Ben Elton and Kenneth Branagh latter-day Shakespeare biography All Is True is at once precious and poignant
“You spent so long putting words into other people’s mouths, you think it only matters what is said”
A most curious one this, continuing our creative obsession with filling in the biographical gaps in the life of William Shakespeare (cf Shakespeare in Love; Anonymous; Dedication; Will). All Is True is written by Ben Elton, who has (comic) form in the shape of Upstart Crow, the TV show soon to make its own theatrical bow and has as its director, producer and star, one Kenneth Branagh.
In some ways, it is a beautiful film. Branagh eschews a lot of artifical lighting and flickers of candlelight illuminates several interior scenes to gorgeous effect. He also takes pains to find interesting angles for his shots and the opening image of his silhouetted figure against the burning Globe is stunning. And being able to call on the likes of Sir Ian McKellen (the Earl of Southampton) and Dame Judi Dench (Anne Hathaway) to toss off some Shakespeare recital is of course an unalloyed pleasure.
But elsewhere, the film is somewhat weighed down by the approach Elton takes. Set in the latter years of Shakespeare’s life, it takes the 1613 destruction of the Globe by fire as the kick up the arse he needed to return to his family in Stratford-upon-Avon, only to find that he’s not necessarily being welcomed with open arms. His wife and daughters have established ways of living without him and his determination to now fully mourn the loss of son Hamnet, some 17 years earlier, simply highlights the tension with those he essentially left behind.
It’s a tricky move, making this grief Shakespeare’s central driving force here, ascribing it an importance that doesn’t always feel entirely justified, particularly in relation to the mystery that emerges which forced upon the narrative. More interesting to me are the episodes that concern his surviving children, daughters Susanna (the brilliant Lydia Wilson) and Judith (Kathryn Wilder) and their own struggles as women in an unforgivingly patriarchal society.
Elton can’t resist stuffing his script with Bard-pleasing references and asides, often pushing the film towards the hamminess that Branagh quite often likes to indulge. His alleged love for McKellen’s Earl of Southampton gets an airing, Ben Jonson pops in for a cuppa, the “second-best bed” gets a retro-fitted too-cute rationale etc etc. At the same time, there’s a poignancy here that is hard to deny, resulting from Branagh’s clear devotion to Shakespeare.