Has there ever been so much speculation about a life so little known as William Shakespeare’s? The latest entry in the post-“Shakespeare in Love” sweepstakes is the engrossing, uneven “All Is True.” Directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh as the Bard, it picks up at the end of Shakespeare’s life, when, in 1613, he left London following a catastrophic fire at the Globe Theatre and returned to his family in Stratford-upon-Avon, never to write again.
The film’s title, which was also an alternative title for “Henry VIII,” the play that was being performed when the Globe fire broke out, is a kind of preemptive strike against all those who would question the movie’s inventions and confabulations.
Why did Shakespeare stop writing? This is the film’s central conceit, and Ben Elton, who wrote the screenplay, is at no loss for answers. It may seem presumptuous to, in effect, psychoanalyze a writer who, perhaps more than any other, plumbed the depths of the human psyche. Still, Branagh and Elton understand that the man who wrote the plays and the man who lived his life are not indistinguishable. Put bluntly, even those who fully fathom the human heart may have trouble fathoming their own.
The film makes the case that the death, 17 years earlier, of 11-year-old Hamnet, Shakespeare’s only son, was the key tragedy of his life. Hamnet was the fraternal twin of Judith (Kathryn Wilder), a spinster who resents her father – who was away in London for most of their lives – for idolizing the boy he barely knew. Shakespeare cherishes the poems Hamnet supposedly wrote and imagines what might have been.
The Bard’s flinty wife, Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench), concurs with Judith and goes a step further. “It’s not Hamnet you mourn,” she says, “but yourself.” (This octogenarian actress is marvelous enough to make you forget that, in reality, Hathaway was just eight years Shakespeare’s senior.) The Bard spends much of his days puttering, rather ineptly, in a garden he is dedicating to Hamnet’s memory. In a whopping understatement, he says, “I find it easier to create things with words.”
Best known for his movies “Henry V,” “Hamlet,” and “Much Ado About Nothing,” Branagh is probably the leading popularizer of Shakespeare among living actor-directors. The challenge of actually playing Shakespeare must have been daunting. He’s a quicksilver, ardent-eyed actor of tremendous spirit. But in this film, he is being asked to scale back his physicality. Plus, he’s outfitted with a massive wig, prosthetic nose, and other unsightly encumbrances.
This serioso approach to the character tamps down much of what is most alive about Branagh’s gifts, but there are compensations. Even as this Shakespeare relinquishes his art, there are selective moments when the artist comes through anyway. This is best demonstrated in a scene where a star-struck acolyte and would-be writer seeks out the Bard in the garden. Shakespeare brushes him off at first but eventually offers this: “Speak first for yourself, search within, consider the content of your own soul, your humanity, and if you are honest with yourself, then whatever you write, all is true.”
An even better example of Shakespeare revealing his true colors comes in the film’s best scene, a friendly hearthside meeting between Shakespeare and Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen), his longtime benefactor and, it’s implied, one-time lover. Their talk has been polite and prosaic, and then Shakespeare gently recites, in full, his 29th sonnet, which begins, “When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.” We realize, if we did not already, that there is no disconnect between this recitation and the mundane-seeming man speaking the words. The poetry resides in him in full.
The moment is capped when the earl, in a marvelous rendition by McKellen, recites back to Shakespeare the same sonnet. Aside from being a master acting class in dueling poetic interpretations, this sequence is one of the most quietly impassioned dialogues I’ve ever seen in a movie.
I wish “All Is True” weren’t written and directed with quite so stately a hand. There are a few too many lingering shots of Shakespeare gazing wistfully at ponds, and we could have used a touch more of the Ben Elton whose writing credits include the BBC’s Shakespeare parody TV series “Upstart Crow.” But given the impossibility of crafting William Shakespeare into a believable human being, the film is an honorable try. Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, suggestive material, and language.)