In “Hamlet,” a son is haunted by the ghost of his dead father. In All is True, a partially fictionalized biopic of William Shakespeare late in his life, it’s the other way around: The father is haunted by his dead son.
After the Globe Theater burned to the ground in 1613, William Shakespeare returns home to Startford-upon-Avon, where he reunites with the wife he distanced himself from (played by Judi Dench) and mourns the loss of his son who died nearly two decades earlier, at age 11. I feel like I don’t even need to mention that this is a Kenneth Branagh film. The Shakespearean stalwart plays the Bard himself in a wig and prosthetics, a man realizing that arrogance and profound guilt cannot coexist peacefully in the soul.
For someone so comfortable within Shakespeare’s words, it’s surprising that it takes a while for Branagh to appear comfortable in the man’s skin. But slowly, as the thematic center of the film begins to take shape, so does Branagh’s character — and in those moments the audience is treated to what amounts to nothing short of a Christmas gift for any Anglophile or Shakespeare lover. I mean, Kenneth Branagh and Sir Ian McKellan as Shakespeare and the Earl of Southhampton in front of a fireplace discussing his sonnets! Such stuff as fanfic are made on!
Because so much is unknown about Shakespeare’s life, All Is True does take on a winking fan-fiction sensibility, taking those mysterious few details we do know about the Bard’s life and weaving fiction around them. the success of the screenplay then, hinges very much on how familiar you are with the details of Shakespeare’s biography. Take, for instance, the true historical tidbit of Shakespeare leaving his wife Anne his “second-best bed” in his will. Here, that detail is retroactively explained as a charming inside joke, a symbol of their marriage reconciling after his years away in London writing sonnets to other people.
Like many Shakespeare plays, All is True begins with something akin to a prologue: text on the screen explaining that a cannon misfire during a production of Henry VIII burned the Globe to the ground, that Shakespeare returned home to Stratford-upon-Avon, and that he never wrote another play again. But the film would have benefited from taking a note from the man himself and instead giving us a prologue that identified the thematic core of the movie. There’s so little narrative thrust between the English-major inside jokes, so much filler and fluff that when the compelling plot finally comes along, you hardly realize you’re supposed to start caring.
That plot, the most interesting dynamic in the film, comes from Shakespeare’s youngest daughter, Judith (played by the dynamite Kathryn Wilder) who confronts her father for his absences and his biases. There is a beautiful, surprising, and entirely engrossing film within this movie; it’s just almost impossible to find among the establishing shots of ponds and endless subplots of real-life characters introduced for seemingly no other reason than to help make this movie perfect for sophomore year high school classes.
All Is Well is currently in limited release.