Review: All Is True (2018)


I’m generally allergic to fictional speculations about the lives of real people—not biopics per se, but films that try to fill in the gaps of famous individuals’ lives, often missing the mark of what made them interesting in the first place. But Kenneth Branagh’s All Is True, which follows William Shakespeare during his retirement after the Globe Theatre burnt down in 1613, has enough of an imaginative spark to work for me. It fills in gaps in Shakespeare’s biography without inventing elements of his life wholesale and demonstrates a strong understanding of his work that mostly satisfies, even when the film is speculating about his motivations and personal conflicts.

Branagh plays the Bard and Judi Dench plays his wife, Anne Hathaway, so the quality of the performances are justification enough to seek out this curiosity. As well, All Is True has painterly cinematography and thoughtful observations about family. However, it also errors towards biographical criticism, which mistakes the importance of biography in the content of an artist’s work. To be clear, the film understands that the appeal of Shakespeare will always be his writing, not his biography, no matter how mysterious it is. But in being about his retirement, the film inevitably depends largely upon circumspections, some of which are more successful than others.

The balancing act between fidelity to Shakespeare’s legend and the desire to solve mysteries of his life, whether the reality of his relationship with his wife or the identity of the young beautiful man in his sonnets, provides All Is True with its operating tension. Key sequences focus on his estrangement with his wife, Anne, and eldest daughter, Judith (Kathryn Wilder), who didn’t marry until late in Shakespeare’s life, with Brangah and writer Ben Elton (known for Blackadder) injecting too much modernity into the domestic relations. For instance, Judith is essentially a proto-feminist; her arguments with her father belong in the modern era, not the English Renaissance. Thus, the sequences seem contrived and a means of interjecting psychological depth into people we know little details of.

But other moments where Branagh and Elton indulge in similar circumspection are fascinating, particularly a lengthy scene midway through the film where the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen) visits the Bard at his home. Branagh and Elton interpret the Earl as the fair youth of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and the object of homoerotic affection from Shakespeare. The scene dips into queer theory about the Bard, but it’s so compellingly shot and acted that the circumspection comes to enliven Shakespeare’s writing, not diminish it.

Branagh shoots the scene entirely in close up, with himself and McKellen shrouded in shadow and lit only by candlelight. The framing creates intimacy, both between the characters themselves and between the viewer and them. Branagh then exploits this intimacy by having him and McKellen quote Shakespeare’s writing, injecting lines from the sonnets into their conversation. Branagh’s greatest talent as an actor has always been his ability to make Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter seem spontaneous. This scene is a marvellous showcase of this strength.

Not all of All Is True is as provocative or riveting as this scene. In fact, much of the film is staid, as it’s hard to inject drama into a retirement narrative without wholesale fabrication (which Elton and Branagh thankfully resist). But there’s enough meat on the bone here for fans of the Bard (which should be any literate individual) to make the film a compelling work of speculation and biography. Branagh’s greatest works will always remain his adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, but in All Is True, he proves that his dedication to Shakespeare’s work carries over to an understanding of the man himself. He gets Shakespeare. And that counts for a lot in a film that could’ve been disastrous in its interpretation, let alone its execution.

6 out of 10

All Is True (2018, UK)

Directed by Kenneth Branagh; written by Ben Elton; starring Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Lydia Wilson, Kathryn Wilder.