When it comes to Shakespeare movies, you at least know you’re in good hands with Kenneth Branagh. In All Is True, the British actor and director does double duty in front of and behind the camera, speculating about the Bard’s bittersweet final years. And even if this handsome film runs a bit snoozy and dull at times, it’s wondefully acted and clearly made with no shortage of compassion and love.
Written by Ben Elton, who acted alongside Branagh in 1993’s screen adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, the film begins in 1613, shortly after the playwright’s beloved Globe Theatre burned to the ground. Afterward, he’d never write another play again. It’s as if something inside of him was snuffed out along with the Globe. Instead, Shakespeare returned to his family home in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he lived out his retirement alongside his estranged wife (a winningly crabby Judi Dench) and his two daughters. A son named Hamnet, who died years earlier at age 11, is an additional presence – mostly as a source of Shakespeare’s ghostly, late-life regrets as an absentee father. He’s a stranger in his own home, mourning a son he never truly knew.
With an unconvincing putty nose and a pointy beard only slightly less distracting than the mustache he recently sported as Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express, Branagh putters around in the garden and receives admiring visitors, such an Ian McKellen’s rascally Earl of Southampton (the liveliest scene in this too-tame film). Meanwhile, greedy ulterior motives, infidelity scandals, and years of repressed family secrets keep spilling out, robbing Shakespeare of the peace he seems to yearn for.
While it may be hard to buy that the Bard’s final years were packed with as much Downton Abbey-style soap opera intrigue as the film suggests, Branagh’s easy-on-the-eyes (and the ears) drama still offers enough small, detail-rich pleasures to make it worth checking out. B