakespeare became known for may have resulted from genius, but it was a genius due to his profound understanding of his human frailty.

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