Shakespeare has always remained a dear subject to Sir Kenneth Branagh, so it is no surprise that he returns to his cherished Bard of Avon in All Is True. Stepping away from Shakespeare’s art and placing family drama at the forefront, Branagh’s latest film directs its focus on the old man whose literary career turned to ash with the burning of the Globe theatre. Shakespeare would never write another play after this event. Ironically named, All Is True is a film in which truth is not exactly the main goal. Based on acknowledged fact and some fiction, this film speculates on the last years of the retired Shakespeare’s life and questions why he chose to retire from writing.
With All Is True, Branagh takes his audience on a melancholic journey into Shakespeare’s little known final years. Choosing to retire to a quiet life, he returns after 20 years of absence to a family who view him as nothing more than a stranger. His wife Anne, (Judi Dench) refuses to share a room let alone a bed with him, and his eldest daughter, Judith (Kathryn Wilder) will not appease her father and marry to provide him with a male heir. This is not a story of the great playwright who transported his audience to foreign lands, but the plight of an old man who felt foreign in his own.
To add to his hardships, Shakespeare must face the death of his long-deceased son, Hamnet, who died almost two decades earlier and who he believed would continue his poetic legacy. In facing Hamnet’s death and wishing to commemorate his life, he brings up the past for his family, selfishly forcing them to relive their heartache all over again. His grief is only met with disdain and malice from Anne who recalls that while she was grieving for her son, he was off writing his comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor. The successful playwright harshly confronts his failings as a husband and father, learning that fame and money do not mean everything.
However, there is never a clear cut answer as to why he disappeared from the literary stage. There are many thoughtful moments and conversations on the topic — such as the scene in which he discusses his life with the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen) — but in the end, there is no closure. Branagh simply seems to forget the main plot of the film, around which all other events revolve.
As a true Shakespearean scholar, it seems only fitting that Branagh himself would take on the lead role as the ageing poet. Despite the slightly comical false nose and hairpiece, Branagh deftly intersperses wit and mischief as a soulful yet tortured Shakespeare. Overall, the film is less of a vanity project than a way for Branagh to pay homage to Shakespeare as an artist and family man.
Branagh is joined by Dame Judi Dench (another Shakespeare veteran) as the neglected and grief-stricken Anne Hathaway. She is stellar in her tough and sardonic portrayal. Kathryn Wilder shines as Shakespeare’s angry eldest daughter Judith, providing a poignant and rebellious performance as the daughter who feels abandoned and unimportant in her father’s eyes. It is through Judith that the film comments on gender politics, making it relatable to a contemporary audience.
These outstanding and emotionally-charged performances lift All Is True up from its sometimes dull and slightly confused storyline – dense with allusions to Shakespeare’s work that may escape the audience, thereby causing Branagh to lose sight of the storyline. It also loses traction halfway through, reducing the narrative to nothing more than a scandalous seventeenth-century family melodrama. While somewhat biographical, the end leaves us with more unanswered questions of the man and his legacy than what we began with. Despite these small issues, Branagh tells a beautiful story of healing and homecoming. This a heart-warming attempt to understand Shakespeare’s fame, providing a playful backstory to events which will most likely forever remain a mystery.